The following article contains spoilers for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
The Sopranos. Breaking Bad. Mad Men. These were the shows that defined an era of television, and spawned an entirely new one. These days, it’s all about serialized narratives about broken people spiraling into oblivion. In this new age of binge-watching, it’s the age of the antihero. Audiences aren’t just becoming receptive to unlikeable protagonists, they actively want one.
In a post-Girls world, you can’t throw a pair of purposefully unflattering skinny jeans three feet without landing on a show about a selfish white woman the show claims we can all relate to. It’s an era for unlikeability. For complicated women. Specifically, white, upper-middle-class, straight(-ish*) women. (*They probably have a crush on a close female friend but it’s never actually addressed. Just another reason why they’re so #flawed and #quirky!)
Of course, with this new excess of Complicated Women Prestige, it’s hard not to feel the bloat in quantity weighing down the net quality of this kind of television. Sure, we’ll call shows like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel excellent television—but is it? Is it really? (No.) So when I tell people that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a CW show no less, was the best show of its era, I understand why my explanation of the plot can leave people feeling cynical. And that’s not even to mention the polarizing title.
If you haven’t seen the show, here’s a quick rundown of the plot: She was working hard at a New York job making dough, but it made her blue. One day she was crying a lot, so she decided to move to West Covina, California—brand new pals and new career. It happens to be where Josh lives, but that’s not why she’s here. She’s the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend! (What? No she’s not.) She’s the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. (That’s a sexist term.) She’s the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; she’s so broken inside. (Uh, the situation’s a lot more nuanced than that?) C-R-A-Z-Y: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
Rebecca Bunch (played by co-executive-producer/everything-else Rachel Bloom) is exactly the type of character I just described, down to the ambiguous, coquettish bicuriousity. And she’s Walter White, and Tony Soprano, and Don Draper. And also something that feels entirely unique. Though her arc almost pays homage to the narrative structures of shows like Breaking Bad—wherein each scene is a domino and the telos progresses the way it’s cut: one before the other—unlike Walter White, Rebecca actually develops self-awareness.
At some point, the show goes from showing her spiraling into oblivion, to actually working to improve herself. That shift happens mid-season 3, and it’s a very tricky thing to attempt, so in retrospect, I may be able to excuse it for some of its rockier moments (but I’ll never forgive them for their overexposure of Nathaniel; out of all the flaws with the show, the attention unduly focused on him is my primary gripe always). Like showrunner Aline Brosh McKenna states in Oh My God: I Think It’s Over, “One of the most weirdly daring things that [the head writers] decided to do was to show someone getting better.”
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has many theses, all of them challenging. It’s a deconstruction and outright admonishment of rom-coms and Disney movies, of the “romantic” tropes we (i.e. women) are fed as children that inform our worldview as adults and distill our notions of happiness through the lens of patriarchy. It does this in a way that has never been done before, eschewing the topical tropes of liberal feminism to actually dig beneath the surface instead of just instilling a shallow “girl power” message; that alone makes it must-see TV. Furthermore, it actually addresses mental illness in a constructive way by providing Rebecca with a tangible diagnosis for Borderline Personality Disorder. On its portrayal of disability, Ylva Söderfeldt writes the following:
“In the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend universe, mental illness is inseparable from the social and cultural context in which it emerges. At the same time, however, it does not write off emotional pain as ‘just a social construction,’ but presents it as a very real, tangible, and common type of suffering. Medicine does provide some answers to it, but not all.”Goodbye “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”, the show that revolutionized popular depictions of mental illness
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend also exists to challenge the archetype of the selfish white woman by asking us, whose lives is she affecting as she hurtles through the beautiful suburb of West Covina? Surely for an avalanche to gain mass, it must pick up collateral on the way. And it does. Every character who inhabits West Covina– a sort of purgatory for happiness– is irrevocably changed by Rebecca’s influence in it. At first, generally, for the worst, and then, ultimately, for the better.
