TV Time: Virgin River season 3. So watchable. So annoying.

Virgin River Credit: Netflix

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Or, in the case of season 3 of Virgin River, newly released on Netflix, nothing really changes, and everything pretty much stays the same.

This show. Geez. I love watching it, but it’s also so ridiculous and laughable… and endearing AF.

So, season 3.

Note: SPOILER ALERT!! I’m going to be discussing plot points from the season, so if you haven’t watched, you may want to look away!!

Season 3 picks up soon after the cliffhanger ending of season 2. Season 2 ended with Jack lying bleeding on the floor of his bar, shot by an unknown assailant and on the verge of death. (Except he’s the main love interest and that makes him bullet-proof).

As season 3 opens, Jack is alive! He’s recovering from his bullet wound, but has no memory of who shot him. Signs point to someone connected with the illegal drug trade that once thrived in the woods near Virgin River, but there’s no proof, and the drug business is (thankfully) mostly gone from this season, after being raided and driven out.

Can I get a Hallelujah?? I hated everything about the drug-running subplots of the previous two seasons. Let’s just focus on small-town adorableness, with its quirky personalities and town gossip, and leave drug kingpins to other, darker shows.

OK, back to season 3. Some new characters are introduced, including Jack’s sister Brie, who gets involved with a bad boy and seems to like riding on the back of his motorcycle and other risky behavior. There’s also a notable supporting character missing — Hope, Doc’s sometimes-estranged wife, is out of town for the entire season, making a couple of brief appearances during Zoom calls (apparently because of COVID restrictions affecting the actress’s ability to participate in filming).

There are continuing stories about the son of a woman on the run being sheltered by her friend, teen romance, Doc’s own health issue, and a tearjerker about a local woman diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Meanwhile, Jack’s ex is STILL pregnant and being obnoxious, and in our main storyline, Jack and Mel are in love, but face ups and downs.

So….

Let me once again break it down into highs and lows.

The good stuff:

  • Once again, the scenery is AMAZING. I’d watch a travel documentary just showing aerial views of the woods, the rivers, and the mountains. Except Virgin River is a fictional location (supposedly in Northern California, but filmed in British Columbia). I want to go there! I want my own cabin on the river!!
  • The characters themselves are great, especially Mel. She’s a strong, professional woman with endless wells of compassion, a good friend, a devoted sister. I love her to bits and pieces.
  • As I said in my post about the first two seasons, any excuse to watch Tim Matheson in action is a gift. He’s just lovely as Doc, gruff and grumbly, but with a heart of gold and a gentle side too. This season, he gets to be particularly vulnerable as he’s put through an emotional wringer, and every time he tears up, my heart melts.
  • Small town cuteness!! There’s a lumberjack festival, for Pete’s sake!! Everyone wears flannel, there’s log rolling and a chainsaw competition, and it’s just so corny yet also adorable in all its weirdness.
  • And one more time… it’s just so pretty! Like this moment, for example:
VIRGIN RIVER (L to R) ALEXANDRA BRECKENRIDGE as MEL MONROE and MARTIN HENDERSON as JACK SHERIDAN in episode 304 of VIRGIN RIVER Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2021

Which totally gives me this vibe:

The bits that drive me nuts:

  • Time moves SO slowly. As I wrote in my post about the first two seasons: A character who revealed a pregnancy at the end of season one is now (2 episodes from the end of season 2) nearing the end of her first trimester. So… she’ll give birth in season 4 or 5? I guess I was being prophetic: As of the end of season 3, that same character is MAYBE in her second trimester. So expecting her to give birth in season 4 is maybe even a bit optimistic!
  • Except in one instance, time moves too quickly. A character reveals early in the season that she was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, is opting for palliative care, and wants to live out her remaining days at home with her family and friends. And within a couple more episodes, she’s dead. No wasting away, no depressing episodes showing her weakening and getting sicker. Just boom — she goes to take a nap after a great day with friends, and then she’s dead. So weird.
  • Nothing really changes. Ever. We start the season not knowing who shot Jack. We end the season not knowing who shot Jack. Characters have ups and downs, but the plot is SO static so much of the time.
  • We end with Mel telling Jack that she’s pregnant, and that the baby might not be his. Well, we know why that is… but it’s utterly ridiculous. While visiting her sister in LA for a few days, Mel is reminded by her sister that she still has some embryos left from her fertility process with her late husband. Despondent over her break-up (very temporary) with Jack, Mel goes to the fertility doctor’s office. Well, apparently, she walked in and got impregnated, just like that. And that made me roll my eyes so hard I thought they’d fall out of my head. This is a woman with a history of fertility issues, who’s gone through multiple rounds of IVF. She was only in LA for a few days, as far as we could tell. If she was going to move forward with having embryos implanted, she should have been on hormones, at the very least. This is not a single trip to the doctor’s office situation!!
  • Jack’s ex is expecting twins (sometime in 2025, I guess), and apparently she’s engaged to some rich guy she’s just met, and everyone talks as if Jack would have no parental rights at all… and I just don’t understand. There’s DNA testing in the 21st century, people! Why does his lawyer act as though he has no chance of being the babies’ legal father unless Charmaine allows his name to be put on the birth certificate?
  • Inconsisent supporting characters — there are certain characters whose depiction seems to change depending on what scene they’re in, and I wish the show would just make up its mind! Connie is often shown as an interfering gossip, but then she’ll turn around and offer protection to someone with a secret and acts like other people’s most trusted friend. Which is she? Same with Muriel, who in previous seasons was set up to date Doc as a decoy by Hope (never mind, it’s complicated). Muriel is sort of depicted as someone who might not be trustworthy around other people’s husbands (ugh, I hate that judge-y kind of vibe), but she’s actually completely lovely. Muriel in season 3 is vivacious, supportive, and tons of fun… so why do I feel like the show wants us to be suspicious of her when it comes to Doc?
  • Lack of diversity. There is exactly one Black named/featured character on the show. I was shocked when a Black family was seen walking by at the lumberjack games. Wait, there are families of color living in Virgin River? The show needs to open its doors a little wider, is all I’m saying.

