This feature contains spoilers for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, up to but not including the series finale.
As geek TV goes, the CW has a pretty great track record for letting shows run. Outside of their comic book shows, they’re the network that gave Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna the space to tell the whole story of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend over a full four seasons, as planned, in spite of being (as bluntly as co-creator Bloom once put it) “the lowest-rated show on network television.”
Originally developed for Showtime, the series was by no means a dud, garnering awards nominations, rave reviews, and devoted fans throughout its run. But network television isn’t always the most hospitable place for shows like these and a big part of its appeal, now that we’ve seen the recent season four finale, is that it is actually a complete story.
It starts when depressed hotshot lawyer Rebecca Bunch (Bloom) spontaneously decides to move from New York to the small town of West Covina in California. This comes after a chance meeting with her teenage crush Josh Chan, (Vincent Rodriguez III) who happens to live there, but as she keeps saying, that’s not why she’s moved.
While absolutely not obsessing over him, she makes friends with Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin) and Darryl (Pete Gardner) and Heather, (Vella Lovell) she flirts with misanthropic barman Greg, (Santino Fontana, at first) and she actually might just still have feelings for Josh, after all? Oh, and every once in a while, everyone bursts into song.
Boasting an eclectic cast of characters and an even wilder, genre-spanning soundtrack of original comedy songs, the comedy-drama series takes a frank look at sex, relationships, and mental health, with specific relation to the conventional romantic comedy form. It’s a funny show, and it can even be a romantic show at times, but a generic show, it ain’t.
Despite its fantastical format, it’s a show that’s more concerned with what characters would do in this situation than what they should do. For all of its chirpy, quirky affectations, this is a worthy genre deconstruction and it’s fascinating to look at how Rebecca and the other characters are developed through the music and the writing over the course of all four seasons, from their theme songs onwards.
“She’s so broken inside”
Each season of the show has its own theme song and starting from the second episode, season one gives us a chirpy, animated opener, in which live-action Rebecca argues with a cartoon chorus about whether or not a “crazy ex-girlfriend” is a sexist trope (“The situation’s a lot more nuanced than that”). It’s a catchy sitcom standard with a twist, in much the same way as every other song in the show puts its own spin on the genre in which it’s operating.
The first episode reveals the show’s eclectic musical range right off the bat, starting with “West Covina,” a full-on Broadway number, and then moving onto “The Sexy Getting Ready Song,” a whispery, Autotuned pop hit that comes complete with a guest rapper who is made aware of his own patriarchal biases and excuses himself to go and “apologize to some bitches.”
Beyond the musical comedy, the rom-com elements are almost immediately deconstructed, with a protagonist built for long-form storytelling rather than the quick happily-ever-after she’s looking for. Rebecca’s various mental health problems aren’t lightweight obstacles that can be blown aside in 90 minutes, but wind up being teased out over a longer run of episodes.
Likewise, we’re never expected to fully buy into Rebecca’s self-centred narrative. Indeed, her long-suffering therapist Dr. Akopian (Michael Hyatt) is constantly telling her to examine her own choices. Unlike the stock characters that some of West Covina’s residents are designed to resemble, everyone has a different point of view and, as we learn over the course of the season, some issues of their own.
Josh is not the idealized guy that Rebecca has imagined in their 15-year estrangement and his fiancée Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz) isn’t just a shallow, gorgeous antagonist who’s getting in the way of true love. More pressingly, Greg is apparently set up as the “friend who was there all along” throughout the first season, but when he and Rebecca do get together later in the season, his own issues with alcoholism and anger management serve to flummox that potential happy ending.
On top of that, the first season arc finds Paula living vicariously through her new friendship, using all of the skills and resources at her disposal to repeatedly cross the line in Rebecca’s own love life, as an escape from her own humdrum life. Every character has a fleshed-out inner life and we come to hope that they will basically be alright in the end, despite their flaws.
The first season does a fantastic job of lining all of this up and working through it in song, particularly in numbers like “The Villain Of My Own Story,” (a Disney-esque epiphany for Rebecca) “After Everything I’ve Done For You,” (an emotional showstopper for Champlin’s Paula) and most of all, “You Stupid Bitch,” which typifies our romantic anti-hero’s particular brand of self-loathing.
