When “shebrew from Scarsdale” Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) reaches the end of her rope, her first instinct is to flee. In true rom-com fashion, she boards a plane for New York — and, in true “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” fashion, sets off instead on a sleeping pill-fueled, Motown-inflected “spectral vacation,” guided through her past by a “dream ghost” in the guise of her therapist. Near the end of the episode, from the sparkling second half of the series’ debut season, Dr. Akopian (Michael Hyatt) advises Rebecca not to lose sight of the full life she’s built in West Covina, Calif., in the quest to land the man of her dreams, and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” listens. Scuttling the winks at its premise problem to confront the issue head on, The CW’s musical comedy emerges as an Emmy contender, more confident than ever in its inimitable voice.
Always witty and self-aware, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” now features the structure to match, evolving beyond its blinkered interest in Rebecca’s crush on the kindly, bland Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) to embrace Dr. Akopian’s looser definition of love: platonic, professional, familial. As in classic Hollywood musicals, this instinct for reinvention is embedded in the series’ finest original numbers, from a “Les Mis”-inspired march into the county courthouse and a one-take grunge anthem sung by “sourpuss” Greg Serrano (Santino Fontana) to the deliriously entertaining “JAP Battle,” an homage to early ’90s hip-hop from two high-achieving loners. Even the series’ approach to sex and romance seems more free-spirited, as if to telegraph Rebecca’s acceptance that her interest in Josh is, at the moment, a lost cause. When she laments their one-on-one dinner becoming a “Group Hang,” after all, she also unleashes the takedown of “fusion” cuisine that history will remember: “I feel like I’m being gaslighted by this restaurant!”
With these charming, funny excursions into workplace competition and “Chinatown”-esque conspiracies, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” breathes easier, replacing the protest-too-much insistence of the catchy theme — which describes its own title as “sexist” — with a more playful understanding of its multilayered politics. If the series were a language, its most common tense might be called the progressive imperfect: Inclusive, surely, but conscious of the characters’ limited perspectives. Shortly before Rebecca’s boss, Darryl (Pete Gardner), comes out, for instance — “I’m a bothsexual!” he exclaims — White Josh (David Hull), who’s gay, explains why it’s not fair to position straightness, or whiteness, as society’s default setting; the slight grain of the images in “JAP Battle” suggests rich kids in the New York suburbs mimicking the rap culture they see on MTV. Once content with the nudge nudge, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” has since deployed a certain ironic distance, highlighting the comic excesses that are its foremost delight.
Bloom and her co-creator, A-list Hollywood screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (“The Devil Wears Prada”), use this tactic to cut through the clutter surrounding the central love story, and it’s here that the series finally earns the point it’s been trying to make all along. Sending up Rebecca’s self-pity with the gauzy, soft-focus camerawork of “You Stupid Bitch,” a torch song worthy of a diva’s farewell performance, or positioning her as the villain of her own fairy tale, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” draws a bright line between pop-cultural fantasies and the rough edges of real life. By the time Rebecca (literally) becomes the bitch in a mediocre rom-com’s poster, we’re already well aware that she’s anything but — her feckless search for the Hollywood ending falls into the same category as the trope the series has spent its accomplished first season shredding. It’s gaslighting by another name.
Whether the Hollywood Foreign Press saw the germ of this sharper, roomier “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” in Bloom’s Golden Globe-winning performance or simply sought a change of pace, I hope the TV Academy takes notice— of her, of the ensemble’s unsung MVP, Donna Lynne Champlin, as Rebecca’s no-bull friend Paula Proctor, and of the series itself. In recent years, the Globes have adopted an unpredictable and forward-thinking — if somewhat eccentric — approach that the Emmys, consistent to a fault, might learn from. Since “Veep” star Julia Louis-Dreyfus (not undeservedly) seized control of the Emmys, for example, the HFPA has honored Bloom, Gina Rodriguez (“Jane the Virgin”), Amy Poehler (“Parks and Recreation”), and Lena Dunham (“Girls”), drawing attention to a much broader swath of TV comedy in the process.
Irrespective of the TV Academy’s approval, it’s clear that the cultural criticism woven through “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is borne out of love for the medium, and frustration at its failings. Before we see the caged princess and bubbling cauldron of “The Villain of My Own Story,” the series’ astute, self-reflexive peak, Rebecca sings of becoming “the bad guy in my TV show,” and for a brief moment — no more than a flash — she glances at the camera. It’s as if she’s acknowledging that we’re watching, commenting, and critiquing, too, and she’s ready to respond in kind.
“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” airs Mondays at 8pm on The CW.