It started out like a fairy tale.
Rebecca Bunch, the titular Crazy Ex-Girlfriend of the CW’s delightfully subversive musical comedy, had finally gotten her man: Josh Chan, the ditzy-adorable Filipino bro she dated in high school and had become suddenly, obsessively determined to win back.
It had taken a year of manufactured meet-cutes and not-so-low-key stalking after she moved across the country to his southern California hometown. She even admitted defeat at one point and settled for Josh’s best friend, a beguilingly grouchy bartender named Greg. But if there’s anything the romantic comedy industrial complex has taught women, it’s that true love, a woman’s highest purpose, always wins in the end.
Then it happened: Our heroine and her Prince Charming stole off into the night together, confessed their feelings for each other and made love in a convertible—nothing short of destiny in her oxytocin-addled eyes. Finally, her shambolic personal life would be healed by the affection of this dreamy, muscular man, just like the movies (and one trippy butter commercial) promised.
Of course, real life isn’t like a movie. No curtain call came after Rebecca got her happy ending. And her Prince Charming quickly morphed back into a skittish human being after discovering that the woman he’d just slept with left a six-figure job for him after one chance meeting in New York.
Season 2 of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend finds Rebecca still struggling to convince Josh, now reluctantly living in her apartment, to commit to a relationship—or even just to keep his things in one of her drawers. Whether Josh is falling for her, whether he isn’t, whether Greg is feeling her too—are all distractions that Rebecca, an otherwise brilliant and talented lawyer, still uses to avoid addressing her own emotional and mental health.
And yes, it’s still a cringeworthy thing to watch a woman do. But it’s also, whether we’d admit it or not, innately relatable.
“It’s something most of us have done to a certain extent,” says Aline Brosh McKenna, co-creator of the show along with former YouTube star Rachel Bloom. “It’s easier to worry about ‘boy this, boy that’ than it is to deal with your own issues. And it kind of fits with what our society tells women in particular, which is that your love life is the preeminent thing that needs to be sorted out.”
As it proved last season, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a more staunchly feminist show than its title lets on. Rather than perpetuate the stereotype of the clingy “crazy ex,” the show subverts the trope by diving headfirst into it. What emerges is an empathetic portrait of a smart, accomplished woman prone to the same insecurities (and terrible life decisions) as the rest of us.
Led by McKenna (known for her work on The Devil Wears Prada), Bloom, and a writer’s room full of women, the show’s first season wowed critics and audiences with its thoughtful portrayals of everyday life rarely seen on TV, from Filipino Thanksgivings to depression to male bisexuality.
And while Season 1 often focused on a flawed heroine’s denial about her reasons for uprooting her life to move to a man’s hometown, Season 2, says McKenna, finds her in a new phase, one driven by “that certainty you feel when you’re absolutely, totally convinced that this person is meant to be with you”—even if anyone else with eyes could tell you they’re plainly not.
Rebecca’s part-delusion, part-determination is captured in the season’s first musical number, a Beyoncé and Lady Gaga-inspired avant-garde pop song called “Love Kernel.” In it she sings about her frustratingly casual relationship with Josh and the affirmation she finds herself weaning from every scant interaction with him. “Little compliments here and there that I stockpile in my woman brain,” she intones while dressed like a cactus. “I can live for days off a single, ‘You really listen to me.’”
The characters around Rebecca, meanwhile—from former flame Greg to her coworkers Paula and Darryl (whose coming out as bisexual last season was one of many series standouts)—continue to exist as flawed, fully realized people. Each, as McKenna puts it, has “their own problems and issues and thoughts and feelings that are completely unrelated to her,” a deliberately uncommon move in the romantic comedy genre where supporting characters often exist only in relation to the ingenue.
Paula, a married, middle-aged paralegal (who often doubled as audience surrogate in the first season with her voyeuristic delight in Rebecca’s antics), makes a bold, self-caring move, especially for a character designated as “the best friend”: she pulls away from Rebecca’s schemes, going so far as to draft a contract for their friendship that bans Rebecca from involving her in her love life.
Instead, Paula embarks on a dream of her own: applying to law school. The show cleverly likens Paula’s hesitant, hopeful thrill in chasing a new ambition in her mid-forties to a Disney princess finding love in “Maybe This Dream,” a Sleeping Beauty-esque ode to the way life gets in the way: “When I was a little girl, I felt like a princess,” she sings. “So naive and full of hope / I thought my dreams would come true / But then as I grew, the world was all like, ah-ha-ha-ha, nope.”
Meanwhile Greg, who withdrew from Rebecca, his friends and his job for a month, reemerges to make a shocking admission: he’s an alcoholic and has been attending court-mandated Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. It’s a revelation that seems obvious in retrospect, given a season’s worth of warning signs. It’s also, in a small way, heartbreaking since none of his friends (nor the audience) ever noticed.
“It’s something we always knew about him,” says McKenna. “We would make an effort in [Season 1] episodes to make sure that he had a whiskey next to him and that he’d order some booze. If you go back and look, you’ll see that at every important event in the show, he’s leaning on booze to get him through it.”
“Greg’s Drinking Song,” a boisterous number done in the style of an Irish folk song, features Greg explaining to his friends why he can’t drink with them anymore and why that’s OK. McKenna says she and Bloom made a point of reaching out to real mental health experts and people who have been in recovery to speak to the writer’s room, resulting in a real-life perspective that shines through in the show’s treatment of everyday details about going sober.
And while Rebecca often still imagines herself in a love triangle with Greg and Josh, the show’s treatment of that trope this season is also more thoughtful and deliberately subversive than one might expect.
“We’re exploring what that means and is that a real thing and why do those things happen in people’s lives,” says McKenna. “Why do people decide they’re stuck in this thing? The love triangle that Rebecca’s in doesn’t really exist in this moment. She believes she’s in one, even though at certain times it’s not clear whether either or both of them are interested in her. So it’s a bit something of her own creation.”
“Rachel and I both feel that the love triangle is usually an outgrowth of some kind of mental health failure,” she continues. “When someone thinks they are torn between two people, there is often something deeper and possibly not completely healthy in their life that is causing the indecision—not true in all cases, but definitely in Rebecca’s.”
Currently, Bloom and McKenna have four seasons mapped out, a number that’s remained consistent from the show’s earliest days, from back “when it didn’t exist, to before we pitched it, to when it got passed on,” McKenna says with a laugh. “We just have always had the ideas for what we wanted to do with this story in mind.”
Whether the CW will order a Season 3 is still up in the air—the show has a frustratingly small if devoted audience—but McKenna says jokes, storylines, and song ideas are already being “stockpiled” for the future. For now, she's taking notes from Paula in cautious optimism. And so are we. TV needs its smart, sexy and subversively feminist crazy ex-girlfriend.