The Woman Behind The Most Timely Show On Television
Jennie Snyder Urman has turned The CW’s charming comedy into TV’s most topical show by creating an onscreen world that reflects — and comments on — our real world.
The 10th episode of Jane the Virgin's first season opened with Jane Villanueva’s grandmother Alba (Ivonne Coll) lying in a coma after having been pushed down a flight of stairs. As the family grappled with its already-fraught circumstances, Alba’s daughter Xiomara (Andrea Navedo) was also forced to consider a harsh reality that may ring familiar for other undocumented immigrant families: If Alba woke up, she would be deported to Venezuela, the home country she left 40 years earlier.
As the news washed over Xiomara, she shouted, “That can’t be legal.” Then, the camera paused on her face and words began to appear onscreen: “YES, THIS REALLY HAPPENS. LOOK IT UP #IMMIGRATIONREFORM,” the text read. It was a learning moment for viewers unaware of medical repatriation, the practice of hospitals putting undocumented patients on planes back to their home countries, typically at the request of insurance companies.
When this episode aired in January 2015, Jane the Virgin had already revealed itself to be more topical than most of TV’s scripted shows, often marrying fantastical fiction with real-life current affairs. But that game-changing hour was an in-your-face example of executive producer Jennie Snyder Urman actively using the series she created as a mainstream platform for timely social commentary.
“You double down on the things that are inspiring,” Snyder Urman told BuzzFeed News of lending Season 1 such an important message. And the New York native needed only to listen to the talent around her for continued inspiration in this quest.
The deportation storyline took part of its origins from Diane Guerrero, who plays Jane’s best friend and co-worker Lina on the show. During auditions, the actress explained that when she was 14, she came home one day to find that her parents — “who were not criminals; they were hardworking people,” as Snyder Urman said — had been deported to Colombia. The teen was left to fend for herself, without the intervention or even an inquiry from child services or other government entities. “It's just so stunning that could happen and that no one checked on her. They deported her parents and no one thought to ask, ‘Where's the 14-year-old daughter?’”
Guerrero’s community rallied around her, and she was taken in by the family of a friend from school. “She always wanted to be really good because she was terrified that someone would come and take her," Snyder Urman said. "So she’s telling me this story right as we started on Jane and I was like, That has to be in the fabric of our family and our community. When you hear the actual stories, it changes how you view the world.”
When she was developing Jane the Virgin, which is now in its second season on The CW, Snyder Urman didn’t actively set out to create a show that leaned heavily on social commentary — after all, Jane the Virgin was based on a Venezuelan soap opera. In her adaptation, she kept the family Venezuelan as an homage to the original series, and she quickly realized the larger opportunity a show about a three generations of tight-knit Latina women afforded: She had an immediate vessel through which to tell, and personalize, this wide-ranging immigration storyline. “We've talked about immigration through such a warm character that I think [it] makes the political really personal,” she said of Alba. “People will be like, ‘Why wouldn't you want Alba to be a citizen if she wants to be?’"
For Coll, who is Puerto Rican, playing Alba goes beyond professional accomplishment. It’s a source of personal pride as well. “It is very profound what Jennie and all the writers are doing with our family," she told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. "It's very important to me as a Hispanic actor that we are depicted as human beings in a human relationship with each other, because usually it's a stereotype of an overly religious mother or grandmother with the easygoing daughter. But here, Jennie has created a family unit which is a universal unit. You seldom see that on TV for Hispanic characters, and I think that's what people are reacting to.”
To ensure the stories Jane planned to tell were as authentic as possible, Snyder Urman very intentionally filled her writers room with people who have diverse backgrounds, including some who have gone through the green card process. That was particularly important seeing as the Villanuevas's legal journey remained an important through line on the show — culminating in a beautiful moment in Season 2 when Alba was granted her green card.
“She really listens, man,” Jane’s titular star Gina Rodriguez said of Snyder Urman in a phone interview with BuzzFeed News. “She listens to real-life experiences and pulls from all these beautiful people she loves and admires. … She listens to the things we want to be a part of and she finds a way to bring them into the art because the fusing of art and social responsibility is the most effective way to change a culture for the better. She's a socially responsible artist, and I freakin’ love it.”