Despite my grumbling, I freely admit that I’m hooked on the show. I just wish more would happen in a season. How long is the wait until season 4? Arrrrrggh.

And one final thing: I still haven’t read the books. Should I???

TV Time: Last Tango in Halifax

If you’re looking for feel-good viewing with quirky, (mostly) lovable characters, I don’t think you can go wrong with Last Tango in Halifax.

Now streaming on Netflix, this BBC production originally aired starting in 2012, continuing over five seasons (on and off) through 2020. Altogether, there are 24 episodes (which Netflix presents as 4 seasons, but it’s all the same show.)

Here’s the trailer for season 1:

The basic plot: Alan and Celia, widowed and in their mid-70s, reconnect on Facebook after their respective grandchildren set them up with social media accounts. Meeting again after last seeing each other in their teens, they each confess that they were in love with the other way back when, but were separated by occurrences outside their control. Now reunited, they shock their families by announcing on the day the meet that they plan to get married!

Their backgrounds are starkly different: Alan lives on his daughter Gillian’s sheep farm with her and her teen-aged son, and Celia lives in the guest apartment of her daughter Caroline’s big, posh house.

Gillian is a crass, outspoken, hardworking farmer who likes casual sex without strings, even though her flings tend to catch up with her. She’s still haunted by her abusive husband’s death 10 years earlier, which is not made easier by her former brother-in-law’s constant suspicions.

Caroline is the head of a well-to-do private school. She is very refined and upscale, although her personal life is messy too — her husband John left her for another woman, then tries to come back once discovering the other woman is an alcoholic. I’m not sure why the expression “sad sack” entered my mind (it’s not a term I remember ever using!), but it suits John to a T — he’s such a loser that he’s utterly pathetic, and yet he just sticks around constantly.

Celia and Alan have their differences too, on very different sides of the political spectrum and with very different ideas when it comes to acceptance and judgment and their children’s lives. Still, there’s no denying their instant connection, and their giddy stages of early love are quite lovely to behold.

As the show moves forward, the circles expand and overlap. Gillian and Caroline, against all odds and despite major blow-ups, become close friends. Alan and Celia’s relationship experiences ups and downs. The grandkids grow up and have their own lives, Caroline finds new love, and the plot weaves in and out between all the characters, showing the glorious mess of having a large, unconventional family.

I went into Last Tango in Halifax expecting something light and silly — and while there are plenty of light, silly moments, there’s also real depth, sorrow, and drama here too. The cast is superb (I mean, really, Derek Jacobi!!!), and I got completely caught up in the characters’ lives. And even though my opinions of them changed over the course of the episodes (I started out thinking Caroline was snooty and awful, yet by the end, I think she was my favorite character — and Celia just made me bonkers so often with her intolerance, yet still charmed me whenever she’d giggle at Alan), I was invested in all of them and basically loved them all.

I’m so glad I made the time for this excellent show! Please check it out — you’ll be glad you did!

Note: The video below is a lovely look at the cast and character dynamics, but it does contain some plot spoilers, so proceed at your own risk!

TV Time: Masking up on TV — too much, or not enough?

Here we are, a year into our masked-up lives, and while vaccines provide a glimmer of hope, it’s still way too soon to start stashing away our supplies of snazzy custom masks.

Side question: How many pretty/fun masks do you own? I’ve been pretty restrained, I think, and yet I somehow find myself with a drawer full of colorful fabric masks. They’re cute!

I’ve been having some mixed feelings lately about seeing TV shows featuring mask-wearing in their current season’s episodes. On the one hand, if the show is supposed to be set in our current day and age, they can’t come off as realistic if the characters aren’t quarantining, observing social distancing, and wearing masks.

