Musical-theatre sceptic Anna Knox writes about her conversion to the hilarious Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, as the fourth and final season drops on Netflix
Let it be known before I say anything favourable that throughout the first few episodes of My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend I was in a state of deep cringe. I cringed at the exaggerated characters. I cringed at the awkward scenarios. I cringed, most of all, at the singing. Musicals are possibly my least favourite form of entertainment because, well – Calamity Jane. And this was going to be a TV version, dragged out over many episodes. Also, the show appeared to be about a 30-ish year old highly successful female lawyer giving up her job and moving across the country for a guy she kissed when she was 16.
In fairness, that’s what the first season of the show is about. Rebecca Bunch (played by the show’s co-creator, Rachel Bloom) throws in her current life and moves to the legit small town of West Covina, Southern California where Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), a summer camp sweetheart whom she randomly runs into in New York, now lives as a slightly dim-witted but well-meaning and very ripped heartthrob who thinks Harper Lee is Bruce Lee’s wife.
In West Covina Rebecca gets a job at Whitefeather and Associates, lies to everyone about why she moved, and tries to take down Josh’s long-term girlfriend Valencia (Gabrielle Ruez) with her new best friend and colleague, Paula Proctor (Donna Lynn Champlin), via several outlandish and slightly illegal plots, and also kind of falls in love with Josh’s best friend Greg (Santino Fontana). Which sounds completely different to the smart, feminist, hilarious show I’ve ended up watching, and which – by season three – explodes out into a borderline profound uber-version of itself.
My conversion to this show, and thus to musical shows in general, began in episode two, when Valencia sings ‘I’m so Good at Yoga’, Bhangra-styles, contorting her body into some seriously awkward poses and looking disdainfully down her nose. “As the morning sun kisses the lotus I kiss my own hoo-haa. Can you do that?” As a long-time yogi who can now, after years, still barely touch her knees with her nose, I deeply appreciated this jealous mockery of those Valencias who flaunt their flexibility like it’s a Pulitzer. With this song, I also began to understand how humour in musical TV shows can far exceed what’s possible with just dialogue and situation, when it’s done this well.
Time after time Bloom and her team keep entertainment tension at absolute peak with these songs, not once letting the humour or the sass slip. Most of the 158 songs (over four seasons) are original and mock an iconic style or band (including 80s rock, country, rap, ballad, pop, chanson, R&B and gospel) to a tee. They have lyrics that address hefty topics like body image, mental health, and sexuality in a way that makes you laugh at their ridiculousness yet also reflect far more deeply than you would at, say, a health pamphlet.
The self-loathing ‘You Stupid Bitch’, for example, has raw, funny and painful lyrics that sound like the inside of my head most days. Then there’s ‘Textmergency’ (about when you send a pertinent text to the wrong person) and – my personal favourite – ‘Heavy Boobs’, in which said boobs are removed from tight-t-shirted fantasy and reframed via their weighty functionality. With much bouncing. Anyone bigger than a D cup will understand.
But I wouldn’t have kept coming back for the songs if it wasn’t for how smart the actual show is. Like Rebecca Bunch herself, it does clever as well as it does 80s saxophone pop.
For starters, and returning to those ‘Heavy Boobs’, the show consistently integrates and normalises a feminism and a worldview in which frankness about female sexuality and reproduction is regular, phrases like “I’m gonna ovary up and face this,” and “You are cervix deep in this now” drop naturally, and Paula refers to God as ‘Big Mama’.
A special shout-out to the casting of Vincent Rodriguez III, who is Filipino American, as the show’s leading man, a decision which Vulture called “the show’s most subversive act” and that Buzzfeed said “subtly dismantled the stereotypical portrayals of Asian men seen on American screens in the past”.
The show absolutely deserves these accolades, but I think it goes further than that. The diversity of the cast is so organic that you barely notice it, and it therefore seems passé to list the various ethnic, sexual and class identities of the characters, so I won’t. Although I will mention the nod to anti-ableism in ‘Guy with Half an Eyelid’ who looks weird, is amazing at cartwheels and goes beyond ticking the anti-ableism box by dint of being an arsehole. It takes a fairly mature and confident writer of a woke musical comedy to go beyond casting someone with a deformity to casting them as a villain.
There’s also White Josh, who looks like Asian Josh and whose gayness is so by-the-by that, again, mentioning it sort of defeats the purpose. The effortless inclusiveness is partly a reflection of what Southern California is actually like, but it also takes a confident, reflective show to pull it off so well.