Paula Proctor (Donna Lynne Champlin) and Valencia Perez (Gabrielle Ruiz) are two of the most unique characters to inhabit the television landscape. We’ve never seen them before, and I doubt we’ll see them again, at least not for a very long time. Paula is someone who’d exist in the background of any other TV show: she’s not someone who we’d deem typically beautiful––even for a white woman, her family life is tedious, she works hard as a paralegal, and she’s bored. But don’t mistake her boredom for her being boring. Over those four seasons, we grow from loathing Paula’s toxic enabling of Rebecca’s obsession to adoring every scene she appears in. (It helps that Donna Lynne Champlin is staggeringly talented.) I’ve never seen a character quite as special. If Rebecca is the show’s white protagonist who represents a kind of reconstructive, analytical feminism, Paula being given the narrative space she does makes her the quietly revolutionary white woman of the series.
I mention that they’re both white because herein lies the problem. There are two other prominent female characters in the show: Heather Davis (Vella Lovell) and Valencia Perez. They are both women of color. And while the fact that they’re both given the narrative space they are is already revolutionary––don’t get me wrong––they kind of dropped the ball on these two amazing characters. Heather, a community college student who radiates cool and disaffected (and who also exacerbates Rebecca’s white guilt) ultimately gets married and gets a corporate job. And of course, because Heather is Heather, she points this out, and it is still clear that she does not approve of the patriarchal and capitalist institutions she tacitly supports. She also carries a baby for a white guy she barely knows, just because she’s chill enough to move the plot along with a shrug and a sigh. A running joke was Heather’s go-to line whenever she was questioned: “I’m a student?” punctuated with a California-affected questioning lilt. She is eventually forced to graduate, after the dean of her college notes that she “took men’s hockey… twice,” and she begins to question her future in what might be the most millennial song possible.
But not once does she consider pursuing academia. Unlike Paula, who realizes and achieves her dream of becoming a successful lawyer (and it’s incredible), Heather rises up the corporate ladder of a baseball-themed restaurant chain she’s not actually passionate about as a business, other than to prove that she’s so competent she’s capable of improving it. But Heather’s competence was never in question. Why, for a show so intent on deconstructing the sexist myths that uphold society and tell women that this is their one path to happiness, do they force Heather, kicking and screaming, into having an elaborate wedding and a baby? Admittedly, she delivers someone else’s baby, but still.
Why couldn’t Heather have identified her stagnation as a community college student, and used her motivation to further her life by recognizing that she is passionate about academia? Grad school is a thing, you know. If her problem was that she was aimless and couldn’t commit, grad school seems like a pretty big commitment, while also being in line with her values: those of observing and analyzing everything around her. When was the last time we let an impossibly cool, effortlessly beautiful, perceptive and intelligent black woman become an academic? I love Heather Davis, and I love Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, but in retrospect, I think more thought and care could have been put into the conclusion of her arc.
Furthermore, Valencia Perez had the potential to be revolutionary. Well, don’t get me wrong, she was revolutionary. More revolutionary, I should say. Valencia begins the show with her entire future mapped out before her: marry her high school boyfriend (and Rebecca’s love object) Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), teach yoga, never eat carbs, have 2.5 kids and a white picket fence, and maybe a dog because Josh definitely loves dogs, even though she definitely does not.
Rebecca hurtles into her life by befriending her, trying to kiss her, and then betraying her by revealing it was all a scheme to get closer to Josh (whether Rebecca would admit that to herself or not). We then see Rebecca’s side of the story: She decides she’s going to get revenge on Valencia (for what exactly, it’s not questioned) and then we learn that Valencia doesn’t want Josh spending time with Rebecca alone, which throws a wrench into Rebecca’s plans to…get him alone. Isn’t Valencia the worst? She’s so possessive, and jealous, and controlling! (Her feelings on the matter? Oh, well, what should we care––she’s The Bitch!) The first season ends with Valencia realizing that she cannot let herself be dragged around in Josh’s bullshit, so she finally cuts him free and leaves. This, of course, allows for Josh and Rebecca to make out on the hood on a fancy red convertible, and furthers the plot considerably. Meanwhile, the season picks up right where the finale left off, and Valencia’s role is not questioned.