On the other hand… well, there are two main negatives that have been coming up for me:

1 – I watch TV for escapism and entertainment. I see enough masks and hear enough COVID-COVID-COVID nonstop in my real life. Do I need to see it on my sitcoms too?

2 – For the shows that choose to go there, they’d better be doing it right. And that just doesn’t seem to be the case across the board, especially when it appears that masks might be inconvenient for storylines.

A couple of examples of mask usage, one mostly good but not perfect, and one just baffling:

On This Is Us, the show has mostly been very good about showing the characters in the modern-day storylines following social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines. Whether on a movie set or in a hospital giving birth, they’ve been pretty consistent about having masks in place where appropriate — but they still make some iffy choices, such as having a teen daughter’s boyfriend come to dinner without explaining whether he and his family are in their bubble. And if they are, that’s a pretty big bubble, considering that another daughter is planning to go over to a friend’s house too.

I give This Is Us pretty high scores on the realism of their COVID world, showing Zoom interviews and FaceTime hospital visits, but just wish they would get a little tighter. If you’re going to do it, do it all the way.

Then there’s Black-ish, which seems to have lost interest in COVID after a brief couple of episodes where they focused on it. People come and go from the family’s house, without masks. The main character goes to work and interacts with colleagues, without masks. There was an episode with a backyard wedding that had some people wearing masks, but then other people showed up after traveling and were not wearing masks.

If they want to pretend to live in a COVID-free world, that’s fine — but going partway and then ignoring it doesn’t make any sense.

At the other end of the mask-wearing on TV spectrum is the (always phenomenal) Queen Sugar. The currently airing 5th season is set squarely in the real world, moving through the early months of the pandemic (so far — we’re on the 5th episode, set in May 2020) with a very specific focus on what the show’s community would have experienced at that particular time. So far in the season, we’ve seen the characters go from the early days of learning about some distant virus to vague worries to quarantine and isolation, with the first death of a supporting character as well.

The characters on Queen Sugar experience all the shocks of the pandemic, from job loss to economic downturns to the isolation of Zoom school to the grief of losing a loved one, and it all feels hyper-real and powerful, especially knowing that the characters don’t yet know what’s still to come in that awful year. The characters responsibly wear masks, and even for gatherings such as a wedding, they maintain social distancing, stay outdoors, separate by family units, and — again — stay masked up.

Queen Sugar — in a promo pic for an upcoming episode, the main character is wearing her mask, but I’m worried about the guy she’s standing next to. Why can’t guys keep their masks over their noses? For what it’s worth, I don’t think this is the show not doing what it should — it’s (sadly) accurately showing how sloppy some people can be!

Another shot of the Queen Sugar wedding, mostly just because it makes me so happy, but also because this shot again shows how thoughtfully the show is approaching the characters’ lives and their commitment to being safe. I love how they throw a beautiful wedding with only a few people present, all except the bride and groom masked, and keep the people present outdoors and at a safe distance. Well done!

As a viewer, I do get frustrated sometimes watching characters interact and show emotion from behind a mask, especially if the dialogue isn’t super clear — but if the show is asking us to believe that the events they’re showing are contemporary to our time, then they need to do this piece right. Queen Sugar is spot on.

At the same time, I’m fine with shows being only vaguely “now-ish” and not showing masks and social distancing — but I feel like they should either do it or don’t, nothing in the middle. Either go full-on COVID aware and be responsible, or have the show set in a pandemic-free bubble, but don’t give mixed messages about whether the characters are being safe. Frankly, it sends a terrible message to kind-of show appropriate pandemic behavior but then be inconsistent — are they saying this behavior is okay?

What are your thoughts about masks on TV shows? Do you appreciate the realism, wish they did it better, or feel like you’d rather just watch TV and pretend none of this real-world mess exists?

TV Time: Binge-watching/hate-watching Ginny & Georgia

I just finished the 10-episode first season of Ginny & Georgia on Netflix… and I have thoughts. And even feelings.

First up, let’s be clear: The blurbs (and even the show itself) keep comparing this show to Gilmore Girls. But friends, I’m here to tell you: This ain’t no Gilmore Girls.

I mean, okay. Mother and daughter? Check. Mother who had daughter as a teen? Check. Sweetness, sassiness, cleverness? Uncheck. Don’t watch Ginny & Georgia expecting the mother/daughter as best friends trope, or the sweet quirky small-town vibe trope. Yes, it’s a small town. But no, there’s no particular sweetness. And this mother and daughter are far from best friends.

Here’s the trailer:

Georgia is first introduced as a free-spirit, whisking her children off on a new adventure and starting a new life in a small town in Massachusetts. Ginny, age 15, is the same age Georgia was when she had her. Georgia positions this move as a fresh start, a chance to finally settle down, stop forcing her kids to start over again and again, and have a real, normal life.

