Tag Archives: The CW

The hyper-real reality of Jane the Virgin

In case you haven’t gleaned from my previous posts, the CW is my favorite television network (and possibly the only one I regularly watch). True, I am probably a few years removed from its target demographic, but my love for its predecessor the WB, and the shows I watched at my most impressionable age — Buffy, Dawson’s Creek, Gilmore Girls — endures. I’ve gotten older and the hair and makeup has gotten more polished, but the CW still serves up a consistently solid roster of shows that can be popcorn-fluffy yet poignant, completely far-fetched (two centenarian vampire brothers feuding over a high school girl) and surprisingly relatable (a high school girl struggles to understand what her path in life should be after a tragedy).

Lately a show that’s impressed me in this regard is Jane the Virgin, the telenovela adaptation that debuted in 2014 and is now in its second season. The show’s premise is admittedly, and proudly, wacko — a 23-year-old virgin is accidentally artificially inseminated with the sperm of a multimillionaire hottie hotel magnate/cancer patient, then decides to keep and raise the baby — but in some ways, it’s one of the more realistic shows on TV. Few shows bother to even nod in the direction of “blue-collar” lifestyles anymore, especially live-action shows, preferring instead to give their characters massive apartments and vaguely defined but apparently extremely high-paying jobs. Jane isn’t immune to this problem — its title character does have a TV star father and a filthy rich baby daddy, plus an apparently endless wardrobe of adorable day dresses and wedges — but its characters do worry about money, and the trio of women at its center live in a one-bathroom house that Alba, the matriarch, has been in for many years.

Also realistic (or at least more so than most series) is how the show deals with parenthood. In this show, pregnancy is not just fodder for either complete, unreserved joy or juicy scandal (though it is both of those at various times); it’s also rightly presented as a massive, life-altering event that carries with it huge implications for both present and future. Jane has to navigate all the ways her “life plan” is derailed by a pregnancy out of her control; Xiomara, her mother, a grandmother at 39, decides firmly that after raising a child to adulthood she’s ready, finally, to focus on herself. Neither woman is villainized or lionized; they’re two sides of the same coin, examples of the choices and trade-offs that all women have to weigh. Plus, there’s the messy, stinky, frustrating reality of parenthood itself: Jane the Virgin may have some of the shiniest hair on TV, but its characters change their fair share of diapers and talk about the physical reality of motherhood (leaking milk, peeing yourself) in ways that are uncommon for a primetime show.

Similarly, it’s a peek at a family dynamic you don’t see much of on TV. Families typically mean young children; shows centered on twenty- and thirtysomethings generally all revolve around groups of friends, with parents showing up for the occasional holiday episode or guest appearance. Jane the Virgin, on the other hand, is all about family — the one you’re born into and the one you decide, at some point, to create for yourself. And the Jane family is strongly, beautifully women-centered. Jane still lives with her mother and grandmother, and while they all usually get along, occasionally long-running tensions about choices and lifestyles boil over. Three generations and two countries of cultural differences are represented, and they form the base of all the women’s conflicts even as their deep love for one another cements their bond. Their polar opposite is Rafael, who feels his family has always been deficient; his love of Jane stems largely from his view of her as the one who can give him the picture-perfect nuclear family he feels he was denied. Women run the show on Jane the Virgin — literally (it has a woman showrunner) and within the various character permutations. Even Petra and her mother, who have been pseudo-villains for most of the show, have a dynamic that, while twisted, is also rooted in the kind of deep familiarity that only family members can share.

What’s interesting about all this is that Jane the Virgin otherwise operates in an extremely heightened world. The colors of the Miami scenery pop off the screen, the plot lines often detour into magical realism, and there’s even an omniscient (or nearly so) narrator who chats directly with the audience. On a lesser show this contrast could cause tonal whiplash, but Jane the Virgin somehow manages to balance its continuous telenovela hijinks and its more grounded reality while also occasionally having the characters comment on the wackiness of it all, without taking you out of the moment. It’s an impressive balancing act, with the bonds between the characters keeping everything from tipping over into total ridiculousness. For every highly choreographed Britney Spears cameo there’s a moment of realness in which a character expresses uncertainty about her choices or fear for the future. It all adds up to a show that’s highly entertaining while also insightful about the human condition — it’s merely a bonus that those humans just happen to be ridiculously attractive.

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An ode to The OC, finally available to stream after all these years

About a week ago, the CW’s streaming platform, CW Seed, started streaming every episode of The OC. Josh Schwartz’s first show aired from 2003 to 2007, and its first season still evokes wistful odes about the practical perfection of its awesome zeitgeist-seizing power and unparalleled hipness from pop culture journalists. And far be it from me to argue with them: I came to the show late, stumbling on an all-day marathon of its first season on the embarrassingly-but-accurately-named SoapNet, and was immediately seduced by its shiny, Chanel-clad wiles. I spent probably seven hours holed up in my parents’ bedroom drinking in the antics of Ryan, Seth, Marissa, and Summer, not to mention the grown-up but still wacky charms of Sandy, Kirsten, Julie, and Jimmy. Later, in college, I bought the complete box set, which I still break out on rainy days (read: when I’m bored at home and my internet is down).

I was too young (or too culturally ignorant) to be on the 90210 bandwagon during its heyday, so I don’t totally understand why The OC was considered such a revelatory reimagining of the teen soap genre. But even without that knowledge, it’s incredibly impressive that Josh Schwartz, at just 26, created such a fully realized world, with its own language, wardrobe, and (most important) soundtrack that burned through plot faster than a super-dramatic meteor streaking through the atmosphere.

