“When was the last time you were truly happy?” The question is an advertising slogan for a brand of butter in the world of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a new musical comedy premiering Oct. 12 on The CW. But for Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), it’s more than a mad man’s come-on: It’s a needling reminder of… something. But what? Revelation arrives the day this miserably successful, pill-controlled lawyer is promoted to junior partner at a New York firm. It’s a dream come true — except it’s not her dream. Does she want it? Should she take it? Seeking divine counsel, she catches sight of a billboard for that damn nagging butter ad, promising happiness. It breaks, and draws her attention to a carefree stud walking-and-texting down the street. She knows him! He’s Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), a summer love from a magical season long ago, when she sang and danced in South Pacific at camp, when she experienced her “sexual awakening.” It was the last time she was truly happy.
Now all grown up and more hunky than ever, Josh tells Rebecca that he’s quitting the New York “rat race” after less than a year and retreating to his hometown of West Covina, California. The notion of rebooting captures Rebecca’s imagination. Josh, even more so. When he gives her shiny eyes and flirty attention (“I let a good one get away,” he says, smooth as margarine), she begins to hear South Pacific in her head. I’M IN LOVE! It’s like a heavenly chorus nudging her toward enlightenment… or maybe a siren call, luring her to the rocks. Either way, she can’t resist it. Suddenly Rebecca is ripping off her sensible suit jacket and running free, singing and twirling and feeling big feelings again. She’s Miguel de Cervantes from Man of La Mancha, reconnecting with his suppressed Don Quixote after an encounter with his beloved Dulcinea! Rebecca rashly abandons the life project of becoming a hotshot big city lawyer — her bitter, domineering mother’s dream, not her own — and wings it west to a land of a sun-scorched sports bars, outdoor malls, food courts and strip clubs, and as she insists in a song and dance sequence that presents this bland, smog-bound SoCal sprawl town as a fantasyland of possibility and personal reinvention: “It’s just by accident Josh is here!”
One the new season’s most promising shows, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is the creation of Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada, Morning Glory) and Rachel Bloom, a talented multi-hyphenate — actress, singer, writer, songwriter, filmmaker — and new media sensation who has gained a considerable following in recent years with online music videos like “F— Me Ray Bradbury” and sketches for Comedy Central’s Robot Chicken. She has great command of pop culture forms and wise, sharp takes on empowerment fantasy, and one of many delights about the pilot for Crazy Ex Girlfriend is that it resonates with her distinctive voice. That’s a meaningful, important thing for anyone who cares about the state of TV for many reasons, including the fact that the timber of TV auteurdom remains predominantly male. The CW would only give us the pilot, so guestimating potential is difficult. Pulling off original musical numbers each episode that are organic to the story and compelling on their own will be hard enough. Maintaining an admirably idiosyncratic personality when others — the network; even viewers — may want it to behave like a conventional rom-com might be more challenging. But what I’ve seen, I’m crazy for.
The pilot does as pilots do, setting up premise and introducing characters and inviting expectations, not all of which may be viable or valid. Upon arriving in West Covina, Rebecca begins searching for Josh, but instead finds his pal, Greg (Santino Fontana), a bartender who takes an instant shine to her, which she recognizes. Some mutual exploitation ensues; folly ensues. Rebecca also finds employment at a law firm, suggesting the potential for case-of-the-week plots, though none are featured in the pilot. The senior partner, Daryl (Pete Gardener), is an awkward-sweet urban rube prone to expressing queasy racial attitudes which he only kinda regrets.
The most interesting supporting character is Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin), a tenured paralegal who is immediately suspicious/jealous of the new, younger, more powerful woman with her designer shoes and the Ivy league pedigree. What’s she doing here? What’s wrong with her? What’s she running away from? Her fixation with solving Rebecca mirrors Rebecca’s fixation with landing Josh, and you expect her to play the role of illusion-buster, the shattering Knight of Mirrors to Rebecca’s errant, windmill-tilting idealist. Instead, Paula makes an enabling choice that lays bare the pilot’s best theme: how we turn people into idols, how we use and abuse their narratives for wish-fulfillment fantasy.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend lacks the glistening sheen of other TV musicals like Glee or Empire, or even its network companion, the hyper-pop telenovela Jane the Virgin. It skews toward the shaggy, indie comedy aesthetic of Portlandia, or more appropriately, Flight of the Concords. The pilot suggests each hour-long episode will only have a few musical moments. A scene may suddenly explode into a budget version Busby Berkeley set-piece, or suddenly pause for a character-revealing solo or relationship-building duet. Or it may segue into a psychological space, creating a stand-alone segment that plays like a sketch, which The CW can easily break off into bits of social media currency. Such is “The Sexy Getting Ready Song,” currently available online, which presents the work of primping for a man as hard, painful, degrading work. I love the rap break, in which the featured artist, a knowing stereotype, can’t finish after seeing Rebecca’s torture chamber bathroom. “This is some nasty ass patriarchal bulls—! You know what? I gotta go apologize to some b—es.”
