Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: a Netflix UK gem well worth your time
Don't let the pink hearts and rom-com title put you off; Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is inventive, nuanced, cleverly written comedy drama...
So, you’ve finished season 4 of Orange Is The New Black, you’re coming to the end of Stranger Things and you don’t fancy watching the whole of Community again for the tenth time. What should you binge next? Well ladies and gents, allow me to introduce you to the genius that is Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend centres on the life of Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom, who also has creator and executive producer credits for the show). Rebecca is a high-flying lawyer, pegged for a partnership position in her firm but she’s also suffering from depression and after a chance meeting with Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), Rebecca’s one time Summer Camp boyfriend, she makes a decision to follow him across the country to West Covina, California (“Just two hours from the beach, four hours in traffic”), but not before she’s burst into song about it…
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend lives somewhere in amongst the new breed of quasi-comedic dramas that have emerged in the last few years with the likes of Transparent, Master Of None and BoJack Horseman. On the surface the show looks like a re-tread of New Girl but in reality it’s kind of the love child of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (a joke packed comedy that’s about something rather dark) and You’re The Worst or Girls (deeply flawed characters who struggle to check their privilege). It’s a hard show to pigeon hole but it’s really easy to like.
The first thing that strikes you about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (aside from the songs, we’ll get to them) is how fantastically written it is. The script is working on so many levels; pithy one liners, emotional character work and straight-up solid storytelling. Quality of writing is something that’s easily taken for granted so it’s worth pointing out how seamlessly Crazy Ex-Girlfriend navigates its many tonal and dramatic shifts episode to episode, whilst keeping us entertained with sparky, consistently funny dialogue.
The second thing that’s so notable is Rebecca. She is one of the most relatable characters on TV right now; she’s an antihero and a seriously flawed one at that. She’s in denial about her mental health issues, she’s terrible with money, she’s a pathological liar, she gets taught a lot of lessons yet never actually learns from them, but despite that, you still root for her. She’s smart, funny, she sends very personal texts to the wrong people (who among us has not experienced a textmergency/texttastrophe/messagepocalypse?), she isn’t afraid to sing about the ugly reality of getting ready for a night out and her quest for love is painfully recognisable to so many of us. Bloom imbues the character with the right amount of heart to balance her complete lack of self-awareness; Rebecca straddles the divide between brilliance and idiocy, and for that I can’t help but love her. Rebecca is such a force in the show that it’s easy to assume that the other characters will simply fall into her orbit but they don’t. Josh, the object of Rebecca’s affections, could so easily have been the pretty, dumb guy onto whom Rebecca projects her desire to be loved but what the writers have astutely done is pitch him as a genuine, likeable guy with non-Rebecca related problems to do with his girlfriend (Gabrielle Ruiz’s turn as Valencia is fantastic) and his rejection of change. Similarly, Josh’s best friend Greg (Santino Fontana, you may not recognise his face but you’ll know his dreamy vocal stylings from the animated behemoth Frozen), isn’t just a grumpy, sexy archetype, he’s got issues of his own. At no point is any character permitted to be glorified set dressing, every one of them has depth.
While the set up for the show is possibly the most used trope in sitcom history, a love triangle, Carrie, Aiden and Mr Big this ain’t. The show goes to every length to subvert your expectations taking the story in surprising directions and keeping the audience on their toes. Despite the connotations of the title, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is as much about familial, platonic and self-love as it is about the romantic kind. Whilst it’s tempting to pick sides (I’m #TeamGregButOnlyWhenHesWorkedThroughHisIssues in case you were wondering) the reality is that first and foremost we’re all on #TeamRebeccaNeedsToSortHerOwnShizOutBeforeSheCanEvenContemplateGettingInARomanticRelationship.
What’s so special about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is how the show uses everything in its arsenal to point out the absurd dichotomies we live with every day; particularly the ones felt by women. Rebecca occupies that space many women do where she was brought up on fairytales that told her to be a princess but she’s living in a world that’s telling her she has to be a boss but still conform to a societal ideal of femininity. As co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna said in an interview with Think Process, “She wants to be crazy in love and she wants the fantasy and the fairy tale, and she’s been told by the culture that she has to be Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sheryl Sandberg and Beyoncé and [Princess] Jasmine”. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend never fully endorses any of those options, rather points out the ridiculousness that we live in a world that expects women to be all these things at once.
Speaking of all things at once, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a comedy/drama with a healthy dose of musical thrown in for good measure. Bloom has been writing fantastic comedic songs for years (have a look at her Youtube channel, my favourite is the NSFW tribute to author Ray Bradbury), but here she flawlessly incorporates them into a narrative. Some are funny, throwaway tunes like Heavy Boobs (“Each of my double D’s has the volume of a toddler’s head”) or Sex With A Stranger (“Hey Sexy Stranger, come back to my place, and I hope you’re not a murderer”), some are astute take downs of messages peddled by modern pop music like the female empowerment anthem Put Yourself First (“So when dudes see you put yourself first, they’ll be like ‘Damn you’re hot, lets buy a house in Portland”) and others carry a bit more emotional heft. Depictions of mental illness on TV have come on leaps and bounds in the last few years but I have seen nothing as brilliant, heart-breaking and terrifyingly familiar as the song You Stupid Bitch. It’s an ode to self-loathing that is as painful as it is funny.
You Stupid Bitch and the ‘textmergency’ are both in episode 11, That Text Was Not Meant for Josh! which is one of the stand outs of season 1. Also worth noting is episode 4, I’m Going On A Date With Josh’s Friend! (which features the Emmy nominated Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers homage, Settle For Me) and the It’s a Wonderful Life/A Christmas Carol inspired episode 15, Josh Has No Idea Where I Am!. They are the jewels in the crown of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s inaugural season but, even when it’s not firing on all cylinders, there is something to love in every episode. It’s almost impossible to cover everything that makes Crazy Ex-Girlfriend as good as it is in as few words as this. It’s a great comedy, a great drama, it’s unapologetically feminist, it’s a sharp look at mental illness, it’s fantastical but painfully honest and the songs are brilliant. Don’t be put off by the title or the promotional pictures of pink heart balloons, the situation’s a lot more nuanced than that.