‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ Is Smart, Sexy, Unapologetically Feminist TV
Many have derided the new CW series’ unfortunate-sounding title. But the musical comedy challenges female stereotypes, and is one of the best new shows on television.
There is near universal consensus that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has a terrible title. There is also near universal consensus that it’s an excellent show. Only one of those things is true.
The CW’s new musical comedy is easily the most underwatched show of the fall season, and its seemingly ill-advised title is actually perfect despite how regressive it might seem. Sometimes, to destroy something, you have to dive deep into its heart, like the Millennium Falcon into the Death Star, and blow it up from the inside. And that’s exactly what Crazy Ex-Girlfriend does with the loaded stereotype in its title.
Now the lead-in to Jane the Virgin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend stars former YouTuber Rachel Bloom as Rebecca Bunch, a New York City lawyer who turns down a promotion to pursue Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III), a long-ago summer camp fling who now lives in the snoozy L.A. suburb of West Covina. (In the show’s grandiose opening number, Rebecca sings about the sparkle of the concrete and the charm of “Chez Applebee’s” before being hoisted above a strip mall inside of a giant soft pretzel.)
On its surface, the plot sounds almost aggressively anti-feminist. A woman who detonates her career on a whim for a man who is barely aware that she exists? Not in the enlightened 2010s, when female comic leads from Leslie Knope to Mindy Lahiri all find a way to balance their personal lives with high-powered careers. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend turns its back on that tradition, and it’s getting some backlash for it.
“This oppresses women!” someone scrawled on a subway ad campaign for the show, which shows Bloom channelling the Overly Attached Girlfriend next to the tagline “Never. Let. Go.” Another subway critic wrote, “Stupid show makes women all look dumb,” but this criticism was crossed out by a defender who replaced it with: “She’s a lead actress! Good for her!”
On Twitter, Bloom suggested that those responsible for the graffiti actually, you know, watch her show to decide for themselves:
If they did, they’d discover that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is one of the smartest and savviest shows on TV.
The instinct to be alarmed by the show’s advertising is probably a good one, informed by the treatment of obsessive female characters in the past. But it’s time to trust female creators to tell nuanced stories about flawed women without getting skittish about stereotypes. With Bloom behind the helm, this show isn’t a mockery of all women—it’s a relatable portrait of just one.
The songs are especially charming. In “The Sexy Getting Ready Song,” Bloom takes aim at female grooming rituals, dancing on top of her toilet in Spanx while a rapper (Nipsey Hussle) stares in horror at the sheer number of products on her sink.
“That’s some nasty ass patriarchal bullshit,” he says soberly, stopping mid-rap to “go apologize to some bitches.”
“Good at Yoga,” from the show’s second episode in which Rebecca meets (and envies) Josh’s perfect girlfriend Valencia, is a window into the mind of every woman who feels outclassed by perfectly-toned, boxed water-drinking peers. Amid boasts that she is flexible enough to “kiss [her] own hoo-ha,” Valencia taunts Rebecca about her weight and, cruelly, her parents’ divorce, all while dancing her way through a series of contorted poses.
“Face Your Fears,” sung by Rebecca’s new best friend Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin), is a send-up of the female empowerment ballad featuring some truly terrible advice like “swim right after eating” and “wipe back to front” sung with all the power of a young Whitney Houston.
But this is an hour-long show, and with just two or three songs per week, that leaves a lot of time left over for comedy of the non-musical variety. That’s where Crazy Ex-Girlfriend gets weird and, surprisingly, subversive.
The frenetic pace of its musical numbers, which clearly have roots in YouTube culture, are offset by cringe comedy. That contrast feels a little jarring at first, but it grows on you like a specialty cocktail with unusual ingredients that somehow ends up not being a waste of fifteen dollars. This isn’t a joke-a-second sitcom with a few flashy viral music videos thrown in for good measure—it’s a strange, slow-building story about an obsessive young woman who, for some reason, occasionally breaks out into song.
And this particular woman is a far cry from the crazy ex stereotype that passengers of the F train seem to think she is.
Rebecca is a character whose weaknesses extend beyond a few trite character quirks like eating a lot of waffles or ham or whatever food the writers’ room chose to make their female comic lead seem human. In the premiere, Rebecca goes off her meds and, by the third, she’s having flashbacks about childhood trauma and imagining Josh as “a team of licensed mental health professionals” who comfort her in the guise of her favorite childhood boy band (a 98 Degrees rip-off called Room Temperature).
It’s not Breaking Bad but it’s pretty damn dark for a musical comedy.
Most importantly, the show humanizes its lead instead of outright pathologizing her. The idea that women are innately “crazy” is one of the oldest misogynist myths in the book—but that doesn’t mean that a story about a woman pursuing a man in an unhealthy way should be off-limits, especially if it’s told as expertly as this one. Women are humans and humans make stereotypical mistakes. It’s even permissible to laugh when they make them on television, provided the presentation isn’t condescending or mean. And this deeply funny show is neither.
Forget the subway graffiti. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend earns its name.