Let’s get this out of the way; Crazy Ex-Girlfriend isn’t the most alluring title for a television series. Out of context, it implies a sense of degradation and cliche that may not immediately invite people to give the show a chance. At least that’s what I assumed when first hearing that this show would be on the new fall schedule for The CW, likely to be a forgettable comedy series that uses a sexist stereotype for unfair comedic derision. Then I recognized the star/co-creator of the show Rachel Bloom, an actress, writer & singer who’s worked on shows like Robot Chicken and Bojack Horseman. However, most will likely recognize her as the face behind several hysterical internet videos, most notably Fuck Me Ray Bradbury, a musical tribute to the legendary science fiction writer and the singer’s desire to enjoy his carnal pleasures by performing a bit of—to quote the song—“Fahrenheit 69.” Her videos (along with uncensored versions of all the songs featured on the show) can be viewed on her YouTube channel RachelDoesStuff, all of which showcase her impeccable talent for sharp comedic timing and diverse musical song writing.
These skills are expertly implemented into Crazy Ex-Girlfriend in which Rachel plays Rebecca Bunch, a Harvard graduate lawyer working at a major firm in New York at the start of the pilot. After she was pushed into being a career girl by her overbearing mother & the looming hole left by her absent father, Bunch feels depressed and unhappy in her life as she calms her anxieties with a variety of pills. While in a depressed state started by oddly specific butter commercials (“When Was The Last Time You Were Happy?”), Rebecca calls back to the last time when she really was happy; ten years previous when she was a fresh faced teen at a performing arts summer camp with her summer fling Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III). As luck would have it, Rebecca sees Josh walking down the street and attempts to catch up, only to find that Josh will be moving back to his hometown of West Covinia, California after a failed new start in New York. Hearing this, Bunch has a psychotic break, resulting in an extremely rash decision to dump her chance to become partner at her prestigious law firm and move to West Covina for what she claims is a “change of pace” and not an attempt to get closer to Josh. There, she becomes a big fish in the small pond of a local law firm and slowly accumulates friends, including depressed paralegal Paula (Donna Lynn Champlin), lonely sports bar bartender Greg (Santino Fontana), her recently divorced boss Darryl Whitefeather (Pete Gardner) and Josh’s territorial girlfriend Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz). This “change of pace” is elaborated on in the introductory musical number of the series, titled after the city:
Much of what was described there really shouldn’t coalesce into a consistent whole. Yet, Rachel Bloom and her writers manage to bind the show together by acknowledging the self destructive tendencies of the protagonist and show off the consequences of her ill advised delusions. Rebecca Bunch usually means well and has a spry sense of fun to her even at her worst, but Rebecca still clearly has severe anxieties brought on by her crushing upbringing. She’s clearly stunted on an emotional level from the point when her father left and her mother started putting so much pressure on her, causing Rebecca to seek approval in other ways, particularly with her determined competitive edge that seeps from her professional life into her personal life in an unhealthy fashion. This seems to be where the influence of Bloom’s co-creator and The Devil Wears Prada screenwriter Aline McKenna comes in. Their styles firmly merging in a seamless fashion, molding Rebecca into a three dimensional character that clearly has some sort of unspecified mental disorder while having the gumption to at least put herself out there on a consistent basis. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend walks a similar tight rope with many of the supporting characters on the show. Paula, being a lonely housewife who can’t really relate to her sons or husband, immerses herself in Rebecca’s love life as a project to escape her stagnant home while confusing her enabling of Rebecca’s horrible decisions with the kind of romantic comedy sidekick schtick that other shows or movies might encourage. The same sort of dichotomy can be found in Greg’s sarcastic back & forth with Rebecca that masks his own lack of confidence in his dreams to leave West Covina or Josh’s bright face & cheery attitude hiding his own deep seeded Catholic guilt that keeps him with the overbearing Valencia.
All of these problems are wonderfully displayed through the previously mentioned musical numbers, which are mainly presented through Rebecca’s filter of the world that condenses it all to a simple batch of musical notes, though Greg and Paula have had their own flashes of musical numbers themselves. Each song is clearly presented as a mental inner expression of the characters’ desires, whether it be Rebecca’s obsession with the approval of others via I’m A Good Person, Greg’s hopes that Bunch will give up on her dreams with Josh & go for him through Settle for Me or Paula’s sudden thrill of being romantically fawned over by a potential client at the law firm (Cedric Yarborough) with He’s Preferred. Bloom’s work on these musical numbers is inspired by a variety of sources, from Fred Astaire musicals of the 1930s to massive Bollywood productions to late 1990s glossy boy band hits. This mixture of styles not only serves as spot on parody, but give a humorous context to frame these people’s problems through hilariously skewed perspectives. Rachel Bloom’s use of these numbers could easily be compared to the likes of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who broached controversial subjects, complex emotional arcs and genuine story progression in musical form in projects like South Park and Book of Mormon. It helps that the cast is full of musical talents, given Donna Lynn Champlin’s extensive stage work and Santino Fontana’s vocal work as Hans the prince in the blockbuster hit Frozen. They all convey an appropriate sense of earnestness that gives the songs the appropriate emotional weight for the characters, but not without sacrificing the inherent comedy, even when said numbers extend the show to an hour long format. This length rarely works for comedy shows, but then again Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is all about defying expectations.
Despite being only seven episodes into its life span, there’s a lot to unpack about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Even with a title that would likely send most folks running, the show has managed to develop a small yet loyal fanbase on The CW, to the point where it recently received a full season order. That speaks to what a network like CW is willing to do in terms of taking a genuine chance on a show this unconventional for even its own network, along with the zombie comedy iZombie. The show was originally pitched to Showtime, but the lack of expletives doesn’t hurt it whatsoever. If anything, it only strengthens the potential for it to reach a slightly wider audience who could engage in the hilarious ensemble, complex characters and delightful songs for every episode. Rachel Bloom is one of the more underrated talents currently working in the television industry and deserves so much support for her unique vision. In all honesty, it’s one of the best shows to premiere in the 2015-2016 TV season and is totally worth your time. So give it a chance. After all… that’s just part of being a good person. And you are a good person, aren’t you?