21 February 2016
This sweet and salty CW musical comedy is a little uneven and it took a few episodes for the characters and overall point of view to start to really come into focus but, halfway into its first season (a Golden Globe win for Best Actress already secured), Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has developed into one of the most refreshing hours of television on offer these days.
Structurally and, certainly, musically, the show is very much as-expected but the things it gets right are things most shows get wrong and, for that, it deserves some serious attention. After three really great episodes in a row (episode 9 is particularly wonderful/heartbreaking/complicated/hilarious), let’s break down the central elements of the show and how they’re all coming together.
The Leading Lady
A few episodes ago, our brilliant, hilarious, “crazy” heroine had a breakthrough in which she finally confessed to her best friend that she’s in love with Josh Chan. Her insistent denial up to that moment was an intensely relatable, totally wackadoo feature of the show that points to the brilliant complexity of the psychological storytelling going on here. Strong, smart, modern, feminist Rebecca doesn’t want to be the sort of girl who would move across the country for a boy- it’s embarrassing, it diminishes her agency, it makes her fail the Bechdel test, it’s so Felicity and Felicity was a nincompoop. But the Bechdel test is simplistic (it was literally just an internet cartoon, guys; chill out) and, when extrapolated beyond its original eye-opening intent, it’s become a stick used to hit other women (and the art they reside in). Chicago PD is not a more feminist show than Crazy Ex-Girlfriend just because Sophia Bush talks to Amy Morton about “police business” but Rachel Bloom mostly talks to Donna Lynne Champlin about boys. Part of Rebecca’s journey this season has been coming to terms with the fact that she can be a strong, multi-faceted, worthy woman and also be totally preoccupied with her love life (a byproduct, by the way, of having her career already so thoroughly handled). The self-aware pressure to be a “good feminist” plays as one of the show’s most amusing ironies while the show itself casually sets a good feminist example simply by presenting a deeply flawed, deeply human female person in the leading role without judging her or putting her on the sort of inhuman pedestal that most “strong female characters” reside on (here’s looking at you, Olivia Pope). Rebecca is neurotic and weird, pushy, obnoxious, self-centered, judgmental, a know-it-all and she couldn’t find a boundary if it bit her in her refreshingly non-supermodel behind but she’s also the smartest kid in the class by an incredibly large margin, she’s funny and sweet and clever and pretty and resilient. She has a complicated relationship with her mother and has struggled with depression. As much as her show-starting cross-country move was about Josh, I think her 2nd layer cover story is just as true (the 1st layer is that she moved for a job, which is just plain a lie but the 2nd layer that she finally admitted to Josh & co in that series-best-so-far party bus episode is just as true as the “truth” about moving for him). She moved to West Covina in search of happiness after Josh, the happiest guy she’s ever met, described it with such joy. To me, there are two things that all human beings are always doing, in some way or other. They’re the two quests that make us human and thus the two things that make any character feel really real- try to do good and find happiness. Rebecca’s story is nothing more or less than that. She wants to be a good person (hence the constant lying to herself when she fails on this front or at least thinks she has) and she wants to be happy. It’s the only character motivation that has ever really made any sense to me at all and it’s the fundamental, low-fi essence of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
Champlin’s brazen know-it-all Paula was my favourite character instantly when I watched the pilot. She’s hilarious for starters and Champlin’s performance is a masterclass of wacky, wry, grounded character work. Positive female friendships are an important part of the post-Parks wave of TV comedy and the one that’s developed (albeit a bit too quickly for my taste) between Rebecca and Paula is thus far all kinds of wonderful. I love that they have a bit of an age difference (45 to 28, so actually a pretty big age difference) and are at completely different places in their lives (Paula is married with kids, something the show finally explored to great effect in the most recent episode). I love how perfectly the show captures the unspoken imbalance that defines so many friendships between the dynamic, pretty, dramatic one and the one that one can always count on. Paula is solid, straightforward and loyal; she doesn’t need Rebecca’s help the way Rebecca needs hers and she seems genuinely happy to spend her life dissecting and combatting her best friend’s dramas. But Champlin does an incredible job of layering just a little bit of sadness into Paula. She lives vicariously through Rebecca, she’s passive aggressive about her own life, she’s punishing when she feels she’s being lied to and her heart appears to break into a thousand pieces (though she wouldn’t say a thing) at the suggestion that Rebecca wants to make more friends. She’s the exposition-dropping funny foil who keeps our heroine grounded and pushes her into more plot-tastic hijinks but that’s not how Crazy Ex-Girlfriend rolls so she’s also a beautifully real representation of adult friendship, its strength, its importance and its quiet resentments.
The Love Interest
Without being my favourite character (or even in the top three), Josh Chan is a lot of the reason I love Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. I love that he’s not an obvious match with Rebecca (Greg is much more her match intellectually and she and Josh have very few actual shared interests) but he’s the perfect complement to her. He makes her happy when she’s prone to wallowing, he makes her relax when she’s prone to overthinking, she challenges him when he’s prone to settling. He doesn’t always understand what she says but he gets her and shows up for her in his simple, uncomplicated way. He’s warm and forgiving and really kind of game-changingly kind in a way the cool boy is rarely allowed to be. Most characters on this show are traditional rom-com archetypes with little twists of more complex humanity that make them feel completely fresh and Josh is the perfect example of a classic golden boy with a set of flaws that blessedly isn’t just “mildly tortured” (like every other leading man). He’s a happy person, something that’s bizarrely hard to find on TV.