There are problems, of course. We quickly learn that Georgia can afford her nice new suburban house because she’s recently widowed. Her wealthy late husband’s ex is contesting the will, so Georgia’s new fortune is tenuous at best. Ginny and her younger brother Austin have never lived in one place long enough to make friends, but Georgia swears that this time, life will be different.

As they settle in, the family becomes close to the family across the street, a very decent couple and their 15-year-old twins. Ginny becomes best friends with the girl, Max, and has an on-again, off-again flirtation/hook-up/maybe more with the boy, Marcus.

Meanwhile, Georgia goes full Southern belle on the town, with a big Julia Roberts-esque smile and a huge Southern accent, and charms her way into a job in the (very hot and single) mayor’s office.

With me so far?

So why did I end up hate-watching this show?

SPOILERS AHEAD!

I admit, there are elements of this show I really got caught up in:

  • The teen drama is actually pretty good. Ginny’s friend circle is fun and interesting, and while some of the girls’ issues are only addressed on a surface level, there are enough distinct personalities to make them a great group to get to know. I just wish the show’s focus was more on them and less on the adults (more on this in a moment), so it could go deeper into their stories.
  • Ginny is biracial in a mostly white town, and I felt that this component of her story was well portrayed. From her issues of not quite fitting in anywhere, to dealing with a racist teacher who doesn’t even seem to know he’s racist (he voted for Obama! twice!), I couldn’t help but admire Ginny’s courage in taking a stand, yet also feel sorry for her struggles to understand herself in the context of her friends and her new town.
  • Max is a sweet, outrageous character, and the actress who portrays her did a great job showing Max’s vulnerable side even while she’s totally out there and hilarious.
  • Jennifer Robertson, so great as Jocelyn Schitt on Schitt’s Creek, appears in Ginny & Georgia as Max and Marcus’s mother Ellen, who becomes close to Georgia. She’s just as wonderful as you’d expect, and it made me so happy to see her in this show.
  • Overall, the young cast playing the teens is very good, and I’m especially impressed by Antonia Gentry, who plays Ginny so well and with such emotional range.

The things I couldn’t stand, found irritating, or that just plain sucked:

  • Georgia. She’s just an awful person. I think we’re meant to admire her spirit, but she’s a terrible mom who continually puts her children at risk. Plus, she has a very dark past that maybe is meant to show her tenaciousness and ability to survive, but really just shows that she’s amoral and dangerous.

Getting really spoiler-y here…

  • Scott Porter, so charming in Hart of Dixie, plays the mayor in Ginny & Georgia, and it’s like the show couldn’t decide what kind of character he was playing. For most of the episodes, he comes across as super sweet, somewhat innocent, very wowed by Georgia and kind and loving toward her children… until near the end, when he makes a speech to Georgia about how they’re both motivated by seeking power, and it just doesn’t jibe with anything we’ve seen of him so far. He hadn’t once been portrayed as power-hungry, and now that’s all he cares about?
  • Georgia’s criminal past isn’t charming or endearing. It’s impossible to root for her, so why does the show want us to?
  • At age 15, Georgia and Zion (Ginny’s father) are living with Zion’s parents, who propose becoming legal guardians to Ginny. And really, that makes total sense — but instead, Georgia takes off in the middle of the night with Ginny. And again, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the show wanted us to see this as a brave move. Because it was irresponsible and crazy and put both of them at risk, when it would have been the best thing for all concerned for the adults in this situation to take responsibility for Ginny and provide the security and stability needed for her upbringing.
  • I haven’t even touched on how awful Georgia is when it comes to the younger child Austin, whose father is in prison for embezzlement (and we have to wonder, did Georgia frame him?). She allows Austin to live in a fantasy world in which his father is a wizard imprisoned at Azkhaban, and then wonders why he gets bullied all the time — but then we he gets pushed too far and stabs a kid (!!!), doesn’t even get him therapy.
  • Ginny is approached by the seemingly only other Black girl at school, but basically brushes her off until she needs her. Why not allow her to explore finding a place with the small Black community? We’re supposed to empathize with Ginny’s struggles to figure out her identity and where she fits in, but her callousness and unfriendliness toward Bracia seem so unnecessary.
  • One more time, because I just can’t say it enough: Georgia is awful. It’s a bad sign when one-half of your title characters are simply impossible to feel positively toward. While we may want Ginny and Austin to finally get a “normal”, stable life, I couldn’t help feeling that they’d be much better off without Georgia at all. Go live with Zion! Have a responsible, non-criminal parent! Ugh.

Whew. Ranting over.

Despite how much I disliked certain characters and plotlines, I did binge my way through this show this past week, and couldn’t look away.

It hasn’t been announced yet whether there will be a season 2, but given how season 1 ends, it certainly would appear that Netflix is planning on it. Also, the show has done really well for Netflix, so I can’t imagine they won’t continue.

