So I didn’t use the show’s name in the title on purpose, because if you’re like me you’d be put off and wouldn’t even read below the break. Which is fine, except you’d be missing one of the most amazing shows currently on TV.
Still here? Okay: the show’s called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – don’t run away!
If you’re anything like me you won’t have seen it (very likely – the ratings suck), you’ll read that, and you’ll think “not in a bajillion years”. That’s what I thought. Show with a title like that? Probably kooky characters who are adorbs even if they’ve got lots of troubles. Love triangles. Lots of cringing that comes with artificial situations that only happen on TV. Exhausting and phony.
You wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, because CEG does all of that. Except it’s not exhausting or phony. It takes every one of those situations and turns them on their heads. It approaches all characters with nuance and honesty, maintains a crackerjack sense of humour, has the most authentically diverse cast on television, depicts mental illness with sincerity and kindness, and punches you right in the gut.
Oh, and it’s a musical.
Rachel Bloom plays Rebecca Bunch, the crazy ex-girlfriend: a deeply unhappy pill sucking Harvard educated lawyer in New York. One day she bumps into a high school flame, Josh Chan, who is moving back to West Covina, California. And her mind starts rolling: Josh made her happy! She’s unhappy right now! Ergo, if she moves to West Covina and gets together with Josh she’ll be happy. Right?
The series, now at the beginning of the second season, deals with Rebecca’s friendships, love life, machinations, and fantasies, all with a loving, brutal honesty that I would NEVER watch in a bajillion years, except it is truly excellent. Complicated Rebecca lives in a dream world, with assumptions about what she wants, needs, and assumes can or should happen. And it’s not even really about the shenanigans, although they feature heavily. (Asking a friend to throw a rock into their own patio window to fake a robbery is pretty much rock bottom.) At its core the show is about the lengths we go for self-deception, learning to hold oneself accountable, and discovering what it is to like oneself. This holds true not just for Rebecca, but for almost every single character.
It’s interesting to me, as a romance reader and reviewer, to watch this show. As romance readers – hell, not just that, but as people – we have conventions that we want followed and expectations to be met. Not because we are unrealistic people who can’t tell the difference between fiction and reality, but because we can: real life is complicated, so all that we demand in romance is emotional honesty. CEG is not a romance, and it is not even a romantic comedy, but Rebecca has been lying to herself for a long time. So the show delights in taking every one of those tropes and conventions – the romantic meeting on the bridge, the sarcastic bartender who longs for the heroine, eyes meeting across a crowded room, the HEA – and reveals them for what they are when someone takes them too seriously. There is no villain or heroine, and the only love interest you’ll end up rooting for is Rebecca herself.
And it’s a musical! Every single episode features at least one original song – either for character development, exposition, or just to stop, drop and dance – but all of which are homages, satires, or parodies of musical theatre or pop culture. There’s good reason for this. Rachel Bloom has loads of musical theatre experience and co-writes all the songs. The sarcastic bartender is Tony-nominated Santino Fontana, aka Prince Hans from Frozen. The best friend is Donna Lynne Champlin, the mother is Tovah Feldshuh, Lea Salonga popped up in the season finale, and Patti frickin’ Lupone is guest starring this season. (How you react to the above names depends on your level of theatre geekiness, so take them as you will.) I almost hesitate to give you examples of the songs (their appearance is often part of the joy and work better in context) but here’s a little taste:
Heavy Boobs – if you have, as a friend once said, a litter of bouncing Rottweilers on your chest, then you will understand this song.
Settle for Me – So much self loathing buried in a lovely Fred and Ginger number.
A Boy Band Made Up Of Four Joshes – What you get when Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and a key change mate.
Love Kernels – “Slurp slurp” gets me Every. Single. Time.
I don’t know if I’m doing justice to the show. I strongly suspect I am not, because I think it has to be watched to be believed. Just dig in on Netflix. Don’t bother with the trailers because they don’t capture the astonishing depth of character, and there’s so much I’m not even mentioning. Father Brah. Filipino Dinaguan. Yesterday’s ambush which literally had me bawling. Giving good parent. Heather and WhiJoFeather and Hector parking in the back. Honestly, I am astounded that CEG got made in the first place. It’s mental. It’s crazy. I wait every week for Friday like a nut job. There is absolutely nothing else like it on air, and it’s one of the best shows I have ever seen. Just give it a chance.