After a four-season run, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend will air its last episode simply titled ‘I’m in Love’ on April 5th. Over the course of sixty-one episodes, the show has, in an unparalleled manner, deconstructed and reconstructed the very foundations of romcoms and mental illness. In 2015 when it was announced that YouTuber and all-around music theatre nerd Rachel Bloom would star in and co-create a musical comedy for The CW network eyebrows were raised. TV musicals do not exactly have a good reputation from Glee famous for its off the rails incoherence to Smash famous for the vigour with which some critics and the general public it. The CW which was once seen as the network for teenage guilty pleasure shows like Gossip Girl and seemingly infinite superhero shows has carved out a niche when it comes to deceptively brilliant female-led shows. True to CW form soon the show was critically acclaimed yet attracted low viewership numbers, however, before long the show had garnered a loyal army of fans insistent that despite the silly name and even sillier premise it was a show that mattered.
On the surface, Bloom’s Rebecca Bunch has it all, an Ivy League education and a high powered job at a prestigious Manhattan law firm where she is on the verge of being made partner. But in reality, she’s friendless, unfulfilled and plagued by life long afflictions – her toxic mother and absentee father. She has been raised on a steady diet of romcoms, musicals and fairy tales in which you do anything for love. Rebecca may be successful and intelligent but she fundamentally has no sense of herself as a person. So after a chance encounter with her first love, the attractive but seemingly dopey Josh, she latches onto the idea of him, he will be her knight in shining armour. Throwing her anti-depressants away she decides to uproot her entire future and move across the country to his home town, all the while insisting the move is most definitely, most assuredly not because of him. Egged on by her new friend and surrogate mother Paula she plots to steal Josh away from his glamorous childhood sweetheart Valencia. While Rebecca sings, dances, plots and wheedles her way into Josh’s life, it becomes increasingly clear she has serious untreated mental health problems. Too often in romantic comedies destructive or even downright illegal behaviour is painted as quirky, endearing or as a sign of devotion from lying and interfering with other people’s lives to stalking to blackmail and to not taking no as an answer, hounding your crush until they finally cave in. For instance think about old school rom coms like While You Were Sleeping in which the heroine deceives the family of a man in a coma into thinking they’re a couple, or what about the more modern Sierra Burgess is a Loser where the titular character pretends to be someone else to land the object of her desires.
On the surface, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a visually colourful and sunny show about off-beat characters’ zany hijinks and antics but it excels in a distinctive cringe comedy that is meta and often dark. In an essay for The New York Times co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna wrote ‘We did stories on abortion and menstruation and bisexuality and orgasms. We dealt with the messy details of being a human, creating flawed characters who did troubling, complicated, wonderful things. As a screenwriter, I’d been bludgeoned with the need to make characters likeable.’ The newfound cast of friends, potential love interests and enemies that orbit Rebecca are all in their own ways also a little bit messed up to varying degrees. Characters that could be stock rom-com tropes gradually become fleshed out full characters that you may not always root for but that you genuinely want to see grow and improve. Valencia is the pretty mean girl, Greg is the snarky cynical counterpart of the heart-throb, Josh is the high school has-been and eternal man child, and Nathaniel is the emotionally stunted bad boy. In a lesser show, Greg would be a perfect choice, Valencia would be punished and Rebecca would simply be the painfully quirky kooky manic pixie dream girl who brightens up her love interests’ dull lives. However, Greg is an equally self-destructive alcoholic and Rebecca is the mean girl in Valencia’s story.
Rebecca is a sympathetic yet flawed anti-hero, she’s smart and will do anything for her friends but she’s also selfish, irresponsible, equally manipulative and hypocritical. Her self-loathing is vitriolic and hard to watch. Rebecca Bloom is not a monster, she is not fundamentally broken but she is too often the villain in her own story. She has been mistreated by those who are supposed to love her, she has been misdiagnosed and institutionalized. She has done terrible things on her desperate quest for happiness. She tells herself lies to justify her actions. She transcends stereotypes of what a rom-com heroine is meant to be. Over the course of four seasons we see her confront her past, make real friends, spiral, refuse treatment, pick herself up again, grow and stumble yet again. Rebecca has to learn to save herself and learn that a boyfriend will not solve her problems.
In the past few years, there has been an explosion of shows looking at the intersections of mental health and romance such as Love and You’re the Worst, which also feature anti-heroes who really shouldn’t be pursuing any romantic relationships. However, the show undoubtedly stands out as one of more original and inventive. To borrow a line from the show which describes its protagonist, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is hard to summarize. It’s weird and funny and tragicomic, it is often dark with unexpected twists yet ultimately it is a redemptive and cathartic show about recovery and growth. Farewell, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, often downright ridiculous and equally profound, you’ll be missed.
By Edel Carmody – Film Writer