Will I be back for season 2?

Ummm… probably? I do want to see what happens to Ginny next. But, is that enough of a reason to tolerate sitting through more of Georgia’s awfulness? TBD.

Has anyone else watched Ginny & Georgia yet? Please let me know what you think!

TV Time: Virgin River is so dumb. So why can’t I stop watching?

Season two of the Netflix series Virgin River (adapted from the book series by Robyn Carr) just dropped last week, and as of this writing, I have 2 of the 10 episodes yet to watch (and I will definitely finish them tonight).

Friends, this show is dumb. But it’s also incredibly watchable.

The basics: 30-something Mel Monroe is an accomplished nurse practitioner-midwife from LA who moves to Virgin River, a small rural town in Northern California, to accept a one-year position in a medical clinic.

Mel’s husband died in a car accident the year before, and she’s been consumed by her grief ever since. She’s hoping that a complete change will help her heal and move forward with her life.

What she doesn’t know is that the doctor whose practice she’s joining doesn’t want her — he’s been pressured into accepting her by the town busybody, who is also the town mayor and his estranged wife.

Mel arrives to find that the home she’s been promised is a decaying old shack, and that she’s already managed to insult the doctor she’ll be working for. On the bright side is local restaurant/bar owner Jack, a sweet, sexy man with a deep soul, who has demons of his own — he’s haunted by his memories of his time as a Marine sergeant and the young soldier in his squad who didn’t make it back.

Naturally, Mel and Jack have instant chemistry, and it seems likely that their friendship will blossom into romance. Meanwhile, Jack has a casual girlfriend who’s much more invested in the relationship than he is; there’s a town full of quirky characters to meet; and there are some unsavory types adding an element of danger as well.

So why do I think it’s dumb? But why is it so watchable?

First, I’ll focus on the good:

  • The scenery is AMAZING. While the town of Virgin River is supposed to be located in Humboldt County, California, the series was shot in British Columbia, and it shows. The rivers and mountains and forests are absolutely breathtaking. I think at least half the reason I keep watching is for the pure delight of seeing the gorgeous setting.
  • Mel herself is a great character. She’s strong and accomplished, an expert in her field, and full of compassion for her patients (even when they treat her like dirt). Over the course of the first season, we see flashbacks that establish the deep loss she experienced — scenes from her marriage to Mark, the tragic loss of their stillborn baby and subsequent struggle with infertility, and the accident that took Mark’s life. Actress Alexandra Breckenridge does a terrific job of portraying Mel’s straightforward approach to life.
  • Side note: This is shallow, but I love Mel’s wardrobe! I want to live insider her big, fluffy, cozy sweaters.
  • Tim Matheson as Doc Mullens. If you like Tim Matheson in Hart of Dixie, you’ll like him in Virgin River — he’s basically playing the same character! He’s always a delight to watch, and seems to have cornered the market on grumpy older doctors who don’t want to change.
  • Small town wholesomeness — any TV show set in a small town, whether it’s suburban Stars Hollow, Connecticut (like Gilmore Girls) or a southern town like Bluebell, Alabama (Hart of Dixie) or even a place riddled with supernatural beings like Mystic Falls, Virginia (Vampire Diaries) seems to thrive on showing town fairs, special traditions, barn dances, carnivals — you name it. Virgin River has its share of small town celebrations, just as you’d expect — even a super competitive egg relay race.

The bits that drive me nuts:

  • Manly men acting manly. Jack is an ex-Marine, as are his best buddies, and they’re all very noble and manly and protectors of the women folk. It can feel like a recruiting ad at times.
  • There’s a drug trafficking subplot that seems SO unnecessary — an illegal pot grower in the woods with bad guy enforcers with big guns, injecting an element of danger (and giving Jack an adversary to face down.) Why does a small town drama need drug runners? Why?
  • Time moves slowly. A character who revealed a pregnancy at the end of season one is now (2 episodes from the end of season 2) nearing the end of her first trimester. So… she’ll give birth in season 4 or 5?
  • Town gossip. I know, small town drama and all, but the small town gossip element is just silly. The drama between Doc and his sometimes-wife Hope is annoying as hell. They decide to reconcile, but Hope pushes him to pretend date someone else to throw people off their tracks, which seems all kinds of silly and mean to the other woman (who’s perfectly lovely and actually seems like a better match for Doc than moody, demanding Hope, who has held a grudge over a repented-for infidelity for 20 years!)
  • Teen drama. Of course one of the older women from town has her trouble-child niece come to town, and of course the niece is a stereotypical bad girl who’s leading the sweet town boy astray.
  • Let’s see, what else? Well, every possible small town drama plot point we’ve seen before, including a baby on the doorstep, a domestic violence survivor hiding out under an assumed name, petty jealousies, a surprise pregnancy, PTSD, and more.

