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‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ Has Some Weaknesses—and a Secret Weapon

'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend' Has Some Weaknesses—and a Secret Weapon

In the third episode of the CW’s wacky, often exasperating musical
comedy, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” West Covina, Calif. paralegal Paula Proctor
(Donna Lynne Champlin) drops in on our neurotic heroine, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel
Bloom), after hearing that she’s home sick. (“Darryl said your uterus
exploded, which, if that’s true, you should probably go to the hospital,”
she wisecracks.) In the first test of their nascent friendship, it falls to
Paula to break through Rebecca’s funk.

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Face surrounded by soft, angelic lighting, Champlin casts
her eyes beyond the frame and unleashes a hilarious, strangely affecting girl-power
ballad, trying to convince Rebecca to throw a party despite the lingering scars
of a childhood birthday gone wrong. “Face your fears / Stare them down,” she
croons, emerging as the secret weapon of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” in the process. For
Paula’s not only a winning comic creation in her own right—she’s also, one
hopes, a harbinger of the series’ willingness to face its own fears, and toss
out its dim-witted premise entirely.

Created by Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna (“The Devil Wears
Prada”), “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” joins the CW’s “Jane the Virgin” in embracing aesthetic
risks—an hour-long musical comedy with allusions to Astaire and Rogers, Billy
Joel, and Bollywood is even further out on the limb than a primetime telenovela—but
neglects to treat the narrative with similar insouciance. Rather, as we follow the
ambitious New Yorker to West Covina in pursuit of her ex-boyfriend, Josh
(Vincent Rodriguez III), the series smacks of the opening credits’ tightly
wound “wink” at convention, with Rebecca commenting on the title’s sexist
phrasing. Not unlike its protagonist, to use the sort of slang Rebecca forces
on her colleagues to appear cool, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” has absolutely no
chill.

Bloom brings a Holly Hunter-in-“Broadcast News” vibe to the
role that enlivens even the most maddening interludes—in the second episode, for
instance, she tarts herself up and dumbs herself down to compete with Josh’s
current love interest, Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz)—but the fact remains that “Crazy
Ex-Girlfriend” is an inventive portrait of an intelligent, successful woman
enduring one humiliation after another to attract the attention of a dullard. (At
least Hunter’s workaholic Jane Craig had Albert Brooks and William Hurt to choose
from.) 

When she throws herself at Josh’s friend, Greg (Santino Fontana), or
weasels her way into handling her boss’ divorce settlement, it can be difficult
to tell if the series is a critique of misogynist attitudes or an unwitting
emblem thereof, and the occasional apologia—the plucking, waxing, scraping, and
curling of the pilot episode’s amusing “Sexy Gettin’ Ready Song” (“No escape
from the patriarchy”)—is not enough to erase the plot’s threadbare, will-they/won’t-they
rhythms. Even a Britney Spears-style music video can’t save the bland
predictability of an unsuccessful Tinder date.

Still, when Champlin’s on screen, her quirky, energetic performance
brings “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” out of the rom-com doldrums, uncovering a superb
musical comedy about a pair of friends navigating work, romance, and familial
dysfunction hidden within the series’ arch excesses. “Karen, you passive-aggressive,
miserable piece of garbage, shut your garbage face,” Paula remarks to a whiny colleague
when, at Rebecca’s behest, she assumes control of the office in one episode. “I’m
in charge now, and we are going to get some friggin’ work done around
here!”

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As in “Face Your Fears,” she and Rebecca manage
in tandem what neither can alone, which is to stand their ground against all
the indignities, large and small, that come with membership in what Simone de
Beauvoir called “the second sex.” Dealing with a male-dominated,
quasi-adolescent workplace culture as a mother might marshal her children for church,
or describing Rebecca as a “a brave little cookie” when the party is a success,
Paula offers proof that there’s humor in being the adult in the room, too—that
two grown-ass women can indeed be the subject of a terrifically funny, bracingly
original musical comedy.

“You are a smart, confident woman who’s in charge of
her own destiny,” she advises Rebecca later. “That sounds like a tampon
commercial, but you know where I’m going with this.” If “Crazy
Ex-Girlfriend” can point itself more consistently in the same direction, it’ll
be a brave little series, indeed.

“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” airs Mondays at 8pm on the CW.

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