Snyder Urman has recently expanded the show’s scope, bringing other issues to the forefront like the struggles of new mothers. It’s not uncommon for pregnant TV characters to give birth and almost immediately return to their pre-pregnancy lives and bodies in a single episode. That was not the case on Jane the Virgin, which spent six episodes submerged in the reality of first-time motherhood. And in this instance, the only voice Snyder Urman needed to listen to was her own.
“I remember a lot of people asking, 'What happens when Jane has the baby?' And I was always so stunned, because you don't stop being interesting if you're a mom,” the mother of two said. "You don't stop loving; you don't stop wanting romance. You're in this pressure cooker and that beginning section of motherhood — those first three months are crazy. I never felt like that in my life. I remember saying to my husband 24 hours after our baby was born, ‘That was one day? What the fuck are we going to do?’ It's such a crazy experience being a new mom and it's kind of mind-blowing that I hadn't seen it dug into.”
The plotline ended up being a phenomenal success. Snyder Urman said she was overwhelmed with appreciative tweets from mothers of all ages. Meanwhile, Rodriguez received her biggest compliment yet: “My sister is pregnant right now and she watched the show in straight tears. She's a doctor and she just got a promotion, but it means she's going to have to go back to work a few weeks after the baby's born. So she's like, ‘When Jane was deciding between grad school and Mateo, that was so beautiful.’” The fact that Rodriguez’s sister could watch the show and not see the girl she grew up with was particularly significant to the actress. “She's not looking at all the things that are different between me and Jane, she is following this mother," Rodriguez said. “I love that we're not [robbing] the women out there that are literally going through this stuff.”
Jane the Virgin’s second season has also made Jane’s continuing education a huge focal point and, again, unlike other shows, there's been screentime dedicated to her academic endeavors. “If you look at TV shows, nobody's in freakin’ school,” Rodriguez said with a laugh. “Teenage shows? Nobody's in school. I'm a big fan of education and the need for education. That's the only thing that got us out of the ‘hood, for sure. That was our ticket out and for us to have Jane in a similar circumstance... there's no self-pity. There's no ‘Awww, too bad for me,’ or, ‘Look at how good I'm doing.’ No. This is something she should be doing and she's cool with having to fight for that.”
Jane and the other characters are consistently taking a stand for what they believe in, and as the United States heads into the 2016 presidential election, that guiding principle will be more important than ever — as already seen in the Nov. 9 episode when "#Vote #Vote #Vote" appeared in red, white, and blue on the screen.
“Our characters on the show will be probably conscious of the election and what it means because it's going to be important,” Snyder Urman said. “I'm not going to have her watching a Republican debate, but I could see Jane getting involved and feeling outraged. It just sort of depends on where we are in the stories and what happens.”
And what if Donald Trump is elected president and enacts his widely discussed deportation policy? “Oh, they would have things to say about that,” Snyder Urman added. “If that happened, then there would be a story where it was felt and personalized because they live in America. Who the president is is going to matter to them. We're a country built on immigrants [and] all of Alba's small steps of citizenship are important to our characters and give them the opportunity to comment, should they need to.
“But I can't even go there. It sounds too insane. It feels like a Saturday Night Live sketch.”
It’s Snyder Urman’s unyielding desire to actually make our country great again that has turned Jane the Virgin into TV’s most socially responsible television show. “The reason why it's so easy for her to write about these social issues and combat them in such a beautiful, gentle way is because that is her heart. Jennie actually fucking cares,” Rodriguez said. “There's nothing about this experience that is about taking this to the bank for Jennie. Jennie wears freakin' Old Navy and rocks the same Nike high tops since I met her. Jennie doesn't care about things or possessions or being famous or being jerked off by anybody; Jennie cares about her children having a beautiful world to live in, Jennie cares about her friends being accepted for who they are no matter their race, sexual orientation, or religion.
“You do things you love, you do things for the right reason, you do them with pure intentions, and man, are you freakin' overwhelmed with blessings because of it. I hope she knows that. I hope she feels that. She's all of our dream-makers. She's my Willy Wonka.”