By Elisabeth Granzow
I was very hesitant to start watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015-) when I first heard about it. The premise of the musical dramedy is that successful Manhattan lawyer Rebecca, played by the show’s creator Rachel Bloom, runs into her summer camp boyfriend Josh Chan and on a whim moves to West Covina, California, which also “happens to be” Josh’s hometown. I am not a big musical fan and I was put off by the problematic title and the premise of a crazy woman who is obsessed with finding romance. One thing that piqued my interest, however, was that the male lead character Josh Chan is played by Filipino American Vincent Rodriguez III. Including an Asian man as the main love interest seemed to me like a promising signal that the show might delve a little deeper into topics around diverse identities since Asian men are still highly underrepresented and desexualized in American film and television. Now, after watching all three seasons on Netflix, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is one of my favorite shows currently on television (it airs on the CW), because it consciously deconstructs common stereotypes around women, sexuality and mental health among others.
This deconstruction is part of what makes the dramedy unique. Another part is the fact that it is created by the incredibly talented women Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna and centers around complex female characters, their ordinary lives and female-specific experiences. However, it does not only deal with female perspectives, but other important topics around identity, such as sexuality. The latest season - season three - for example has been praised for including three bisexual main characters. What further makes Crazy Ex-Girlfriend special is its combination of smartness, quirkiness and liveliness with moments of tragedy, such as when the viewer realizes that Rebecca is struggling with serious symptoms of mental illness.
Other aspects that makes Crazy Ex-Girlfriend stand out are the hilarious characters and the witty writing. In addition, the 2-3 musical songs per episode usually spoof common music genres and satirize different topics. The comical musical numbers and recurring jokes and references also give the show an intelligent coherence, which enables and invites the viewer to rewatch the program and still find new things. Another thing that gives me high hopes is the announcement that the next season will be its last, which means that the creators have a clear, well thought-out ending in mind. Although I am sad that the program will end soon, I believe that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has the potential to be part of a canon of high quality television shows by and about women.
The songs and writing frequently revolve around gender-specific topics and particularly around unique female experiences, for example, when Rebecca’s best friend Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin) sings about the “The First Penis I Saw” on the episode “Getting Over Jeff” in the third season. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend even breaks with many taboos. In the second season, several characters start singing the song “Period Sex” suggesting sex during menstruation. However, the full song was deemed too controversial for the CW network and even for Netflix, Therefore, “Period Sex” has only been teased on the show, while the entire song and video can be watched on Rachel Bloom’s YouTube channel (see video below). The comedy does not only portray topics around women, however, but also brings in male perspectives. As the show progresses, the male characters like Josh and Rebecca’s boss Darryl (Pete Gardner) become more complex and receive more screen time for their own storylines and viewpoints. For example, in his first individual song Darryl sings “I Love My Daughter (But Not in a Creepy Way)” (Season 1, Episode 5) and explores the nuances of a healthy and loving father-daughter relationship, complicating the trope of the more or less cold and “absent” father commonly found in many TV dramas. These are just a few of many examples in which Crazy Ex-Girlfriend gives balanced and nuanced viewpoints around gendered experiences, while at the same time poking fun at prominent sexist stereotypes.
But beyond all the quirky jokes and satire, there also lies a deeper, more serious layer within the dramedy, namely its complex portrayal of mental illness and its stigmatization. My first thought was that the stereotype of the crazy woman obsessed with a man could reproduce a problematic sexist image. However, the show is very self-aware of this issue, probably due to the fact that Rachel Bloom herself has had to deal with mental illness. From the very first episode, it is clear that Rebecca displays clear signs of anxiety and depression. She also had been taking medications in Manhattan and starts seeing a therapist in West Covina in the first season. At first, her obsession with romance and Josh seems like an exaggerated premise of a comedy that ensures hilarious encounters. Yet, as the series progresses, it becomes obvious to the viewer that her behavior and longing are not about Josh at all, but just symptoms of her mental health state. In the third season, the show goes deeper into in Rebecca’s self-awareness of her situation and she is finally diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BMD). Her diagnosis and group therapy sessions allow Rebecca to start facing her mental illness and coming to terms with the fact that having a healthy and fruitful romantic life among other things is more challenging for her than for others. Therefore, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend gives a complex and complicating context to the trope of the crazy ex-girlfriend and reveals just how stigmatized mental illness is in our society, as Rebecca is mostly concerned about hiding her true self from others. While the series also highlights how dealing with mental illness is a long process filled with potential setbacks, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend still remains quirky and hilarious, therefore demonstrating that dealing with mental illness is not all bleak, but also makes Rebecca special, which is underlined by her charisma and her friends’ deep affection for her.
It is difficult to describe how smart, funny and unique Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is and I can only recommend viewers to tune in for a few episodes before judging it. While the show might have some weaknesses, such as how most main characters are white and racial identities are only discussed on the surface, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend still has so much to offer. To me, it stands out as a coherent piece of art that is intelligent, hilarious and entertaining and proves the value and importance of media programs created by women.