This fall I have once again found myself eating my words in regards to the CW’s Monday night lineup. Previously, I made the mistake of unfairly judging Jane the Virgin based on a hokey title and an off-putting premise. Nowadays, it is inarguably one of my favorite shows on television. When I first heard about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which came out of nowhere on the CW’s fall line-up after having been originally developed for Showtime, I scoffed once again. “What an offensive title. Way to give women a bad name. But ugh, it’s a musical, and I love musicals.” The night the first episode aired, I received multiple text messages asking me if I had seen the show because people were charmed and thought I would also like it. Combined with some fantastic reviews, this inspired me to begrudgingly turn on the pilot, unsure of what to expect. Once again, I learned my lesson. I need to trust in the CW, guys.
I am still not sold on the show’s title, although this interview with the show’s creator and star, the fantastic and talented Rachel Bloom, helped me see it in a different light and understand it is meant more ironically than condescendingly. Title aside, this show is a damn delight. It is wacky and weird, which is always the most direct path to my TV-loving heart, and the best way I can describe it is as a combination of Wonderfalls, Legally Blonde (the musical more so than the movie, I think), and Glee when it was good. The premise of the show seemed quite straightforward based on the early trailers and marketing—a girl, Rebecca Bunch (Bloom), has a chance encounter with an old flame and is inspired to leave her lackluster life behind and follow him clear across the country to try to win him back, Elle Woods style (she’s even a lawyer, and a damn good one at that). But I cannot stress enough that there is so much more to this show than meets the eye.
For starters, the element of the plot that came as the biggest surprise to me is that Rebecca quite literally struggles with mental illness. It is established early in the pilot that she takes medication for what appears to be clinical depression and anxiety, and there is even an allusion to a past suicide attempt. I immediately understood how and why this was conceived as a Showtime show. Mental illness is certainly no laughing matter, and this darker underlying reason for Rebecca’s rash decisions made me look at the entire show differently. I have previously discussed how strongly I feel about the importance of accurate depictions of mental illness on television while talking about Empire and Mr. Robot. While I love and respect the decision to make Rebecca a character struggling with mental illness, which Bloom has openly discussed battling herself, my biggest fear as the show moves forward is that they will let that darker aspect fade away. Any time this subject is tackled, particularly in a show that is so comedic, there is a very fine line to tread. There is an opportunity to say something really powerful here, and I hope the show does not shy away from what they have set up.
I can hear your protests—doesn’t the fact that she’s actually mentally ill make her position as the ‘crazy ex-girlfriend’ even more offensive, not just to women, but to people struggling with mental illness? I would argue it’s not offensive because, despite what the show’s marketing wants you to believe, Josh Chan (the perfectly clueless-seeming Vincent Rodriguez III) is not Rebecca’s primary motivation in life. Before she re-encounters him in the pilot, it is established that she is in dire need of a life change. Despite the fact that things seem to be going great on paper, she is deeply troubled, unhappy, and unsatisfied, and Josh simply motivates her to make the leap she’s been desperate for for a long time. While her often misguided efforts to fall back into Josh’s romantic horizons are certainly a major part of the story, they are far from the main point the show is trying to make. Rebecca is trying to figure herself out first and foremost, and Josh is a lens through which she is able to do so. The show is about her search for happiness and fulfillment so much more than it is about her search for a boyfriend. None of this came across in the show’s initial advertising, and I am thankful the buzz was strong enough for me to give it a chance and discover all it actually has to offer.
We need to talk about the musical numbers, because they have basically become the highlight of my week. The thing that impresses me the most is how incredibly versatile Bloom is as a performer and how the show is able to perfectly cover nearly every genre of music. Songs like the pilot’s “West Covina” and the most recent episode’s “Settle For Me” (performed by theater darling Santino Fontana, perhaps better known to the general public as Hans from Frozen) are traditional musical theater numbers—the latter even features tap dancing, which honestly just felt like straight-up pandering to me (I’m a sucker for a good tap dance number). Then you have “The Sexy Getting Ready Song” and “Feeling Kinda Naughty,” which are much more hip-hop/R&B inspired but also laugh-out-loud parodies—nearly every line is a riot. There’s also been a boy band number featuring multiple Josh Chans and an 11 o’clock number-feeling power ballad from supporting character Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin). There are typically three musical numbers per episode, and they are all in the context of inner monologues/fantasy sequences. This is no Glee or Smash where the musical numbers (sometimes) come in the context of actual performances. On Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the performances are simply beautifully weird, whimsical segues that make the show so unlike anything else currently on television.
The bottom line is this show is smart, funny, surprisingly deep, full of heart, and incredibly well-acted and written. It is worth mentioning that Bloom, who got her start as a comedian and singer, created the show along with Aline Brosh McKenna, who is known for her romantic comedy screenwriting work (The Devil Wears Prada, 27 Dresses, Morning Glory). The combination of these two women’s talents explains a lot about how they’re able to strike such a fun balance of comedy, charm, and whimsy. So please, do me a favor—set aside your bias and anger against the title. Forget the trailer you saw that does not at all represent everything this show is. Give it a chance—I really don’t think you’ll regret it.