Still, as I said, it’s highly watchable even while having moments that are absolute clunkers. Mel is really a great character, and I feel invested in her, even if it’s just watching her go on her morning runs through the forest and across the suspension bridge. I really appreciate her vulnerability as a person, which never keeps her from being the consummate medical professional.

Maybe it’s not fair to call the show dumb. It has its entertaining, heart-warming moments, and it’s definitely drawn me in.

But, ugh! PLEASE dump the drug runners and all the stereotypical small town plots already.

So, in other words:

Me: Grumble, grumble, grumble, this show is dumb.

And also me: Bring on season 3!

Query for readers: Has anyone read the Virgin River books? Should I give them a try? Or will I be just as annoyed as I am by the show?

TV Time: The joy of Jane the Virgin

Jane the Virgin premiered on the CW back in 2014, and ran for five seasons. Back in the day, I faithfully watched season 1, but then only watched about 4 or 5 episodes of season 2 before giving it up.

Why did I quit? I think maybe I just didn’t get it at the time. Or maybe the weekly cadence didn’t quite pull me in enough to be completely hooked.

But now? After finishing my binge of all five seasons, I can say with complete confidence the Jane the Virgin is GLORIOUS.

What makes it so special? I’ll try to explain.

First, the basics: Jane Gloriana Villaneuva is a 23-year-old college student when we first meet her. She works part-time as a waitress at the swanky Marbella hotel in Miami, is studying to become a teacher, and lives with her mother Xiomara and grandmother Alba.

Alba is an undocumented immigrant from Venezuela, a devout Catholic, and the moral center of Jane’s life. Xiomara had Jane at age 16 as a single teen mom, and has told Jane all her life that the father was an army soldier passing through with whom she had a brief fling.

One of Jane’s core beliefs was instilled in her by her abuela from a young age — your virginity is like a flower that you must protect. Once it’s gone you can never get it back!

Jane is also very much in love with her boyfriend Michael, a police detective who’s sweet, kind, funny, and head over heels in love with Jane. And who’d really like to have sex with her, except she’s vowed to wait until marriage, despite their hot and heavy make-out sessions.

All is right with Jane’s world until she goes in for a pap smear, and ends up artificially inseminated instead by a distracted doctor who mixes up her patients. What’s a pregnant virgin to do?

From here, things get crazier and crazier. The sperm used to impregnate Jane belongs to Rafael Solano, the incredibly hot owner of the Marbella who froze his sperm sample prior to undergoing chemotherapy several years earlier. His marriage to scheming Petra is on its last legs, and Petra had planned to set insemininated with his only sperm sample as a way to hold onto the money that comes with her marriage.

And so many more twists and turns! The key thing to know about Jane the Virgin is that it’s about how much the Villanueva women love telenovelas, and the telenovela theme is what gives Jane the Virgin its style and approach.

So yes, there are long-lost twins and evil crime lords, amnesia and kidnappings, blackmail and murder, and so much more. There’s also a telenovela within the telenovela, since Jane’s father turns out to be Rogelio de la Vega, the star of the hit telenovela The Passions of Santos.

As the narrator often reminds us: “I know! Straight out of a telenovela!”

And yes, there’s a narrator, and he’s phenomenal. Funny, sarcastic, dramatic, he adds spice and humor to every scene, as well as the little subtitles and texts and emojis that pop up too. It works, trust me.

I think one of the things that didn’t work for me when I first watched the show was the telenovela aspect. I didn’t care about the crime and conspiracies, the police investigations, the crazy drug lord caper…

But with this binge, I was better able to appreciate the beauty of the whole, and how the crazy plot aspects balance so well against the marvelous depiction of daily life for a loving family.

Because that’s what this show is really about, at its core. The relationships between Jane, Xiomara, and Alba are lovely, so full of heart and devotion and real day-to-day experience. Yes, they fight and get fed up, but at the end of the day, these three women are strong and solid, and we can always count on their porch-swing heart-to-hearts to put things right.

A few more favorite things:

Magical realism: This show makes fabulous use of magical realism, from showing Jane’s heart glowing when she’s in love to the swirling flower petals that fill the air during an important kiss. It’s a lovely nod to Latin American literary traditions, and it adds so much.

Jane’s writing career: Jane is an aspiring writer, and we see her progress from tentatively sharing her dream to pursuing graduate school, then working on her first novel, and finally achieving success. It’s hard for movies and TV to show a writer at work and make it interesting, but Jane the Virgin does an amazing job of showing Jane’s struggles and her process.

High-stakes at the hotel: It just cracks me up how the ownership of the Marbella is such an issue throughout the entire show. Someone is always buying or giving or stealing hotel shares, so while Rafael might be the owner one day, he can be out on his ear the next. It’s super silly, and makes me roll my eyes, and is yet one more ridiculous but fun piece of the whole.

