"Jane the Virgin," which premieres Monday on the CW, tells the story of a young Miami woman who becomes pregnant despite never having had sex. (It's not a miracle but a medical mishap.) In my considered professional opinion, it's one of the best things to come out of the fall season, but as a recreational television watcher, I like it too.
Like "Ugly Betty," it is based on a Latin American telenovela (the Venezuelan "Juana la Virgen"), and like that show it has kept its transplanted Latin roots with a quietly remarkable title-role performance from Gina Rodriguez. Jane is almost engaged to police detective Michael (Brett Dier) but remains ever mindful of what her grandmother (Ivonne Coll) told her at 10, in Spanish — that once gone, virginity is gone for good. The flower her grandmother crushed for metaphorical illustration is kept framed above 23-year-old Jane's bed.
Her resolve is made moot when, through convenient though not particularly contrived circumstances, the highly responsible Jane goes for a routine gynecological procedure and is accidentally artificially inseminated. (Neither this nor anything that follows should be considered a spoiler; this is just the premise, the starting point.)
To add coincidence to convenience, the sperm is from Jane's new boss, former playboy and current "trapped husband" (says a superimposed title) Rafael (Justin Baldoni), with whom she shared a romantic moment some years before. He's taken over the hotel where she works while studying, without real enthusiasm, for a teaching degree. He is rich and handsome, and sad and lonely.
The series is unusually successful in its mix of tones: farcical, serious, melodramatic and metafictional. It both mimics and comments on the telenovela form; indeed, it becomes part of the story line. It recalls "Pushing Daisies" in its use of an omniscient narrator (Anthony Mendez in a Ricardo Montalban "rich, Corinthian leather" mode) who gives the narrative a kind of legendary spin. (Like the pie of "Pushing Daisies," there is a foodstuff here, grilled cheese, that stands for love.)
At the same time, there is a naturalistic core to the performances and something deep and convincing in the relationships among Jane, her grandmother and her still-young, still-restless single mother (Andrea Navedo), who sings in a nightclub and says things like, "The best way to get over a man is to get under a new man — trust." (We understand that she is selling herself short.) There is something too in the work of all three actresses and their scenes together that gives the central subject its due gravity, even as crazy stuff — promising to become crazier stuff — begins to build up around it.
Somehow this stylistic smorgasbord works — much as it did in "Ugly Betty" but with a more delicate central subject. Jane's pregnancy counts on one level as a soap opera dilemma and on another as wacky complication.
"Now Jane's life was the stuff of telenovelas," the narrator notes, and she imagines a telenovela star appearing before her to offer comfort: "When I found out that the deepest, truest love of my life was really my half-sister born as a result of my father's secret double life, I was devastated — but I got through that, and you will get through this."
But it's also serious, sobering stuff, and the show manages to accommodate all these different moods without trivializing the situation or tearing itself apart. Alternatives are raised, euphemistically at first ("a pill that you could take"), and without judgment. Yet given the premise, there's only one choice that makes sense, or else there's no show that makes the premise worthwhile — though that choice will, naturally, lead to less predictable further choices, and so on.
As the fulcrum upon which all rests, Rodriguez bears the weight with ease; as the sun at its center, she puts out a lot of warmth. She doesn't just play the several attitudes the show asks of her but compounds them into a person. Her pluckiness is not free of fear, her confusion not devoid of humor; she finds the pathos in the farce.
Along with Cristela Alonzo of ABC's new "Cristela," Rodriguez is one of two Latina actresses leading network shows this fall, women who are extraordinary in ordinary ways in shows that live within the culture without making a circus of it — not a trend, exactly, but fresh air through a window too long shut.
'Jane the Virgin'
Where: The CW
When: 9 p.m. Monday