Prestige TV – those water-cooler shows, which are usually gritty and dramatic – is TV that leaves you on the edge of your seat. It excites, it moves, it challenges. Rarely, however, does it delight. By contrast, Boys Over Flowers (Hana Yori Dango) and Jane the Virgin may never be considered great art, but if you’re prepared to follow them down the rabbit hole, they offer a viewing experience designed to provoke seal claps and undignified squeaking. They are, in short, delightful.
Rollercoaster of ridiculousness
Boys Over Flowers is a 2005 live-action Japanese series that’s a little like Gossip Girl, with some My Fair Lady mixed in for good measure. Poor-but-feisty Makino becomes embroiled with the intimidating F4 clique, accidentally making an enemy of Domyouji, the richest, moodiest, most popular boy at her fancy private school. (If you guessed that enmity quickly turns to love, then congratulations, you just passed Soap Storytelling 101.)
Flowers requires no small amount of suspension of disbelief. The fairytale that the hottest guy in school would pick an Eliza Doolittle to date isn’t even the most inexplicable aspect of the show. (More inexplicable, surely, is the fact that the sickest clique in school spends most of its downtime playing mah-jong…) Flowers is a rollercoaster of ridiculousness and you’d better just hang on for dear life and enjoy it.
Meanwhile, Jane the Virgin, a 2014 American remake of a Venezuelan telenovela, ratchets up the level of ridiculousness even further. Jane, a waitress and teacher in training, is accidentally impregnated during a medical mix-up. And, oh, guess what? She’s a virgin! And, oh, guess what else? The father of the baby is a hot, rich guy with whom she once shared a magical kiss!
Virgin, like Flowers, makes a success of its “wait… what?” premise by delivering silliness with a canny mix of irony and realism. The shows don’t take themselves too seriously, but what they do take seriously is their characters’ lives. Here, the action may be preposterous, but the emotions feel real. Some of Flowers’ best scenes occur during Makino and Domyouji’s ill-fated first date, which sees them trapped in an elevator and barely escape death. It’s ludicrous stuff, but what’s genuine is the connection forged between the two characters.
A new wonderland
Both Virgin and Flowers seem to exist in their own little bubble; their own wonderland. And what’s stark is how far removed from the rest of the TV landscape this wonderland feels. For all its American glossiness, Virgin feels decidedly atypical, and it’s this differentness that seems to have won fans (and even a Golden Globe for its star Gina Rodriguez). Flowers, which started life as a manga series and has been made and remade all across Asia, shares a distinctly non-Western flavour. Although the US remake of Flowers seems to have been so minor as to count as non-existent, I can’t help but think that the US and the UK should be looking to remake more of these kinds of shows.
Indeed, perhaps Virgin’s critical success will herald a new trend in smart remakes of non-Western shows. Either way, the Internet largely renders this point moot. It’s never been easier to watch TV from across the world, thanks to YouTube, which (for example) offers the entire run of Flowers (with subtitles) to stream. The fact that I’m just now discovering the ten-year-old Flowers is proof that new media platforms lengthen the visibility of good TV shows. (Er. Or something. Maybe I’m just really late to the party?)
A word of caution, however. The reason few shows like Virgin and Flowers exist within the demanding US TV schedule, where 22 episodes a year must be produced, may lie in the fact that delight is less easy to manufacture than action or drama. It seems to owe more to indefinable magic than sure-fire formula.
Flowers relies heavily on the natural charisma of its stars, Mao Inoue and Jun Matsumoto, and much of its delightfulness derives from their easy chemistry. Similarly, Virgin lives and dies by the charm of Gina Rodriguez. And, I would add, how much you root for central couple of Jane and Rafael might depend on how much you like actor Justin Baldoni.
The other brutal fact is that night-time soap operas can run out of steam quickly (my own viewing schedule is littered with the corpses of shows like Revenge and Scandal, whose ridiculousness I simply grew tired of). Flowers’ canon is limited to two short seasons and a movie, but Virgin needs to find a way to sustain its magic over 22 episodes a year, for an indefinite period. Let’s hope it manages to do so.
Hipsters should note that Gina Rodriguez’s Golden Globe win means that it’s now acceptable to watch Virgin, which is unexpectedly earning real cachet. However, I’ve never needed an excuse to indulge in pure enjoyment. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have another episode of Flowers to watch…
Jane the Virgin airs on The CW in the US, and is scheduled to begin on E4 in the UK this year. You can watch the whole of Boys Over Flowers, with English subtitles, on YouTube.