Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is The CW’s goofy musical comedy about a woman who leaves a successful career as an attorney in New York City to follow her teenage camp boyfriend to California, where she schemes, stalks and debases herself to get his attention.
It’s also one of the most honest, precise portrayals of depression and anxiety you’ll ever see, and it will break your goddamn heart.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is the passion play of YouTube musical comedian and UCB alum Rachel Bloom. She’s the executive producer, showrunner (along with rom-com screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna) and song composer, among others. And she’s the star, playing Rebecca Bunch, a Harvard- and Yale-educated real estate attorney who sees the world through the rosy lens of musical theater.
Here’s the thing about the phrase “crazy ex-girlfriend” – it’s a sexist term, as Rebecca herself will object during her own opening credits. It also, in its most simplified definition, describes Rebecca Bunch. On the one hand, yeah, “she’s so broken inside,” but on the other hand, “the situation is a lot more nuanced than that.” With an absent father and an over-bearing mother, with history and genetics fighting it out for the title of “most plausible reason Rebecca can’t love,” we’re left with a seriously flawed, deeply compelling lead character who learns and grows as readily as she screws up and falls short. You know, like people do. Like we do.
“When things get tough, it’s how I understand the world. I imagine my life as a series of musical numbers,” Rebecca realizes during a long-delayed therapy session late in the season. Before this revelation, we don’t strictly have an explanation for why residents of West Covina, California, abruptly break into song, but we also don’t need it. West Covina is the mediocre paradise (only two hours from the beach!) where Rebecca follows her spontaneous obsession Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), and it’s also the place where Rebecca begins to understand who she is and what she wants – and then forgets again, and learns again, and messes up again, and starts all over again.
Here she meets people who understand her, sort of, as much as she’ll let them: Paula (Broadway star Donna Lynne Champlin), a bored coworker who grows to obsess over Rebecca’s pursuit of Josh even more than Rebecca herself, simply because it gives her something to do, Heather (Juilliard grad Vella Lovell), a too-cool-for-school neighbor and perma-community college student, Darryl (TV vet Pete Gardner), her kind-hearted, try-hard boss and Greg (Frozen’s Santino Fontana), the snarky bartender who both disdains Rebecca and adores her in equal measure.
And then, of course, there’s Josh Chan, the dim-witted, bright-eyed object of Rebecca’s unhealthy preoccupation. He’s a handsome, skateboarding Filipino bro, a manager at a Hawaiian-themed electronics store and a seemingly unlikely recipient for Rebecca’s single-minded love. But he is sweet, extremely sweet, and he possesses the same innocent affinity for the past that fills Rebecca’s days. Unfortunately, he’s been in a relationship for a decade and a half with an impossibly hot, fairly mean yoga instructor named Valencia (Broadway’s Gabrielle Ruiz), a small obstacle that Rebecca and Paula refuse to let deter them. Josh Chan will be Rebecca’s. They just might have to commit some petty larceny and light surveillance to bring her destiny to fruition.
Of course, the pursuit of Josh Chan is both an enormous and an irrelevant part of Rebecca’s journey. Josh Chan is a symbol. He’s representative of a time in Rebecca's life – musical theater camp, summer before her junior year – when life wasn’t quite as bleak and complicated. Of course, she already had suicidal tendencies, her dad had split on her years before and her mother verbally abused her at every turn, but that Rebecca was happy. Mostly.
The musical references in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are marvelously specific – not just nods to Broadway mainstays like Bernadette Peters and The Music Man’s Harold Hill, but also radio-friendly callbacks to pop, classic country, hip-hop and EDM, Taylor Swift to Beyoncé to Huey Lewis.
Bloom and McKenna have peopled their cast with immensely talented performers, and you don’t hire an actress like Donna Lynne Champlin unless you want Paula to bring down the house every other episode.
Josh Chan might be all Rebecca can think about, but it doesn’t take long for us to realize that Fontana’s Greg Serrano is the real prize here – an equally damaged, self-defeating prize. Four episodes in, we fall in love with Greg in the plaintive, embarrassing, heart-breaking ballad “Settle For Me.”
But the most powerful number in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s first season is Rebecca’s own “You Stupid Bitch.” Bloom explains in the soundtrack commentary (on Spotify, and if you’re anything like me you’ll spend every day listening to this after you’ve binged the first season) that she was afraid to write this song, this honest, scary admission into the depths of her depression, afraid that no one else actually feels this sort of black self-loathing or could understand it. “This was one of the most personal songs for me, because this is how I actually think about myself when I’m at my most depressed. And it was like, oh God, am I the only person who says this to themselves?” Maybe it’s revealing too much about me to say that I’ve rarely related to a song quite so emotionally, but if Rachel Bloom is brave enough to write the song, the least I can do is admit to connecting with it (and, okay, crying every time I hear it).
There’s something of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt here – an eccentric, upbeat frame for the darkest of human emotions. In Kimmy Schmidt, Kimmy’s facing with plucky resolution the effects of years of sexual and emotional trauma, whereas Rebecca’s worst enemy is herself, and she is a victim of her own feelings above all else. But she’s no less resolute, and no less plucky, no less likely to admit to herself that she may not be able to do this on her own, that this fresh start in a new city might not actually be the answer to all of her problems.
So yeah, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a silly show on The CW. It’s hilarious and raunchy and completely absurd. It’s also a fearless examination of what depression does to us, how it hobbles us and tricks us and leads us to believe in the worst in ourselves and in others. And while you’re laughing at Rebecca’s endless, idiotic mistakes, you’re also freeing yourself with the knowledge that, no, you’re not alone when you’re calling yourself a stupid, stupid bitch. And now you can sing it, too.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Season One is on Netflix. S2 debuts on The CW on October 21.