Granted, some things don’t hold up very well; there are some pretty now-insensitive LGBT plots, and the characters’ utter inability to just freaking be upfront with one another starts to feel more frustrating and more like wheel spinning with each rewatch. What’s just as good today as then, though, is the rhythm of the show and of the characters’ impossibly witty dialogue. Scenes of the Cohens standing around in their gorgeous kitchen swapping quips about Yogalates over bagels and schmear made me long for a family whose sense of humor and words-per-minute powers of speech were so perfectly in sync.

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Nowhere would you find the inarticulate mumblings of My So-Called Life or Freaks and Geeks (Ryan’s inability to drop the L-bomb notwithstanding); nor would you get the overstudied, tongue-twisting SAT test of a Dawson’s Creek or the Wikipedia-breakingly thick pop culture references of a Gilmore Girls. The show introduced its own terms into the lexicon (Chrismukkah and minty, anyone?), and despite all the gun-waving, face-punching, overdose-taking, embezzling drama it packed in, it for the most part remained a sunny, funny show.

It’s also interesting to see how Schwartz and co. let the characters evolve over time. As Ryan, Ben McKenzie was probably the best of the “teen” actors, but Adam Brody is the natural scene stealer, his almost-manic Seth adding much-needed zip to scenes with the more taciturn Ryan.

I would never deny you, Seth Cohen.

I would never deny you, Seth Cohen.

Kirsten and Sandy were of course one of TV’s most perfect couples, but my favorite was always Melinda Clarke’s Julie Cooper-Nichol-almost-Cooper-again, who softened over the years from a manipulative witch into a loving, game mother so believably it made her season one evilness seem mostly just like well-intentioned overprotectiveness. Mischa Barton remained a pretty terrible actress but was one of the most beautiful criers on television, and her death at the end of season three at least gave the remaining cast some poignant material to work with.

Josh Schwartz went on to make Gossip Girl, another teen-centric soap that took over the zeitgeist like a particularly invasive form of algae. You can see all its hallmarks in The OC: the bon mots, the fabulous wealth, even the onscreen relationships echoing in real life. But though GG lasted six seasons to The OC‘s four, it’s not as beloved by people still as The OC was, because it lacked the California show’s warmth and heart. There was no shortage of OMG moments, but Gossip Girl‘s characters were beautiful and nasty, power hungry and mercenary. At the core of The OC is a tight-knit family who love one another even when they don’t understand one another, who stand by each other even when things get rough. At the core of Gossip Girl is the last Birkin bag Barney’s had in stock. The OC grounds all its over-the-top drama in characters we genuinely care about (not you, Oliver), and though both series ended with a big wedding, only Summer and Seth’s brought me dangerously close to (happy) tears.

So I’ll raise my Newport Beach iced tea to you, The OC; may you live on for many Chrismukkahs to come.

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Arrow’s flaw disguised as a strength: its female characters

Sometimes it’s Wednesday, and you have a sore throat, so you decide to work from home—and turns out one of your best friends lives five blocks away and is also at home for the day. So what do you do? You turn your Netflix-enabled TV to The CW’s Arrow—and promptly get hooked for the next coughcough episodes. For those of you who, like me, don’t know much about the comic-book universe, the show is based on the Green Arrow, a DC Comics superhero who was born in the 1940s as a Robin Hood riff on Batman: billionaire, troubled past, but sick archery skills and a hood instead of the cape.

Arrow has all the CW hallmarks—mediocre acting, overly dramatic entrances and exits, mind-bogglingly pretty people (seriously, Google “Stephen Amell shirtless” and just try to disagree)—but it’s extra interesting for a few reasons. For one, the production value is impressively high: Every episode packs in several hyper-speed fight sequences and at least one flashback to a Lost-esque desert island. But what I find most intriguing is the presence of several seemingly well-rounded, independently motivated female characters. There’s Moira, the mother, a stiff-upper-lip businesswoman with a complicated love life and a shady past re: her son and first husband. There’s the wannabe-rebel sister Thea, and maybe it’s just my soft spot for Willa Holland from her O.C. days, but I find she brings an appealing level of prickly vulnerability to what could be a cookie-cutter bratty teen character. There’s the tech wiz Felicity, who’s as ramblingly chatty as she is fast with a computer (and gray with her morals). And there’s Helena/the Huntress, equally complicated as Oliver but even more driven, and somehow not completely blinded by his astoundingly chiseled jaw. And there’s the dud of a character Laurel, a holier-than-thou attorney (“attorney” is shorthand here for “crusader for the disadvantaged”) who is basically the even-drippier version of Katie Holmes’s character in Batman Begins: insufferable yet still total billionaire catnip (Laurel has not one but three vying for her affections so far).

It’s refreshing because so often in comic book works, women are relegated to the sidelines, to being sidekicks, to being the ones who henpeck their mysterious men for the mundane lies they use to excuse a higher purpose. There’s plenty of that in Arrow, to be sure, a kink I hope gets ironed out further in—but it also presents what, at first glance, are women outside the usual tropes. Still, when I think about it, it becomes glaringly apparent that seven and a half episodes in, not one scene has passed the Bechdel test. Luckily the show has several more seasons to redeem itself in that regard.

 

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