I have a confession to make. I have recently overdosed on DDD.
You know the drug, even if you don’t recognize the street name.
It has kept you up until the early morning hours: you not even noticing how much time has gone by until you turn toward the sunrise, sweaty and bleary-eyed.
It has given you night terrors: monsters and murders invading your dreams as existential questions about the difference between good and evil invade your sleep.
It has made you feel that rush of union with your fellow man: because you too can discuss if time is a flat circle, the most recent death on The Walking Dead, and jeez why can’t Don Draper just keep it in his pants for once?
Yes, that’s right. I’m talking about Dark Depressing Dramas.
I have been a longtime addict of Dark Depressing Dramas. I have cried quietly into my pillow at 3AM after watching Lori Grimes die in childbirth. I have cried before dinnertime when Adam Braverman and his daughter Hattie reconciled over a Band-Aid. And, let’s be real, I have cried during every episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
But something changed over this winter break. I was home for the holidays and suffering the kind of jet lag that puts you to bed by 9pm and wakes you up at 4am. I needed something new to watch. But every ‘acclaimed TV show’ waiting in my Netflix queue made me feel queasy.
Top of the Lake: Pregnant 12-year-old disappears.
Broadchurch: Young boy is murdered, must find killer!
Happy Valley: Police sergeant tries to find the man who assaulted her daughter.
Wentworth: Women’s prison (but without the Orange is the New Black jokes).
Maybe it’s the fact that it was the holidays. Or maybe it’s because I currently have a full-time job where I can spend days at a time solely reporting on shootings, rapes, and murders. But I finally wanted to have some fun with my television. I wanted to laugh and enjoy myself and not have to worry that a character I invested two seasons into was about to get bit in the neck.
And then I came across Jane the Virgin.
Critics have been praising the quirky comedy, which is based on Venezuelan telenovela Juana la Virgen, since September. They have begged viewers to ignore the silly name and the fact that it was on CW and give the show a chance.
For those unfamiliar, Jane the Virgin is about Jane (duh), a virgin (duh), who gets pregnant when her gynecologist accidentally artificially inseminates her with someone’s sperm (wtf). Also that sperm belongs to a very sexy hotel owner (awesome). Who she works for (shit). And, oh yeah, he’s the gynecologist’s brother (are you kidding me now).
It’s a lunatic premise carried by Gina Rodriguez, who somehow keeps Jane grounded and sensible even as the show descends into soap territory. There are hidden lesbian romances, secret fathers, a drug lord named Sin Rostro, and someone getting impaled on an ice sculpture.
And it is so much fun.
There is so much about Jane the Virgin that the Big Three networks probably would have had a problem with. There is a hilarious voice-of-god narrator often interjecting and giving hints to the viewers about what’s on screen. There are subtitles because Jane’s grandmother only speaks Spanish. There are frequent references to Jane’s Catholicism. And, at the end of the day, the show could care less that Jane is a virgin – that’s not the point (somebody please tell the same to that girl who tried to use her v-card to win this season’s Bachelor).
Because although Jane the Virgin may be a fresh breath of Miami air, it isn’t mindless.
And the same can be said for the fantastic broadcast soap that followed it.
If you haven’t watched Empire, you’ve probably at least heard of it. The FOX show is a bonafide hit in a time when that word is only used to describe cable shows anymore. Empire is the first primetime scripted series since 1991 to grow in total viewers (it premiered to 9.8 million viewers, its most recent episode had 11.5 million) over each of its first five episodes. That’s a 23-year record.
A quick premise: Lucious Lyon (yes, that is his real name) decides to pit his sons against each other to see who will control his multi-million dollar hip-hop record company empire (see what they did there?) when he is diagnosed with ALS. Oh yeah, and his ex-girl and mother of his children, the wonderfully named Cookie, who stole the drug money that got his business off the ground? She’s back after serving 17 years in jail for him. And she’s pissed.
Empire isn’t as bright and sunny as Jane the Virgin, but that doesn’t mean it’s a serving of DDD. There is plenty of crazy to go around. Cookie seems to only own leopard print and fur. Someone gives a blowjob while wearing a bib. Lucious at one point utters on the phone: “Come on Barack, you know you don’t have to use that kind of language.” And that’s not even as good as this exchange: “Do you even know what a debutante is? A ho who can slice your throat without even disturbing her pearls.”
As I’ve been watching Jane the Virgin and Empire, I realized that I still love dramas. I just wanted their twists and turns to unravel organically from problems that affect people every day – rather than a needlessly rising body count (how many doctors have to die at Seattle Grace, Shonda?!)
Jane the Virgin and Empire wrestle with real issues that are almost nowhere to be found anywhere else on television right now, and they do so by brilliantly flipping the classic soap opera formula right on its face.
Most primetime serial soaps conventionally deal with very rich, very beautiful, very white (Dallas, Dynasty, Revenge) people who also may be very young and troubled (Melrose Place, Beverly Hills, 90210).
But Jane the Virgin focuses on a working-class Latino family who refuses to lose sight of what they have built for themselves, even as they struggle to hold on to those values when two very rich baby daddys come into the picture. The show also recently devoted an entire plot line to medical repatriation, an immigration issue affecting thousands of families in this country right now – how many TV execs would allow that very unsexy B story to fly?
And although Empire features the classic wealthy family, it lasers in on a number of important issues within the African American community. One of Lyon’s sons, Jamal, is gay, and his father refuses to accept his homosexuality – telling him he’ll never make it in the hip hop community. There is a brutal flashback scene where Lyon takes his young middle child, who had been walking around the house in heels, and sticks him into a trash can.
Empire is also more than okay with talking about race. Fame-hungry and rebellious Hakeem, the youngest brother in this King Lear-redux, at one point pees on the floor of a fancy restaurant while screaming at the other diners: “What? Y’all got a problem with some black boys in your fine establishment? All you white people who voted for the black president to make you feel good about not being racist, the jokes on y’all.” Hakeem gets plenty of press from the incident, but his father is furious – and not just because the president is pissed. “Do you know what kind of world we live in today?” he asks his son. “Do you have any idea what those cops could have done to you?”
When I went looking for something different to watch, it wasn’t that I didn’t want my television queue to make me think. If that was the case, I could have turned on any of the formulaic sitcoms that are still inexplicably being greenlit by broadcast TV and called it a day. Jane the Virgin and Empire are smarter than their soap pedigrees make them look. They have drama, sure – but it’s a creative kind grounded in reality, unafraid of using parody or musical interludes, happy to be something you can’t find elsewhere on TV.
They’re Different Diverse Dramas. Looks like I’m hooked on a new kind of DDD.