I should also point out, and I wish this wasn’t a noteworthy thing, that it’s actually a pretty major move to make the leading love interest an Asian man (especially a love interest who is presented as the dreamiest alpha male of them all). There are two extremely handsome, extremely charming young Asian men in this year’s Nominee Interview Series, both of whom spoke at length about the challenges facing Asian male actors because they’re so often stereotyped as “meek, diminutive [and] desexualized”. It’s one of the least-talked-about forms of discrimination in casting practices but it’s so widely accepted that I can count on one hand the number of Asian men on television who come to mind as having been presented as the “hot guys” of their property, or even a love interest at all (Paolo Montalban in Cinderella, Daniel Dae Kim, to a certain extent Tim Jo in The Neighbors, and sometimes John Cho but only in his more recent roles). But now there’s Vincent Rodriguez III as Josh, the sort of character who is not only the love of our heroine’s life but the generally accepted heartthrob of the show’s universe (a recent episode’s throwaway “I had a crush on that guy in high school” line is incredibly commonplace). And he’s not even a John Cho-in-Selfie sophisticated, responsible guy archetype like the other (few) Asian heartthrobs we’ve seen; he’s an immature, bro-ish, outgoing, bad-at-math flirt who at once adheres to pretty much no Asian stereotypes but also is allowed to own his culture and his heritage instead of playing it down like so many non-white television characters. The excellent Thanksgiving episode dove straight into Josh’s family life and the ways his Filipino heritage shapes it- his first generation parents and the sort of wife they want for their son, the way Filipino cuisine shares table space with turkey in a household that’s as American as it is Asian, the important role religion plays in his culture. Joshua Felix Chan is just a regular golden boy love interest but he also might be a groundbreaking character for network TV.
The Love Interest’s Love Interest
Competitive, vain yoga teacher Valencia is the one character thus far who needs significantly more humanization. The small moments of sympathy she earned in the Thanksgiving episode aside, she’s still very much a villain rather than simply Rebecca’s antagonist. Her cruelty towards Rebecca I think actually rings very true considering how very many lines Rebecca has crossed but she’s just so blatantly wrong for Josh that it’s beginning to strain the “we’ve been together forever” thread that’s keeping them together. I appreciate the commentary on long term relationships and the toxicity they can develop with both partners too complacent to make a change but some more backstory on their shared history would help keep the conflict alive despite the established fact that Valencia just flat out doesn’t “get” Josh like Rebecca does.
The Other Guy
Greg! Oh, Greg. I’m a sucker for the Greg archetype (sarcastic, intellectual sidekick guy) and Santino Fontana is the perfect kind of approachably dreamy. If his voice (singing, though his speaking voice is also delicious) sounds familiar, it’s because he played the (spoiler alert) evil guy in Frozen who sang that song that might be the best song in Frozen even though people never remember it. I like that Greg isn’t just the better-choice overlooked best friend of the love interest. He’s more of a bad-idea fallback plan for when Rebecca is feeling selfish and self-destructive. He’s self-righteous and defensive and needy in ways sidekicks are never allowed to be and his can’t-shake-it interest in Rebecca is the perfect foil for her love for Josh. You get the sense that, if he could control it, Greg would assign that affection literally anywhere else. But that’s not how love works.
Zero-bullshit girl next door/amateur psychologist Heather who is a surprise love interest for Greg, White Josh (“he looks exactly like Josh but he’s white!”) who may or may not be a surprise love interest for wacky boss Darryl, the opposing counsel in the recent episode who formed a rock band to narrate Rebecca’s “textmergency” while adding to the West Covina mythos (Paula sidesteps a plot roadblock and subverts expectations by just revealing that she knows the folks on the other side of the table and “they’ll understand”. #SmallTowns)- the well-fleshed-out world building in West Covina is killer and we’re only halfway through season one.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is still getting its feet under it but it’s doing all sorts of things right that a lot of people get wrong (like “strong female characters” and no-big-deal multiculturalism) and we need a show like that on the air. I’m loving the direction The CW seems to be going lately, away from super polished 90210 hot kids and towards character dramedies with a strong point of view. Mix the Jane the Virgin/Crazy Ex-Girlfriend side of the network (if only Hart of Dixie were still alive, it would fit in perfectly) with the ballsy genre side (well-made superhero & sci-fi shows like The Flash and iZombie) and things are starting to feel almost like the old WB where the big-deal auteurs of today cut their teeth making character dramedies with a strong point of view (Berlanti with Everwood, Abrams with Felicity) and ballsy genre fare (Whedon with Buffy, Katims with Roswell). It’s had a few strong shows but The CW has always been a shadow of its predecessor. This new era, with great, forward-thinking storytelling like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, suggests they’re finally living up to that groundbreaking legacy.