One of the more ingenious ways the CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” gets in your head, or at least my head, is its use of the iPhone text alert as a sort of insidious leitmotif. I do it every time: Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) gets a text, that infernal tritone chime goes off, and I reach for my phone, inevitably to realize that the message is neither real nor for me. Slowly the insecurity bubbles up: Wait, why hasn’t anyone texted me? Did I say something wrong, everything wrong? Am I not as worthy of love as this resolutely unlovable TV character? Do my friends finally, after all these years, see through me? It’s an unscratchable itch, an anxiety appropriate for a show in which anxiety — or worse — lurks behind even the spriteliest moments. If happiness is possible in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” it is a fragile kind — a breathless happiness always looking over its shoulder, always on the run.
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Never has this been truer than in tonight’s installment, “I’m So Happy That Josh Is So Happy!”, in which — spoiler alert — ain’t nobody happy. A crash course in denial, the episode finds Rebecca struggling to accept that Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III) is indeed moving in with Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz). First she self-medicates with liquor and botches a meeting with an important client (think Don Draper’s Hershey breakdown, but with ink-stained teeth instead of an R-rated trip down memory lane).
At the behest of an imagined Dr. Phil (it’s not totally clear whether this is a hallucination or just, you know, comedy), Rebecca visits a psychiatrist who refuses merely to prescribe away her ailments. So she finds an upper on the shrink’s bathroom floor, takes it, tempers it by getting high with her neighbor Heather (Vella Lovell), and ultimately finds herself back at the doctor’s door — or, rather, halfway through the doctor’s doggie-door. Threatened with legal action, Rebecca finally (mercifully!) agrees to get therapy. But naturally, a text from Josh lures her out of her first session the second she sits down.
This is a momentous episode both for Rebecca, who indeed needs help, and for the show, which so far has mostly flirted with the true depth of her unhappiness. Yes, the pilot’s inciting incident is a panic attack that ends with Rebecca pouring her meds down the drain in a new house on a new coast. Yes, each week she finds new and terrifying methods of self-sabotage. But only in “I’m So Happy” does “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” openly confront the reality of its title — a title that, by the by, has generated no small share of criticism. Rare is the review that does not question that loaded phrase, suggesting it is somehow a crutch for an otherwise promising comedy. But it is no such thing.
Far from reflecting or reinforcing misogynist stereotypes, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is a liberating release. The airwaves are populated with tortured, brooding male protagonists whose destructive qualities we celebrate. On the other side are a slew of zany women who always manage to succeed in spite of themselves — who may be off-kilter, sure, but adorably so. As Caroline Framke puts it so excellently over at Vox, what feels refreshing about shows like “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is their embrace of women who are wholly unhappy, often unlikable, and who still deserve our sympathy.
In an interview with Indiewire, Bloom suspects displeasure with the title probably stems from expectations about network television (“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” was originally developed for Showtime). “I don’t know what else it would be called,” she said. “If you called a show, like, ‘Frat Douchebag’ or ‘Stupid Bitch,’ and it was on HBO or Netflix, people would know it wasn’t a silly show playing into stereotype. But when you’re on a network, I think people tend to take it at face value.”
This is a mistake, as Claire Fallon writes on the Huffington Post. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” does more than reclaim its titular phrase; it forces us to reckon with our expectations of femininity, love, and — yes — mental illness. “It’s limning the gap,” Fallon argues, “between how far women have come in our ideals and expectations, and how far society has actually progressed.” This is the sad message of numbers like “The Sexy Getting Ready Song,” in which Nipsey Hussle laments the patriarchy even as Rebecca succumbs to it: There’s screwed up stuff in this world, and it persists even when we recognize how screwed up it is. This is as true of institutional sexism as it is of depression. You can talk about it, medicate it, or write a damn TV show about it, but it’s not going away anytime soon.
“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s” perceived insensitivity may ultimately lend it that much more power. It is the job of comedy to subvert expectation, and here is a beautiful symphony of subversions. The apparent lightness of its form — a straight-up musical comedy with no diegetic excuse for song and dance – gives the show a rare opportunity to lure viewers into unpredictable darkness. Consider one of tonight’s two numbers, “Sexy French Depression,” which pokes fun at romanticized notions of depression by casting Bloom as a black-clad ingenue with sunglasses and a cigarette.
“We wanted to explore the idea of this fetishized sad woman,” said Bloom, “who’s so sad and so sexy because of it. I feel like a lot of serious music lives in generalizations — love is a flower, the sky is so dark — but comedy lives in specifics. So for her it’s, ‘I’m so depressed I bought a book about John Wayne Gacy online.'” The song is an apt takedown of the too-common glamorization of depression, and like the show itself, it’s not content simply with being funny. Consider the sudden, transcendent, unvarnished honesty of its final verses:
My anxiety is so out of / control that all I can think / about is / thinking about thinking / about fixing / everything I’ve ever done / wrong and all of the ways / I’ve already messed up my life beyond repair. / If I think about it / hard enough eventually I’ll / get the / answer but I’ve forgotten what the / question was.
It’s sad. It’s surprising. It’s wholely, unpretentiously confessional. Such content is typically the purview of poetry — probably bad poetry — but in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” feels both necessary and true. Zack Handlen wrote in a recent A.V. Club essay that animated comedies like “BoJack Horseman” and “Rick and Morty” are uniquely equipped to subvert light forms for dark purposes, finding compelling sadness in unsuspecting places. With its screwball gags and spirited musical numbers giving way to touching emotional revelations, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is persuasive evidence that live-action television has the same power. There’s truth in comedy; sometimes, finding it requires us to forsake comedy altogether. Now, if only more people would watch it.
“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” airs Mondays at 9pm on The CW.