Bloom is a winning delight as Rebecca. She throws herself into the comedy, the music, the poignancy, the madness. I hope she never sands off Rebecca’s edges, just as I hope she never loses sight of Rebecca’s humanity. That said, I’m sympathetic to anyone who considers the treatment of “crazy” in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to be problematic. We meet her as a teen, at that summer camp, beaming with raw enthusiasm during that South Pacific performance, excitedly mapping her future with Josh, not even trying to contain her vibrant, volatile internal world. She feels all the feels, intensely, somewhat desperately. “Weird” is Josh’s word for her. Scared is the look on his face. She’s more buttoned-up when we meet her as an adult — emotionally and sartorially — and we quickly learn why: She’s on medication. Might she have attempted some self-harm in the past? We wonder.
So she’s certifiably cracked. But Rebecca’s mental condition is also figurative. Her whole life has been an ironic “Sexy Getting Ready Song,” in that it has been spent Spanxing herself into a constricting identity fashioned by her mother, or so we are to believe. In the pilot, Mom is presented only as a voice — ruthlessly prodding her daughter toward professional glory, shaming Rebecca for her sabotaging flights of fancy, including her move to West Covina. (Is the voice an accurate representation of Mom? Or just how Rebecca experiences her? I’m sure we’ll find out.)
Going off script — and off her meds — is classic, regressive bipolar behavior; the whole pilot could be seen as an epic, spiraling manic episode. But popping the lid on her bottled-up self serves the story I suspect Crazy Ex-Girlfriend wants to tell, which isn’t about a desperate, obsessive dame bagging the one who got away (to borrow from South Pacific, I suspect she’ll eventually wash that man right out of her hair), but about our heroine recovering the aborted narrative of Summer Camp Rebecca and growing up anew, flailing and failing her way toward an authentic identity and her own definition of successful feminism. Regardless, I worry the show, like many shows, risks being too glib about Rebecca’s very real “crazy.” It’ll be interesting to see if Crazy Ex-Girlfriend digs deeper into — and continually earns — Rebecca’s damage, or if it forgets it, and hopes we will, too.
The show’s throwing-it-all-away-to-chase-a-guy-across-the-country premise recalls Felicity, a hit for The CW during its former life as The WB. For the young ones, Felicity was the thing we loved J.J. Abrams for before he went all mystery box and spacey with Alias and Lost, Star Trek and Star Wars. It was a coming-of-age saga about a young, still-forming woman pushing against her parents’ desires and figuring out her identity and future. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend tells the same story but with a poorly-formed 20-something, hitting the button on a long-delayed, much-needed adolescent rebellion.
But if you squint and pretend, you can see Crazy Ex-Girlfriend as a counterpoint to the man-child reboot fantasy of The Grinder. In that Fox sitcom, Rob Lowe stars as a lawyer — okay, a superstar actor who plays one on TV — who exits the Hollywood rat race and retreats to his Idaho hometown to reconnect with family, slow down, reprioritize. (His want is slightly disingenuous: In Boise, he finds a stage to live out his theatrical internal life and continue playing a role that gives him significance.) While his narcissism creates comic inconvenience and chaos, we admire him: His want for more humanity, for more relationship, for love and authenticity is heroic. Yet his midlife reboot costs him nothing. His wealth, accomplishment and surely, to some degree, his white male privilege allows him the luxury of dropping out and tuning up. There’s no reason to suspect, at present, that he couldn’t easily reclaim his high rung on the cultural ladder if he wanted it back.
By contrast, Rebecca’s downshift and mental break, so to speak, is fraught with career risk, viewed with suspicion and derision, and deemed… well, crazy. The response is more realistic. There’s a moment in the pilot, toward the end, when Rebecca comes this close to seeing herself as everyone else sees her, and it’s all she can to pull out of the nosedive before she crashes. You wonder, though, if she’ll have to before she can move on and up. I’m not sure how long Bloom and company can allow her to fly “crazy” before it becomes shitcky and tedious. For now, though, I roll with the wonderfully flawed, dementedly romantic Rebecca Bunch and her gonzo, trial and error journey toward authenticity and maturity. She’s my kind of grinder.