So that’s what makes her return so incredible. Unlike in “Josh’s Girlfriend Is Really Cool!”, “Why Is Josh’s Ex-Girlfriend Eating Carbs?” actually lets Rebecca and Valencia develop a real friendship. And for the rest of the show, Valencia remains one of Rebecca’s closest friends and an integral part of the cast. Valencia realizes that the life she’d always planned for herself, with Josh and that white picket fence, isn’t actually what she wanted, but what she’d told herself she’d wanted, and instead she becomes a high-powered wedding planner, and eventually, proposes to a woman, all while never losing her trademark bitchiness, which we now find endearing. If the concept of a homophobic lesbian isn’t funny enough, Ruiz’s delivery of otherwise fairly mundane lines will have you on the floor. Her talent is incredible.
But underutilized. As Valencia’s season 2 arc comes to a close, it becomes pretty evident in season 3 that the writers don’t exactly know what to do with her. This likely comes from the writers’ room being overwhelmingly populated with straight women, who, while excellent at writing straight women, fumble a bit when finally forced to write a lesbian. And to be clear, Valencia is a lesbian. As much as the showrunners will try and claim that she’s subtle bisexual representation, it is disingenuous to both groups of women (the L’s and the B’s, respectively) to act as if there exist large swaths of bisexual women who feel unfulfilled by their relationships with men. Valencia is not “sexually fluid.” Heather, in all her beflanneled glory, is sexually fluid. A casual admission of Heather’s bisexuality would be excellent subtle bisexual representation.
But Valencia has never been fluid about anything, and that even includes her yoga moves. Fortunately, because the show mostly ignores the latter half of her arc, they mainly don’t manage to screw it up too badly. But perhaps they should’ve consulted actual queer women of color before they acted like they could speak on the part of certain LGBT experiences with such authority. Darryl realizes he’s bi, comes out with the world’s catchiest song, and it’s wonderful, but for some people (like Valencia), coming to terms with your attraction to the same gender is messy, and hard, and can’t just be exposited in a montage. Valencia– and Heather– deserved more, dammit.
Oh, but have I mentioned the songs? I think “Will Scarsdale Like Josh’s Shayna Punim?” is a particular series high musically-speaking, as it not only includes “We’ll Never Have Problems Again,” which is incredible in every way possible, but also “Remember That We Suffered,” the Jewiest anthem of all time. (Starring Patti Lupone, Tovah Feldshuh, and that guy from Rachel’s Sugar Ray jukebox musical!) No joke, I’ve played it every Seder since it aired.
I could list some other series highlights, but as they wrote over one hundred songs for the show, and almost all of them are deeply excellent, it would prove to be quite a long list. The talent on display from Adam Schlesinger, Jack Dolgen, and of course, Rachel Bloom herself in these songs shines through, and there’s always at least one song that can get me to hook someone. For me, it was the moment when my best friend sent me “JAP Battle.” (What can I say, every Jew joke lands!)
Kathryn Burns is also an excellent choreographer, and it would be a damn shame not to recognize just how much work she must have put into the show to make the songs seem so effortless. Any number in particular wherein Vinnie gets to dance holds a special place in my heart, and so should it in yours, too.
There’s so much more one could say about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. It’s a show that helped so many people, and inspired so many more. For all its flaws and fumbles, it could never have been perfect, because it was too ambitious for that. It was too clever, and thoughtful, and challenging to simply be “perfect.” It was art that boldly went where no media has gone before. It dared to ask questions that we simply don’t ask, and then it dared to attempt to answer them. And I think, for the most part, it did.
We end on a shot of Rebecca’s smiling face as she begins to play an original composition for an audience of all the people she inspired since moving to West Covina (and some randos who are also there for the Open Mic, but she loves them too, she loves that top). Her smile is one of pride, and excitement, and the giddiness that comes with passion, not for a person, but for a creative pursuit. She is finally in control of her own narrative, and we’ve been there the whole time to witness how far she’s come. Unlike Tony Soprano, when the screen cuts to black for the final time, her miserable fate doesn’t hang in the balance; she has nothing but light ahead of her.
While it’s been hard trying to sell people a show called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend all these years, especially once you mention it’s a musical (though I always assure them that I hate musicals—no offense Rachel—and yet I love every single song), in the immortal words of one multi-hyphenate talent who worked harder than anyone else in television to produce a thoughtful piece of media that critically challenged its audience as well as entertained it, “Just watch the show you fucking assholes.”