“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is in bad shape, y’all. Not artistically: It’s one of few bright spots in a generally dismal fall for new shows, a genuinely original take on obsession, mental illness and gender roles, served up in the form of a darkly humorous homage to musical theater. But in spite of generally glowing reviews, it’s getting killed in the ratings: Last week’s episode did got a dismal .2 Nielsen rating, with a 0 share among males 18-49. (Zero! Step it up, fellow dudes.) Network veteran Preston Beckman, who blogs as the Masked Scheduler, has already pronounced the show DOA, and thought the networks have shied away from canceling shows outright this fall, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s” chances are not looking great. The CW obviously has confidence in the show, which it rescued from Showtime after they opted not to go forward with the pilot, even commissioning an extra five scripts the week before the premiere. But with the show drawing such a paltry live audience and not picking up appreciably in post-air viewing, I can’t help but brace for the worst.
I could tell you that “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is already, despite some typical early-season wobbles, one of the best shows on TV; that it manages to take mental illness seriously while simultaneously satirizing how women’s emotions have historically been pathologized; that it’s got a dynamite cast of musical theater veterans, including “Frozen’s” Santino Fontana; that it’s funny and smart and true and sad. (I could also admit that it really should be on cable instead of broadcast, where critical approval matters more and ratings matter less.) But critics proclaiming it “the best show you’re not watching” isn’t guilting sufficient numbers of viewers into watching, and time is of the essence, so let’s try this. Pretend you haven’t heard anything about “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” — which you may well have not; ignore whatever negative associations the title may have (and please, networks, learn from “Trophy Wife’s” example that ironic reappropriations of sexist terms don’t work); and just watch this:
And now watch this.
That’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” in a nutshell, taking the romantic myths established by popular culture and turning them inside out, while simultaneously acknowledging their power. It’s what Bloom does in “Sex With a Stranger” — like “Settle for Me,” taken from last night’s episode, “I’m Going on a Date With Josh’s Friend!” — taking on the let’s-get-busy ambience of a contemporary club hit while pleading with the man she’s just picked up on Tinder, “Please don’t be a murderer.” It’s there in “Face Your Fears,” where Bloom’s co-worker, played by Donna Lynne Champlin, gives her a rousing musical pep talk that degenerates into some truly terrible advice (“Run with scissors… Fly off a building”). It’s a show about people who live in their own heads: not just Bloom’s Rebecca, who in the pilot is shown dumping bottles of meds down the sink, and who owns up (in song, naturally) to having anxiety and depression; but her co-worker, who we see is ignored at home by her husband and children, and seizes on the opportunity to help (or “help”) Rebecca because no one else listens to her; in Rebecca’s ex-boyfriend, Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III), who’s willfully blind to the fact that Rebecca quit her job in New York and moved to California for the express purpose of rekindling their long-dead relationship; even in minor characters like Rebecca’s boss, who introduces a convoluted office custom called “Weekend Tuesdays” that makes sense to no one but him, or her neighbor, a nose-ringed abnormal psych student who sees Rebecca as a fascinating test case.
“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s” musical numbers, many of them co-written with Adam Schlesinger, who’s a genius at parodying cheesy song forms while tapping their essential power, aren’t as explicitly grounded in a single character’s fantasy as the ones in Dennis Potter’s “The Singing Detective,” but they serve a similar purpose, exposing the delusions that allow us to keep on living, and sometimes lead us terribly astray. “Settle for Me” aside, the visual parodies aren’t as sharp as the musical cones, but at their best, they rival “The Amy Schumer Show’s” “Girl, You Don’t Need Makeup,” in which the women who’s purportedly the object of the song’s affection is increasingly treated like a prop. As often happens in life, it’s easy for a duet to turn into a solo, where one person calls the tune and the other just mouths the words.
Update: Because several people have responded to “Why aren’t you watching this show?” with a variation on “Because the title is sexist and offensive,” a brief defense. The best thing about “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is that its title isn’t a metaphor: Rebecca really is mentally ill, and not just crazy in the “Bitches be…” sense. She’s not impulsive and clingy because women are but because she has a chemical imbalance in her brain, as well as a traumatic family history — a fact the show has explicitly referenced in every episode so far. (In the third episode, we flash back to Rebecca’s childhood, expecting an off-the-shelf anecdote about how her friends didn’t show up to her birthday party, and gradually realize we’re witnessing the moment her father walked out of her life forever.) Kickass Miranda Lambert single or no, “crazy ex-girlfriend” is a phrase that repels people; in the show’s credits, even Rebecca herself objects: “That’s a sexist term!” The show’s raison d’être is forcing us to confront what it really means, to understand that what we might be tempted to write off as feminine flightiness might be a combination of deep-rooted psychological ills and socially induced pathology: Even the episode titles, all of which end with exclamation points, read as if they were scripted in the midst of a manic episode. If you understand its subversive intent, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is a perfect title, but you have to watch the show to find that out.