It started with a conceit almost too ridiculous to take seriously: A young woman on a routine gynecologist visit becomes the victim of fate and negligence and is accidentally artificially inseminated by her doctor. Now Jane Gloriana Villanueva, 23 years old and trying to save herself until marriage, is pregnant, and it looks like her former crush is the father. This is where Jane the Virgin, the CW's award-winning comedy-drama—which kicks off its final season this week—began, and it only got more ridiculous (and more rewarding) from there.
Jane the Virgin is easily the cleverest show on TV. This is a sentiment that's more objective than you might realize, simply because no other show does nearly as much. Let's list some of those things out: Superficially, it's a remake of a Venezuelan telenovela called Juana la Virgen, with which it shares its basic premise and a few big plot beats. In this version, Jane lives with her single mother, Xiomara, and grandmother, Alba (who, like most abuelas, understands every word you say in English but only responds in Spanish); is caught in a love triangle between her boyfriend, Michael (nice, a cop), and her accidental baby daddy, Rafael (abs, rich); and pit against Petra, Rafael's scheming, sometimes criminal, wife. There's also the mystery of Jane's absent father, a possible criminal conspiracy, and her aspirations to become a romance novelist despite her unexpected fluke of a pregnancy and her waitressing job.
From the very start, Jane the Virgin chose to embrace its telenovela origins, throwing itself wholeheartedly into the genre's trappings—dramatic twists involving twins, deaths, resurrections, kidnappings, and a big-hearted, musical-theater-esque view of love and romance that's barely contained. It also decided, early on, that it would lovingly satirize this genre, mostly via a narrator and several other self-aware winks, like casting actual telenovela star Jaime Camil as fictional telenovela star Rogelio de la Vega, a vain, pompous actor with a penchant for lavender. Of course, Jane the Virgin is often too deft a show to leave things as they stand, so homage and satire would blend into each other, as cartoonish caricatures grew in compassion and humanity, becoming not just beloved scene-stealers but a vital part of the show's beating heart.
Jane the Virgin refuses to fit into any one box. It tries on genres like sneakers—an erotic, Fifty Shades–style flirtation in one scene, a costume drama in the next—dunks while wearing them, and casually slides back into its regular groove, spinning an impossible number of plates in the air the whole time. There's a madcap rhythm to an episode of Jane the Virgin that's overwhelming and intoxicating, a rapid-fire assault of joy and melodrama that feels like Goodfellas, but with romance. (If Martin Scorsese made a soap opera, it would probably feel like Jane the Virgin.)
All of this is possible because Jane the Virgin, more than anything, loves stories, and is willing to fight for the stories that we overlook. If it is a romance, it's because it knows that romances are undervalued, and demands we pay attention to them and let them move us. If it is an immigrant story, it is because it feels a responsibility to give a voice to the Latinx communities it represents. If it is a family drama, it's because it's committed to showing the messy, haphazard ways a family can come together, and how a family's formation marks the beginning of a long struggle against forces both dramatic and slight determined to rend that family asunder.
This all sounds terribly sprawling, but despite its outrageous plotting and madcap sensibilities, Jane the Virgin's biggest success is in how small it is. The entirety of its five seasons has never strayed far from the Villanueva home and the women who inhabit it—women who have regularly been challenged by threats that test the strength of their ties and commitment to one another, and withstand it all by supporting and inspiring one another to draw from deeper wells of empathy than they knew they had. The world is terrifying and overwhelming, but the small shelter of Jane the Virgin always felt big enough to weather it all—and find happiness doing it.
Now, like a lot of stories told on television, Jane the Virgin is about to begin its final stretch of episodes, and the tense of its story will shift from present to past. Across three episodes critics received early, Jane the Virgin remains an impossibly bright spot on television, a machine for taking traditional TV conflicts that fuel soap operatics and turning them into relationships that we root for. It takes improbably silly plot twists that make you question its instincts, and then spins them around to make the emotional payoff you wanted that much better. It is deft and strange and fun, and it does all this with a density and ease that prestige television often struggles with.
Watching Jane the Virgin is a lot like falling in love—and not the overly sentimental, soaring love of the senses, though Jane is a show tremendously fond of that. It's more like the other kind of love—the kind about growing and decisions and choosing the people and places you always want to be around, because that's where you'll find the strength you need to ride out the heartbreak and frustration that will always come your way. It's the kind of story that might have a conclusion, but perhaps not an end—not as long as you keep coming back to it.