One of the wonderful things about writing TV shows instead of movies is the speed at which you can record a feeling or an experience. Movies take years and the pace is glacial, but in TV, as a writer, you’ll often find yourself, keys on the keyboard, drawing from your own personal life.
Heading into the fourth season on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the show I co-created with Rachel Bloom, a major milestone was looming in my life. My older son was headed off to college. And during that important time, I was lucky enough to have a show on the air to write about what that experience was like for me and, maybe, for others.
The character of Paula, brought to life so brilliantly by Donna Lynne Champlin, has a son, Brendan (played by Zayne Emory) about the same age as Charlie, my older son, and so a storyline about Paula and Brendan was born. On our show, Paula has had a different relationship with Brendan, an occasional delinquent who has a slight obsession with weapons, than I do with Charlie. But this season Paula has grown closer to Brendan, much in the way I’ve always been close to Charlie.
Charlie and I have always been tightly bonded. One year when he was 12 and headed off to summer camp, he asked me, “What are you going to do without someone here to finish your sentences?” By the time he was 18, we had become buds, like, actual friends, the luckiest thing that can happen to a parent, and so facing the prospect of him leaving for college was daunting. TV hours are long, but Charlie was, for years, always awake when I got home at 10, 11, 12 or even 1, ready for a late-night chat and goss. As we prepared to send him to school, I knew that my husband and younger son were going to miss him too, of course, but a mom’s love is an intense thing and I knew it would be brutal for me.
I also knew that Donna Lynne would play the emotion and dimension of this story perfectly. Donna Lynne and I have a special rapport, two ladies of a certain age, both moms of sons named Charlie, who have been in the biz a long time. She has always been very sensitive to the moments when she felt that the show was depicting, even indirectly, my relationship to my boys.
In this episode, I love Paula’s strength and courage and the way Donna Lynne brings them to life. Paula’s complete refusal, at first, to deal with what’s happening mirrored exactly what I was doing. I was buying folding duffels and sheets-in-a-bag and not thinking about him leaving. Paula, meanwhile, was reverting to her scheming ways, if only for a moment, clinging to the new happiness and closeness she had found with her boy.
As always, I felt so supported by the wonderful people on our show. Donna Lynne, knowing what I was going through, would squeeze my arm during table reads; she sent me kind texts checking in as we prepared to take Charlie to college and sent me a lovely gift when I returned. The episode writer, Ilana Peña, has been close to me for a long time, first as my assistant, then as our writers’ assistant, and now our staff writer. She’s been to many holidays at my house, knows my kids, and approached her work on this episode with her characteristic empathy, humanity and humor. Rachel, my creative partner on CXG, also knows Charlie well, having been part of our lives since he was 13, and she fully supported every aspect of this storyline.
The episode was directed by Erin Ehrlich, one of our executive producers, one of our secret weapons, a mom herself, and one of my favorite humans. As a writer, producer, and director, Erin has been by our side from day one and is responsible for some of the best moments on our show.
As always, the songwriters on our show, Rachel, Jack Dolgen, and Adam Schlesinger, wrote something marvelous and apt and funny and emotional for Paula to sing, a farewell song called “I Always Never Believed in You.” There is a comedic bite to the song, a ballad about a mom being surprised how capable her son is. My son was never a truant or a juvenile delinquent, but really, the song, to me, is about how wonderful and surprising it is to be a parent of any type of kid. You create these beings, at first they can do nothing on their own, and then one day they surpass both you and your expectations for them.
So, at the end of August, as 405 was starting prep, we dropped Charlie off at school. I wept through a lot of that weekend. (“Mom, stop with the waterworks!”) My sadness at seeing him go, though, was tempered by the joy of seeing him set free. He’s a great kid and the world is lucky to have him.
And when I returned from the trip, I was lucky enough to be with Donna Lynne when she recorded her song. My work hours don’t often let me be at pre-records, but I came in on a Saturday with Adam, who is also our brilliant executive music producer, and got to watch as DLC dialed in the just right blend of emotion and humor. Watching her sing is an awe-inspiring experience, her voice always truly a wonder to me.
The day Erin finally showed me the episode, it’s possible I ugly-cried in the editing room. (Reader, I did.) I love the song, the episode and not just Donna Lynne’s performance but Zayne’s as well. He acted his pants off in the whole episode, especially during the song where he had not a single line.
I hope Charlie watched it tonight. I also hope he was too busy to watch it. Either way, it’s a valentine to him, from his mom and from the wonderful people who work beside me and Rachel every day. I’m so grateful to them. And to all the moms who sent or are about to send their babies to college, I send you love, tissues and a tip: Foldable duffels are a marvelous thing.