Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: never mind the title, just watch it
- Alex Johnston
- 21 October 2016
The musical comedy about mental health and cultural delusions returns for season 2
CONTAINS SPOILERS, FAMILY-UNFRIENDLY LANGUAGE AND REFERENCES TO ANAL WAXING
This Sunday sees the premiere on Netflix of the second season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, one of the best TV shows of last year, which defied its off-putting title, apparently unpromising premise and inexplicably low audience figures to win two Golden Globes and three Emmys, incidentally making a star of its co-creator and lead actor, Rachel Bloom.
Bloom's character, Rebecca Bunch, is a high-achieving young New York lawyer who, in episode one, finds herself having a panic attack when her firm offers her a partnership. In the street, she suddenly sees former high-school boyfriend Josh, who tells her that he can't handle the stress of New York life and is moving back to his home town of West Covina, California. Impulsively, Rebecca decides to quit her job and follow him there, in the belief that he will fall back in love with her and all her problems will be over. In short, Rebecca behaves like a character in a romantic comedy. Trouble is, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is not a romantic comedy: it's a clear-eyed look at the lies people tell themselves and others, the reasons why they tell them, and the trouble these lies cause them.
The show was created by Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna, writer / director of The Devil Wears Prada, who had seen Bloom's YouTube videos of her own darkly funny songs: 'Die When I'm Young' brutally deconstructs every trope its title suggests, 'You Can Touch My Boobies' dramatises the naive sexual fantasies of a twelve-year-old bar mitzvah boy, but the most famous one is her punky love ode to a great sci-fi writer, 'Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury'. McKenna contacted Bloom with the suggestion that they make a TV show called 'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend', about a character who was wrongly convinced that if she could just get back together with that one perfect guy, it would all be okay. But what makes the show memorable and lovable isn't so much its fundamental realism (HBO's short-lived Togetherness was just as realistic, but far less entertaining). It's the songs.
Every episode of CEG contains at least two original songs and, like any good musical, the songs happen whenever the characters have to communicate something and mere words aren't enough. They're what turn a potentially bleak story into something outrageous and original. Rebecca's decision to drop everything and follow Josh to West Covina is – objectively speaking – sad and deluded, but because she does it in song, as a wide-open-prairie, Rodgers & Hammerstein-style belter with mass dancing, we experience it the same way she does, not as the frantic act of a desperately unhappy woman but as something giddy and liberating.
Like all American comedies, CEG has a writer's room and Bloom doesn't write every episode herself, but significantly, she does write (almost) all the songs, most of them with in-house composer Adam Schlesinger; spot-on pastiches covering the history of popular song from Irving Berlin ('Settle For Me') to 80s hair metal ('Textmergency'), Motown ('Dream Ghost'), rap battle ('JAP Battle'), Nirvana ('I Could If I Wanted To') and Nicki Minaj ('I Give Good Parent'). The very first episode featured the audacious 'Sexy Getting Ready Song', a slinky R&B number in which Rebecca sings about making herself look good for her man, while at the same time putting her own body through physical hell: let's just say 'anal waxing' and 'blood splash'. Halfway through, as is the way with an R&B number, a rapper steps in to do a bit of broad-spectrum ho-ogling, but on seeing the array of products and devices lined up on Rebecca's bathroom counter he is genuinely horrified, declares it 'some nasty-ass patriarchal bullshit', and walks off, saying 'I gotta go apologise to some bitches. I'm forever changed after what I just seen.'
Rebecca isn't the only one with delusions. Having got a job with a West Covina law firm, she befriends co-worker Paula (played with great comic timing by Broadway actor Donna Lynne Champlin), who immediately distracts herself from her stale family life by deciding that she too is in a romantic comedy, casting herself as the wacky sidekick who's going to help her smart and glamorous new friend's dreams come true. Their relationship is cemented with Paula's song 'Face Your Fears', an inspiring gospel number consisting of incredibly bad advice: 'Stare at the sun!' 'Run with scissors!' 'Swim right after eating / 'Cause you are amazing!' Rebecca's nice-but-dim ex, Josh, has a foil in his best friend Greg (Santino Fontana, the voice of Prince Hans in Frozen), a sarcastic, underachieving bartender who naturally develops feelings for Rebecca and who gets to sing his own frustrations in episode six's bitterly funny Billy Joel pastiche, 'What'll It Be (Hey, West Covina)'.
Rebecca's pursuit of Josh is complicated by the presence of Josh's girlfriend Valencia, who's been waiting for years for him to make a serious commitment. Valencia is a high-maintenance, egotistical yoga instructor whose cheery folk-rock song 'Women Gotta Stick Together' is full of both vaguely uplifting feminist rhetoric and nasty insults to every specific woman she encounters while she's singing it, but she is shown to genuinely care for Josh, and is heartbroken when it looks like he might want to break up with her. In general, CEG's supporting characters are all given more depth than they would have in a conventional romcom. Rebecca's recently-divorced boss Darryl Whitefeather is a wonderful idiot, but his attempts to come to terms with his own sexuality are goofy and sweet, even if his Huey Lewis-style coming-out song 'Gettin' Bi' is one of the show's high points of comedic embarrassment. Her mother Naomi, played with steely ferocity by Broadway legend Tovah Feldshuh, introduces herself with the show-stopping klezmer number 'Where's the Bathroom?', which distils a particular type of controlling mother into three great minutes.
Over the course of season one the story grows darker, as Rebecca digs herself deeper into her delusion that if she can just get Josh, it'll fix everything. This delusion is what CEG is all about, as sharply demonstrated in episode 11. After a chain of blackly comic incidents for which she's responsible, Rebecca finds herself at a low point. She sings a heart-rending Whitney Houston-style power ballad called 'You Stupid Bitch', but the emotion itself, although real and painful, is out of proportion to the deed: her self-laceration ('You're just a lying little bitch who ruins things and wants the world to burn') comes from her chronic self-hatred and feelings of worthlessness, and she's no more honest with herself in this song than she is in any of the more obviously delusional numbers. Bloom has said that a lot of the show comes from her own struggles with anxiety and depression, and it's never more evident than here.
Bloom is very aware that it was her YouTube videos that got her noticed in the first place, and she repays her fans' loyalty by posting to her own channel all the songs from the show. Since the songs sometimes have to be bleeped or bowdlerised for network broadcast, she also posts the explicit versions. This pays off with a song like episode five's 'I'm A Good Person', in which, having done a minor good deed, Rebecca boasts to Greg about her own wonderfulness, all the while behaving like a complete asshole: trashing an expensive microphone, scattering people's food and eventually holding a knife to a man's throat and threatening to 'gut him like a fish' if his wife doesn't admit what a good person she is. The broadcast version is funny enough, but the explicit version has to be heard to be believed.
Rebecca herself, partly in spite and partly because of her flaws, is a very appealing character. Her helpless self-delusion damages the people around her, but she's also a skilled lawyer and an intelligent woman with a streak of massive goof; McKenna speaks admiringly of Bloom's utter lack of vanity as a performer. The creators say that the first season is merely the preface, and after the series of oh-god-no-don't-do-that twists in the season one finale, things are clearly going to get much worse before they get better. We can't wait.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend season 1 is available on Netflix; season 2 starts on Netflix on Sun 23 Oct.