Funny and compulsively watchable, it’s arguably better at doing this than any of the subsequent seasons. It was critically acclaimed and won Bloom a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a TV Series – Musical or Comedy. But even if this run still represents the show at its very best, it gets all the foundation work done for the rich character development that follows, even in the face of some behind-the-scenes issues.
Despite the catchiness of season one’s theme, the season two theme is the best of the four, combining Busby Berkeley vocals and visuals with clever lyrics like “I have no underlying issues to address, I’m certifiably cute and adorably obsessed.” Where the season one episode delivers the premise, season two is a perfect capsule of the show’s overall tone.
Story-wise, the second season is similarly eclectic. Having declared her feelings for Josh in the first season finale, Rebecca is frustrated by the imbalance of affection in their relationship. With the self-consciously expensive Beyoncé spoof “Love Kernels,” she’s basically ready to tough it out until he shows her any real sign of love whatsoever.
The early uncertainty over Josh and Greg also gives us “The Math Of Love Triangles,” the Rosetta stone of Crazy Ex songs. Singing about her romantic predicament in breathy Marilyn Monroe style, Rebecca consults a chorus of male maths teachers about trigonometry but soon devolves into an innuendo-laden ditty that’s as catchy as it is daft.
However, that triangle is dissembled, if not resolved, fairly early on due to Santino Fontana leaving the show. Despite the show being fairly universally acclaimed, viewing figures had rarely topped a million and the renewal was by no means a sure thing. While they were waiting to find out, Fontana accepted offers of stage work that meant he was unavailable to return for the full season.
As with the other characters, Bloom and McKenna had planned for Greg to work through his issues outside of the show’s romantic entanglements in season two, but instead, he was written out in the fourth episode. Despite the show continuing to explore Rebecca’s relationship with Josh, the writers progressed to introduce a third potential love interest as planned, in the form of damaged bad-boy lawyer Nathaniel, played by Scott Michael Foster.
Even within the show, Nathaniel’s arrival is controversial, but he’s cemented as one of the ensemble by “Let’s Have Intercourse,” a clinical-as-it-sounds Ed Sheeran pisstake that represents some of the show’s best choreography and most on-point songwriting. If nothing else, “let’s get this over with, so I can focus on other tasks” is an unimprovable character-defining lyric.
Musically and comedically speaking, there are many more highlights to enjoy here. There’s blissful ignorance in a Love Train-inspired number called “We’ll Never Have Problems Again,” a joyfully filthy tap duet in the form of “We Tapped That Ass,” and one bit where Rebecca trips balls and imagines she’s a dinosaur eating Josh’s heart. All that and the introduction of the Santa Ana winds, personified as a Satanic Frankie Valli. It’s a broad church, this show.
Season two balances an unconscious uncoupling by essentially adding another point to the love triangle (a factor that the cheeky season four reprise “The Math Of Love Quadrangles“ squares nicely) and despite that wobble, it continues as planned to a disastrous wedding day for Josh and Rebecca. Exploring other avenues with its characters, it clocks up some more great entries for the songbook while preparing for something of a shift in genre.
“You do/you don’t wanna be crazy”
Season three’s theme song is a mixed bag, attempting to incorporate several music styles in one short medley, each sung by different aspects of Rebecca’s personality. The sequence ends with a cut to the real Rebecca watching the video on the toilet, nonplussed by what she’s just seen.
It sets the stage for a more eclectic season that initially adopts the tone of a revenge movie rather than a romantic comedy, but gets more serious about Rebecca’s mental health. After being left at the altar, she spends much of the first half of the season attempting to get revenge on Josh but hits rock bottom in the process when the people of West Covina find out about her past actions.
After hitting rock bottom, alienating all her friends, and enduring a disastrous trip home to see her mother, Rebecca attempts suicide. In a harrowing scene, she swallows a bottle full of pills while on the plane home. At the last moment, she changes her mind and gets help from a flight attendant before she loses consciousness.
It’s dark territory for a musical comedy show, but Rebecca’s emotional breakdown wouldn’t have landed nearly as well if not for the show always taking that side of her character seriously. While there’s comedy to be had from her actions elsewhere, her official diagnosis of borderline personality disorder is never the punchline.
