Here’s some good news: Netflix is now streaming Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. No other TV show is quite so ambitious or politically deft as star and executive producer Rachel Bloom’s (and co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna’s) darkly comic, whip-smart sendup of romantic comedies. The title alone has turned more than one of my staunch feminist friends away, but Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, with its diverse ensemble and showstopping musical numbers, tackles the complexities of feminism, sexuality, body image, romantic idealism, mental health and female friendship and competition.
Bloom writes and plays Rebecca Bunch — a terrible, self-involved character — with pathos and slapstick charm. So much so, in fact, that I found myself actively rooting against the outcome of the season-one finale: Rebecca’s union — at long last — with happy-go-lucky SoCal bro Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III).
First, the basics. Rebecca Bunch is a lawyer who suffers an acute mental breakdown on the day of her promotion at a big-shot firm in New York City. Haunted by a pointed butter advertisement, of all things — the slogan reads, “When was the last time you were truly happy?” — Rebecca realizes her ambitions have led to stress and anxiety instead of the creative freedom she remembers from her teenage years. She drops everything to chase her summer camp ex-boyfriend Josh Chan across the country, where everyone is “so chill.” What took Mad Men’s Don Draper seven seasons to figure out, Rebecca accomplishes in the pilot, complete with song and dance.
Bunch’s quest for happiness takes her to West Covina, California — an inland suburb with a depressing claim to fame that becomes a running joke: “only two hours from the beach — four in traffic.” In her new life, Rebecca makes inroads with Josh’s best friend, prickly bartender Greg (Santino Fontana), and hatches wild plans with her co-worker Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin) to win Josh’s heart.
Josh — the show’s West Coast Filipino ’90s throwback to Jordan Catalano — represents a serious narrative problem for the series, given how smart it is about, well, everything else. The object of Rebecca’s wild obsession — poor, sweet Josh — is just so dumb. Don’t get me wrong — there’s plenty to admire in Rodriguez's portrayal of a young man comfortably entrenched in a long-term relationship with his catty yoga-instructor girlfriend, Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz).
In part because of his feelings for Valencia, Josh is unable to examine his own attraction to Rebecca. Painfully so. Meanwhile, Rebecca manipulates him throughout each episode, conjuring wilder and wilder reasons for her manic behavior — from throwing a housewarming party to renting a party bus that will take them the two (ahem, four) hours to the beach. As the plot thickens, nearly every other character becomes fed up with Rebecca’s nonsense — including her tireless defender and partner-in-crime, Paula, who delivers an homage to Gypsy that’ll knock your socks off.
Josh? That dude remains oblivious.
In many ways, Josh’s blindness to Rebecca’s romantic overtures is a mirror of Rebecca’s own blinkered idealism in her shameless pursuit of him. For Rebecca, Josh represents an idea of happiness that’s worth jeopardizing her career, her health and her ZIP code for — even though he might not have the wherewithal to actually keep up with her. For Josh, however, admitting an attraction to Rebecca is tantamount to admitting he’s unhappy with his life — something he seemed unwilling, and unable, to do until the end of season one.
NPR’s Linda Holmes called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend “a story about happiness.” But if the show’s raison d’être is getting to the bottom of what makes its characters happy, then its mission is to examine the dirty underside of that quest. As Paula sings in “After Everything I Have Done for You,” “You think love is stainless and pure, but beneath all the fantasy there’s filth and there’s gore.”
The show empathizes with how easy it is to ignore our most self-destructive impulses, whether they entail staying in go-nowhere romances for the sake of comfort and familiarity, refusing to examine our own feelings or ignoring what’s unhealthy in the people we care about in order to make the relationship — any relationship — work. Paula obsesses over Rebecca’s love life at the expense of her own marriage and, ultimately, the expense of their friendship. Greg, who teeters back and forth between self-loathing and self-awareness, faces his inner demons — and often falls short. The only character who comes out on top — more or less — is Rebecca’s hapless boss, Darryl Whitefeather (Pete Gardner), who slowly comes to accept his bisexuality.
These are complex arcs for any show, especially for minor characters. That makes Josh’s one-dimensional stupidity especially distracting — it’s a character trait the entire series depends upon to keep its balls in the air. After all, he can only grow closer to Rebecca by ignoring every single element of her crazy behavior — along with plenty of warnings and hints from his friends.
To be fair, I could just as easily be complaining that Rebecca is too “broken” or “crazy” to truly subvert the trope of the female hysteric that the series aims to upend. She is, after all, suffering from a nervous breakdown and — essentially — cross-country stalking her ex. Yet it’s a testament to the writing that viewers are forced to consider just how often women are portrayed as helpless idealists or lustful, jealous lunatics — even as characters like Rebecca and Valencia are forced right into the roles we expect of them.
Plenty of women like Valencia only see themselves in jealousy-fueled competition with other women, as her hilarious homage to faux feminism, “Women Gotta Stick Together,” demonstrates. And plenty of “crazy ex-girlfriends” have been misled by Josh Chans into thinking that they “just imagined” their attachment. But in real life very few of those Josh Chans ever get pilloried by their frenemies for leading a lady on. That’s what women have to deal with — often to disastrous, and unfair, effect. (Thanks, patriarchy!)
Given everything he represents in this wonderfully complex three-ring circus of a show, Josh deserves more depth and a lot more responsibility for encouraging Rebecca’s affection and blindly refusing to examine his own motives in their sort-of-more-than-friendship. Right now, he’s in danger of getting a pass, both as a somewhat-willing victim in Rebecca's scheming and as a naive, trusting bro. This would be a real misstep for an earnestly feminist series — not least because there’s nothing naive about bro culture, however much it might pretend.
So I’m actively rooting for Rebecca and Josh to break up early in season two. Not because Josh is too dumb for Rebecca — instead, I want the show to finally deliver on its promise to subvert the crazy ex-girlfriend trope and to reveal itself in favor of Rebeccas everywhere, no matter how broken they might be.
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