The first piece of TV criticism I ever wrote was back in 2006. I was blogging at the time, but mostly about how the latest White Stripes album was in fact all about me and why I was single. Good times. I watched a lot (too much) TV even then, but didn’t think about writing about it until the season two finale of Lost, in which the four-toed statue fired off my imagination to the point where I had to vomit all my thoughts out through my fingers onto the interwebs lest they completely consume me.
I spent the next four seasons dissecting every Easter egg, red herring, literary allusion, and alternative-reality game for insights into where everything was heading. I was obsessed with predicting the ending of the show, about being “right” about what was happening with the Island and Jacob and the hieroglyphs and donkey wheels. It was a rewarding four years that in the end taught me everything that I valued about television. As it turns out, I ultimately didn’t care about ANY of that stuff.
By the time season six rolled around, I was absolutely exhausted with trying to figure out what was going to happen, and started to just let it happen. Now, of course, I never had a single ounce of control over what was happening in Lost or any other show I enjoyed, but realizing that took waaaaaaay too long. When I stopped worrying about being “right,” I started to realize how much I just wanted these people to be happy, to earn some peace, to prove that in a post-9/11 world it was possible for strangers to form bonds that defined the value of a life in and of themselves. The reveal of what was really happening in “flash sideways” meant less to me than the message the show conveyed: it really was better to live together than die alone.
Now, it’s impossible to write four times a week for three and a half years (as I did) about something so amorphous and non-plot driven. The show revealed its cards early in season one, and everything else was super cool window dressing for an unsexy yet important mission statement. So I wrote about The Mamas And The Papas, about Charles Dickens, about Catch-22, and a host of ancillary things. I don’t think those essays were worthless, because those topics allowed me to play with the possibilities the show encouraged viewers to contemplate. But really, the show boiled down to a single concept that it examined for six seasons: What type of life is really worth living?
It’s something that’s stuck with me since the show ended in roughly seven years ago to the day. It’s not that the Reddit-esque interrogation of shows like Lost is “wrong.” It’s that I don’t enjoy shows in that manner anymore, which has opened up my enjoyment of TV rather than close it down. Lost got big in the era in which episodic recaps got big, and it’s much easier to talk about Easter eggs than the nature of human existence twenty-two times a year. So there was a natural association between “quality shows” and “those with lots of plot mysteries.” It’s much easier to speculate about four-toed statues than the nature of one’s own happiness.
All this brings me to Jane The Virgin, which finishes its third season tonight on The CW. There have been a lot of amazing TV shows already this season, but this one encapsulates what I now love about the medium than perhaps any other show. It doesn’t match the timeliness of The Handmaid’s Tale, and doesn’t scratch the existentialist itch of The Leftovers, and may not have the cumulative dramatic power of The Americans. But there’s not a single show that has as many people in whom I’m this emotionally invested, and which demonstrates how the bonds between people are all that keep us from utter meaninglessness.
I’m over trying to square the circle of the show’s title and the way I talk about it. That ship has long sailed, and the audience is what it is at this point. All I can say is that I went through a long overdue catchup of the show this weekend and spent a solid five episodes laughing, crying, laugh-crying, and cry-laughing. What the past half-dozen episodes have excelled in doing is providing consistently surprising, yet utterly grounded, reasons for people to act in unpredictable ways. The death of Michael at the mid-point of this season turns out to be a masterstroke, a necessary evil that shocked both fans and in-show characters alike into reevaluating a single question: Is it worse to never get what you want, or to get it and have it taken away?
It’s a common theme in literature and pop culture. In the title track of his album The River, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true/Or is it something worse?” Jane’s dream did come true, and was ended in a prosaic way with Michael’s sudden death. But it’s not just that Michael’s death affected her. It’s had a ripple effect into every quadrant of the show, ripping out certainty and replacing it with reality. For all the heightened melodrama and metatextual tricks that the show deploys, these are still deeply wounded people. When Jane’s grandmother tells her, “You’re in a long-term relationship with grief,” that rings out like a clarion call. How many of us can relate to that sentiment? Too many, I fear.
But Jane doesn’t traverse in fear. It acknowledges it, and occasionally lets it win, but fear never defeats the characters. It’s a foe that will never fully be vanquished, but need not dominate. Much like love, Jane treats grief as something that doesn’t denote weakness but rather strength. It accepts that love and grief are on the same spectrum, but simply sitting off to the side in numb passiveness isn’t really living at all. Jamie Camil’s Rogelio de la Vega is one of the great sad clowns in the history of the medium, someone deepened by his sadness over Michael’s death rather than cheapened by it. The reveal that he’s worried about Jane dating Fabian not because he’s threatened professionally but because he’s not ready to let go of Michael is one of the great gut-punch moments in television in 2017: It all makes sense once revealed, but we’re so trained to see him act based on vanity that it’s easy to forget he’s essentially a puppy dog that wants to be part of a family.
Those moments happen so frequently that the show makes them seem effortless. Of course, that’s not the cause, and Jennie Urman and company take great care to take its characters to interesting places rather than its plot. The on-again, off-again Xo/Rogelio relationship would be maddening in lesser hands, but the proposal scene still made me weep because these two people have wanted to be happy for decades but kept getting in their own way. Similarly, Abuela finding love with her coworker is delightful on every conceivable level because I want Abuela to be my Abuela and if you want the same thing I will fight you because I called it first. Petra and Rafael also fight self-doubt to find self-worth, and it’s gratifying when they achieve something close to clarity.
Jane’s drunken admission to Xo that she’s ready for happiness signals a new phase for the show, one in which the unpredictability of life becomes an opportunity rather than an impediment. Both women want fairy-tale endings but realize they live in the real world. That doesn’t mean “happily ever after” is impossible because happiness isn’t possible, but because life relentlessly moves on whether or not you’re ready for it to do so. I don’t want tonight to be the final episode until the Fall, but I’ll just take Jane’s lead and look at it as an opportunity to share this minor miracle of a show with as many people as possible over the summer.
It’s a singular work of beauty, hope, family, and love. It’s everything a TV show should be about, because it’s everything life should be about. More than ever, we need to remember that. Jane The Virgin is here to remind us.