By this point, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has well and truly built up the investment in its characters to where it can delve into this territory without snapping the format. It’s a season that can do the serious stuff alongside the funny songs and non-sequiturs and it’s not even like it’s snuck up on us – unlike any one of a thousand hacky sitcoms that might have gone by the same title, it’s always been deceptively deep.
All of that said, the tone remains a bit changeable throughout the season, veering from the early, niche Swimfan parody to the steamy affair between Rebecca and Nathaniel in the latter half of the season. In the finale, the return of Rebecca’s preposterous dark mirror Trent (who’s as obsessed with her as she is with the men in her life) brings things to a fever pitch and brings a real reckoning for Ms. Bunch and the season itself.
Alongside all this, there’s the usual soundtrack of funny songs about love, femininity, and [the simple joys of going and looking at animals when you’re feeling down]. But by this point in the series, there’s less of the storytelling economy of the first season’s numbers. While still enjoyable, the songs are usually characterful diversions rather than bits that advance the story.
The BPD reveal is masterfully handled, but season three represents something of a shift in the show’s overall sensibilities as it moves into its endgame, especially with a cliffhanger that sees Rebecca facing charges for the latest escalation of her behavior.
“We’re not really seeing a common theme”
The final season’s theme returns to the sitcom parody format, comparing Rebecca to an idealized lead who rides a bicycle through a park and looks great doing it. Using clips from the series so far, the song finds Rebecca too inconsistent to be a good character and goes back to “Other Rebecca” just in time for her to dispense a different Ralph Wiggum-like bit of wisdom in each episode.
The use of episode clips in the opening for the first time sort of foreshadows the way in which the final season feels more like an extended reprise than a big finish. There’s a familiar tune to some of the revelations that are revisited and expanded upon here, from the perfunctory wrap-up of the prison cliffhanger to the ultimate resolution of Rebecca’s romantic conundrum.
Wisely avoiding a longer stint behind bars, (there’s no need to do a My Name Is Earl when you can get the Chicago-style number out of the way and then crack on) the show takes its time to evolve characters out of their respective ruts, while recognizing that this doesn’t necessarily represent the end for them.
This applies to Josh, Nathaniel, and to Greg, who’s now played by Pitch Perfect‘s Skyler Astin. It’s a deliberate re-casting in order to play on the idea that Rebecca’s perception of him has completely changed since she saw him last, and one which is heavily lampshaded within the show. It’s an interesting narrative technique, but for as much as Astin holds his own, the character is quite literally not the same.
In the main, by allowing the three male leads to grow alongside Rebecca, there’s a compelling case for her to get back with any one of them by the time of the finale. But while indulging that side of things for laughs, the priority is still Rebecca’s personal development outside of her relationships.
In contrast to the previous 44 episodes, all of the titles of this season have a first-person perspective, rather than reflecting Rebecca’s obsession with Josh or the other men in her life. That includes dropping the pretence of being about a legal firm in any way, by having Rebecca turn her back on her career and run a pretzel stand instead – it’s always been a running gag that her job is pretty much getting in the way of the story.
Within that, there’s still time for an episode-long parody of Cats that likens different symptoms of a yeast infection to the characters in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s nonsense musical, (soon to be a major movie, somehow!) but there’s a really consistent focus on character development here.
As told in this season’s best original number, “The Darkness,” Rebecca comes to accept that working on herself – whether doing workbooks, attending therapy, or opening up to her friends – is a continual pursuit and despite all other romantic options, her depression (here named Tyler, of course) is the partner that she can’t keep returning to. The show’s overall portrayal of mental health is, to borrow a term, “a lot more nuanced than that,” but it earns the payoffs that come thick and fast throughout the final run.
We won’t get too far into where the recent final episode runs with this, but it all jives with the show’s reluctance to find the easy answers that litter its particular genre. Every character comes to some kind of resolution, in the sense that you know where they’re going, not that they’re finished with what came before.
Ultimately, the final line of the series is the exact same line that closed their original treatment for the four seasons. At the end of the show that prized character development above all else, it feels earned.