The most comprehensive dismantling that goes on in the show, however, might be of suburban Southern California itself, and of the stereotypical prejudices against places like West Covina.
There’s a long-running East Coast versus West Coast conflict underlying this. Rebecca’s New York is monied, sophisticated, and miserable whereas Josh’s SoCal is a whole sum of averages, including average happiness. As Rebecca singsplains in the title song: “I was working hard at a New York job / making dough ($540,000/annum) but it made me blue.”
While that’s supposed to be a weak cover for the crazy fact she moved across country for Josh, as the show goes on, we see there’s some truth to West Covina’s superior inferiority. Immersed in everyday sunshine, Rebecca learns to become a more whole person, and gets closer to dealing with her deep unhappiness. The show’s creators, however, are smart enough to exaggerate this truth, not sanctify it, so that you can stomach the sweetness, and keep coming back for more.
Nowhere is this tension better played with than in the final episode of that first season. It’s Josh’s sister’s wedding, which Rebecca is attending with Greg, a date in which she has naturally over-invested meaning and significance. “Isn’t this romantic?” she says as she steps into the venue, which is decked out in hysterically bad, Aladdin-themed decorations. Oh for fuck’s sake, I found myself thinking. Do they have to mock the shit out of absolutely everything? “I dunno, if you think about it, it’s kind of the epitome of California pastiche,” Greg replies. “A chain hotel with vaguely French décor, and Italian food is being served tapas-style while the Filipino girl is marrying a Jewish guy all with a lightly Arabian-Night’s style wedding. What was this pinterest board called? Ironic juxtaposition?” But then Rebecca says: “I like that kind of melange” without a hint of sarcasm.
And then comes the resplendent, effervescent, devastating, deregulating conclusion, which is a tribute to the genre of musical comedy as much as it is to Southern California. The heroine gets her hero, and makes out with him on a flying carpet, in a convertible, above Hollywood.
And then she ruins it. Ironic juxtaposition, perhaps. But, like Rebecca, I have to say – I like that kind of melange.
By the end of season one, Rebecca, who moved to West Covina for Josh, has fallen for West Covina, and if we’re still watching, so have we, and will likely roll straight into season two, if only to see what happens after season one’s cliff-hanger conclusion.
I’ll warn you though, season two is not as relatable as the first. It centres around a wedding plot on the one hand, and the dissolution of a marriage over a single, readily confessed instance of cheating on the other. It’s a very puritanical approach to romantic relationships that felt foreign to me, and problematic in its purism, especially when there were ample opportunities to more imaginatively unpack the ways relationships can be constructed and deconstructed and reconstructed. Based on the twists and turns of thinking the first season took, it wasn’t what I expected, and I was disappointed.
However, there are many more excellent songs, and Rebecca’s intensifying craziness turns slowly from funny to freaky to painful. The latter is necessary for the ground-breaking show that emerges, finally, in season three when, in one heart-wrenching episode, all the unreal plot twists resulting from Rebecca’s ‘craziness’ – which seemed until this point like devices to tell a funny, slightly loopy story and sing some hilarious songs – suddenly make sense in a completely new way. It’s brilliant and, in a way that only an outstandingly intelligent comedy could, gets to the indescribable heart of mental illness.
If you’ve ever been so close to the raw bone of your own brain that the whole world turns dark, for days, months, or years at a time and you can’t imagine a way out, or are close to somebody who has, I couldn’t recommend this show more, especially during the silly season when, surrounded by family and festivities, the fragilities of the mind and soul get more borderline than ever. If you are feeling the strain, I highly recommend binge-watching all three seasons before the fourth lands, like a life-ring for the holidays, and you’ll have that to get you through. Alternatively, you could just get to episode eight of season one, which concludes with a gem of a Christmas scene in which Santa is totally baked and a Christmas carol is a chick called Carol who does henna tattoos.
“Well, you can take your snow and shove it /This is our Christmas and we love it,” sings an (effortlessly diverse) townspeople’s chorus. “The kids get lots of Christmas toys on Christmas morn / Cause daddy makes big bucks directing p**n / They may have gonorrhoea, but at least it’s not frostbite / Cause this is California / And we do Christmas right!”
Join The Spinoff Members for as little as $1 to help us hire more journalists and do more investigations. Or get a free Toby Morris-designed tea towel when you contribute $80 or more over a year.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.