The Golden Age of Television has led inquisitive viewers into all sorts of hitherto unexplored corners of the grid: Who would have thunk a year ago that two of the critically acclaimed shows of the year would be airing on Lifetime (“UnReal”) and USA (“Mr Robot”)? But the strangest phenomenon for me has been how often I find myself tuning to the CW — as often as five times a week, which amounts to half of the network’s prime-time lineup, and more shows than I watch on any other network, at least at the same time. Granted, I’m perpetually on the verge of dropping “Arrow” and “Legends of Tomorrow,” but “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Jane the Virgin,” and “The Flash” are consistent highlights of my TV-watching week, serving as a perennial reminder that it’s possible to impart complexity to a genre show without always going dark.
Even in the Peak TV era, it’s hard to imagine another network taking a chance on many of the CW’s shows, let alone renewing them based on their sometimes meager ratings. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” was developed for Showtime, but a high-concept musical about a borderline stalker with clinical depression turned out to be more than they could handle, and it was only through the grace of corporate synergy that the CW was able to pick it up (after it was retooled to be more in line with the CW’s PG-rated standards). Cable has traditionally been where shows that were too wild for networks went; it’s incredibly rare for it to work the other way around.
For fans like me, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s” renewal was something close to a miracle: As with “Hannibal,” I’d adjusted to thinking of every episode as a gift, knowing something so singular couldn’t possibly remain on the air for long. But as “Crazy Ex-” nears the end of its first season tonight, it faces another challenge: the exhaustion of its premise. (Spoilers for those who aren’t fully caught up.) As the title implies — and the theme song lays out every week — Rachel Bloom’s Rebecca Bunch is primarily defined by her attachment to Josh, her long-lost summer-camp boyfriend. He’s the reason she quit her high-powered Manhattan law firm job, moved cross-country and resettled in the sunny nowhere of West Covina, California, and much of the season has been organized around the thrill of the chase. She successfully engineered a rift between Josh and his fiancée, and even got as far as exchanging a kiss with him, but their (re-)blossoming relationship fell apart, and last week she ended up in bed with Josh’s best friend, Greg, who’s as dark and complicated as Josh is sunny and simple. They had several days’ worth of great sex, enough for Rebecca to contract a UTI — and for Greg to sing an exultant song about giving her one — but with one episode left in the season, the question isn’t if their brief idyll will collapse, but how. As Bloom has admitted, if Rebecca is happy, the show is over.
“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” has worked mightily in its last few episodes to deepen and shift our understanding of what Rebecca’s obsession with Josh means, suggesting that he’s merely a proxy for the uncomplicated happiness of a better time in her life; she was successful in New York, but she was miserable, and it took opening a window into her past for her to realize she needed to get out of there, and fast. But even so, the show is called “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”: If Rebecca fully resolves her feelings towards Josh, what’s left? That goes for “Jane the Virgin,” too, which has spent much of its second season bouncing its title character between virtuous-but-dull Michael and bad-boy baby daddy Raphael, with a brief pit stop at Adam Rodriguez’s sexy writing teacher in between. It was with the latter that Jane came closest to finally having sex — if you’ve seen the “Magic Mike” movies, you no doubt sympathize — but once he found out she was a virgin, Professor Hottie got cold feet. Can there be a “Jane the Virgin” without Jane, the virgin? We’ll have to wait and see.
It’s entirely to the credit of CW president Mark Pedowitz that its recent shows have arrived so fully formed, with little in the way of first-season wobbles: “The Flash” had “Arrow” to build on (and learn from), but “Jane” and “Crazy Ex-” were out on their own, in territory where a slight miscalculation of tone could have spelled disaster. But the shows’ tone, and their premises, are so specific that they leave precious little room to evolve. Many of TV’s greatest shows have found themselves as they go: The first season of “Seinfeld,” for one, was famously not ready for prime time. (It wasn’t even called “Seinfeld.”) Procedurals shows can rely on that structure to keep them humming; even a straight drama like “The Good Wife” can use Alicia’s cases as a reliable structure. Hell, even “Hannibal” usually had its murder of the week. But “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “Jane the Virgin” don’t have those building blocks: They’ve got a great idea, and that will last as long as it lasts.