Rogelio: Oh, man. There’s nobody like Rogelio. He is incredibly vain, a total name-dropper, and yet also the sweetest man alive. He never fails to remind us that he’s super handsome and a big star with flawless skin, but he’s also vulnerable and loving and loves his family so, so much. He’s also hilarious.

The love triangle: For what it’s worth, I was Team Rafael from the start, and even when that didn’t work out quite as I’d hoped in season 1, I always held out hope. Through their ups and downs, Jane and Rafael managed to form a friendship that saw them through heartbreak and co-parenting challenges, so when they finally (spoiler alert!) make a go of it, it feels real and truly earned. (Sorry, Team Michael fans! I just never really felt it.)

Representation: It’s amazing to see so many talented Latinx actors center stage. And I love that Alba speaks almost exclusively in Spanish throughout the show, and that’s just who she is. Dialogue flows seamlessly from Spanish to English and back again, and it works so well.

Life: Beneath the silliness of so many plot devices, there are real issues that real people face — so many of which rarely get any attention on TV. We see Jane struggling with breast feeding and the feelings of inadequacy that can come with lactation challenges. We see Xiomara’s breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, presented so incredibly thoughtfully and sensitively — including how a woman’s relationship with her own sexuality might change in the aftermath of chemo and all the changes it brings. We also see Alba’s quest to become a citizen, going from a woman terrified of the police for fear that she’ll be deported, through the process of pursuing a green card and finally becoming a full citizen.

There’s so much more — loss and grief, establishing a family and what it means, Jane and Rafael’s efforts to co-parent in a way that supports their son even when they themselves are at odds, their struggle with son Mateo’s ADHD diagnosis and coming to terms with treatment options — I could go on and on. The beauty of Jane the Virgin is that the melodramatic twists never overshadow the day-to-day realities of people living realistic lives. It’s a hard balance to maintain, but the show does it beautifully.

I know I’ve rambled on, probably more than enough. But really, when a show is this great, I just want to shout about it! Jane the Virgin is a perfect binge for these coronavirus times. It’s full of joy and heart, is never dull, and reminds us that life can be full of magic.

TV Time: Survivor Season 40, “Winners At War”

Survivor’s 40th season ended this week. 40 seasons! Can you believe it? Now, I haven’t watched every single one and I in no way claim to be an expert, but as someone who watches the show week in and week out, I thought I’d chime in today and share my thoughts on the season and the winner.

First, my Survivor history: I watched Survivor season one twenty years ago, when it was new and different, when we all thought we were watching a show about actual survival that quickly became a show about alliances and social strategy. I know I watched at least one more season (Australia), but let it fade out of my life after that. I didn’t return to Survivor again until 2011, for season 24, “One World” — I was looking for something fun and different to watch with my 9-year-old son, and this worked for us! And I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every season since.

Back to season 40: With “Winners at War”, Survivor brought back 20 previous winners, some who’ve played multiple times, some who appeared only once but managed to win and make a big impression. Some of these players are Survivor gods by now — who hasn’t heard of Parvati or Tyson or Boston Rob? For a lot of Survivor winners — and even non-winners who are extremely popular with fans — Survivor celebrity can be a career all on its own.

It was, I thought, a pretty cool concept to bring back all these winners and let them battle it out. There were a bunch of old-school winners (Rob, Sandra, Parvati, Yul, etc), and plenty of newer winners too. I liked the idea, and I liked seeing these Survivor icons thrown together in new and different ways. And yes, I liked the awkwardness too, like when Nick confessed that Parvati was his Survivor crush way back when.

BUT… the game design itself this time around had serious flaws, and these came close to ruining the whole season for me.

For the 2nd time, Survivor included the ridiculous Edge of Extinction twist, only this time, it wasn’t a surprise. In normal seasons, when someone is voted out, that’s it — they’re gone. Well, unless they’re voted out post-merge, in which case they become a jury member. Still, there’s a very clear distinction. Either you’re in, or you’re out. The tribe has spoken.

With Edge of Extinction, voted-out players get sent to a different island, where they basically just sit around, occasionally compete for rewards, and wait for a chance to get back into the game. Mostly, they seem bored, and spend a lot of time talking about how tough they have it. These players all form the jury, so while they’re not playing with the remaining active players, they’re watching every Tribal Council and keeping up with the ins and outs of gameplay.

And then, the EoE players get two chances to return to the game — through challenges that happen about midway through (Tyson won, only to get voted out again pretty quickly), and three days before the end. And man, do I have a problem with this! More on that in a minute.

The other twist this season was the introduction of Fire Tokens, described as a “Survivor currency”. As players win rewards, they also earn these tokens, which can be spent on luxury items (like blankets or peanut butter) or saved to gain advantages down the road.

The fire tokens became a part of the interplay between EoE players and the players still in the game. Someone on EoE could sell an advantage to an active player, or extort them by demanding payment of tokens in order to avoid a disadvantage. The absolutely worst part of the fire tokens was being able to use them to gain advantages in the battle-back competition.

Here’s why:

As the voted-out players spent time on EoE, there were numerous opportunities to gain tokens. The longer you’re there, the more chances there are. So a player who managed to last in the main game until day 30 had almost no chance to get any sort of advantage to re-enter the game, versus someone voted out early on, who spent weeks gathering tokens as rewards.

In season 38, a player who reentered from EoE ended up winning the game, and it was a controversial win for sure. This person may have lasted a long time, but did he actually play the game?

Here, in season 40, it was even worse. Natalie, voted out on day 2 of the game, the very first person voted out, spent 30+ days on Edge of Extinction. She won a ton of challenges over there and collected more fire tokens than any other player. She had all those weeks to bond with every other voted-out player, all of whom were jury members, to observe the main game from her own jury seat, and to never have to worry about getting removed from play permanently.

When it came time for the final battle-back challenge, Natalie used her token to buy herself three advantages in the challenge plus an immunity idol to bring back into the game with her if she won.

And if you ask me — that’s ridiculous! Having someone have major advantages like that at such a key moment is just out and out unfair. If I were any of the other players trying to get back in, I’d be frustrated and mad as hell. Naturally, Natalie won, and then tried to dominate the few days left by using her idol and spreading (possibly false) info that everyone on the Edge was saying Tony would absolutely win — hoping to use this as a lever to break up his alliance and get the others to turn against him.

Natalie’s reentry into the game was a disruption that didn’t seem fair or right. The other remaining players at that point had survived through challenges, social gameplay, and numerous tribal councils. I just really don’t like the concept of a voted-out player being able to re-enter so late in the game and stand a chance of winning — and especially being able to re-enter with an idol already in her pocket.

The final three ended up being Natalie, Michelle, and Tony. As I’ve said, I don’t think Natalie deserved a place there at all, and the fact that she lasted at EoE while hanging out with the rest of the jury didn’t seem like it could possibly justify handing her any votes to win.

I’ve never like Michelle as a player. I didn’t think she deserved her first win against Aubry, and I didn’t see her doing much of anything worthwhile in this game aside from lacking enough presence as a player to make anyone else want to target her. Yes, she lasted, but she didn’t actually do anything other than winning immunity at a couple of key times.

As for Tony — well, honestly, I’m delighted he won. I would have loved to see both him and Sarah at the final tribal, either with Ben or Denise. Now that would have been a showdown! This, by the way, is why I feel that the process is flawed when it comes to the end. There’s got to be a way that’s better than a fire-making challenge for determining the final three. Maybe when it’s down to four, you have one person win immunity, then let the remaining three battle it out for the next two spots? Otherwise, the one who wins that particular immunity challenge gets an outsized amount of power.

I hate seeing weak players at final tribal, with great players voted out (or eliminated by fire) in the 4th or 5th position. I get it — you want to win, so you try to make sure you’re sitting next to someone you can beat. But wouldn’t it be cool to have three amazing players at the end, each with a really strong argument to pitch to the jury?

I was sad to see Sarah out of the competition — but was practically in tears myself watching Tony and Sarah hug and share “I love you”s.

Tony was the right winner. He’s a delight to watch, no doubt about it. His crazy antics keep the show entertaining and surprising. How can you not love a guy who perches in a tree for hours? And actually, one of my favorite moments was earlier on when he helped Sarah infiltrate the other team’s camp to find an advantage. They were an amazing duo!

A favorite Tony moment

As for Edge of Extinction, I’ve seen a bunch of speculation that the producers basically had to do this in order to lure back the big-time former winners. I guess no one wants to come back with all the hoopla around this season and then get voted out right away. Still, I think it’s a weird and unnecessary addition to the game, it eats up airtime (and isn’t all that interesting), and it upsets the game dynamic, but in a negative (not creative) way. I’m hoping they do away with both EoE and fire tokens in future seasons!

Kudos, however, to Survivor production for going all-out with this season’s loved ones visit, which usually is super hokey. This time around, they brought not just one family member, but the entire family for each player. Yup, more waterworks as I watched all the various competitors dissolve into mom and dad tears as their kids ran out for hugs! So sweet, and I loved that unlike other seasons, everyone got to spend time with their families, not just the winners of a challenge.

Overall, it was a really fun season, and it was great to see some old-time players back in the game. Of course, I did feel like I was missing out by not knowing some of the “classic” winners… so maybe I should “challenge” myself to use my shelter-in-place time to watch some older seasons.

No matter how many seasons of Survivor I watch, I always end up hooked. Here’s to many more! Hopefully, next season’s final episode won’t be hosted out of Jeff Probst’s garage.

And hey, a question for my fellow Survivor fans out there: If I were going to go back and watch an old season for the first time, which do you recommend, and why?