Breaking Bad, Lena Dunham, and 13 Other Influences on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

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Photo: CW, Getty Images, Fox Searchlight, Jeremy Daniel

Spoilers ahead (just in the intro) for the season-one finale of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

If you were stunned by the final moments of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's first season — in which Rachel Bloom’s Rebecca reveals that she did in fact move to West Covina for Josh – showrunner and co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna says it was in the blueprint from day one. “We knew all along we wanted to tell the truth in the final episode,” says McKenna, also a veteran screenwriter (The Devil Wears Prada, Annie) who made her directorial debut on the musical dramedy’s finale. Here, McKenna reveals the TV series, film moments, musicals, Hollywood icons — and, yes, even academic theories — that have most inspired her and Bloom’s “multigenerational” collaboration.

1. Breaking Bad
It’s by far the show we’ve most referenced and talked about. Rachel has often described her character as a “bubbly Walter White.” It’s the idea of somebody, a regular citizen, doing regular things and then, all of a sudden, something comes along and there’s a huge rupture in their life and they deal with the ramifications of it and go in a spiral. That was huge for us. Our meth in the show is Josh Chan. Also, Vince Gilligan was in supreme command of the story; I truly felt like I was watching a 45-hour movie, and that’s what we were endeavoring to also do — tell a very longform story. We’d plotted out four seasons when we pitched the pilot because we were so inspired by what they’d done on Breaking Bad.

2. Broadway musicals
Rachel and I have two sets of backgrounds on this front. I know all the musicals I was in in high school — Gypsy, How to Succeed in Business ..., Godspell, Annie — and Rachel knows every musical that’s ever been written (Laughs). She likes to pretend to have other stuff on her iPod, but she doesn’t. She’s particularly a fan of shows like Cabaret and Chicago; the juxtaposition of light and dark, and also the work of [Stephen] Sondheim. I know a fair bit about Sondheim because I produced a Sondheim benefit concert once. We’ve always tried to find a contemporary, non-corny idiom for how to do a musical in a show that is thought-provoking and not corny.

3. Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher
She’s done many amazing TED talks, like “The Brain in Love” and “Why We Love” and “Why We Cheat.” She is an amazing brainy intellectual in a black turtleneck and really explains evolution and infatuation; how love is located in certain areas of your brain that also control urges like thirst and hunger. Attachment love is mysterious in the brain. She actually puts people in an MRI and analyzes what love looks like; what makes people behave when they’re in love, especially infatuation love. I sent our writers the Helen Fisher TED talks when we started writing the show, in order to dig into the scientific underpinning of love. She’s at the Kinsey Institute in California and I met her at TED and told her about the show, and that she had been influential to us. At the time, the show was nowhere near being on the air and she was like “Uh, okay, thanks?”

4. Rachel’s and my own dating histories
We are more familiar with each other’s dating history than any other partners should be (Laughs). These experiences form the spine of the show. I haven’t been single since 1996, but that hasn’t stopped me from making sweeping pronouncements about dating and love or telling people what to do. These experiences are so embedded in our brains by adrenaline that we never forget them. Everybody has dated the types of guys we portray in the show, or been in a love triangle. You think a relationship is going to solve your problems, but there’s a point in your life where you realize that’s not the solution to anything. It’s not an end unto itself.

5. Executive producer Marc Webb/(500) Days of Summer
He came in when Rachel and I had already written the pilot and has had a huge influence in terms of finding the tone of transitioning to our musical pieces. We’d seen the musical number from his movie (500) Days of Summer, “You Make My Dreams,” and loved the transition from the real world into fantasy of that musical number, how seamless it was. Marc set the visual template for all the directors who’ve worked on the show. All the musical numbers are shot with a lot of imagination and style, but the style of the rest of the show is very simple classic-Hollywood, visually. That comes from Marc. We actually spent more time on the transitions than we did on the songs themselves, because we have to make sure that when you’re bridging these worlds, there’s a believable transition. The times when we haven’t done that gracefully, we’ve had to retrofit them. The other thing about Marc, who actually directed the pilot, is that he is a really nurturing presence. Rachel was not well-known at all at the beginning but he always treated her as the brilliant visionary that she is. He created a very safe environment for everyone.

6. The concept of ‘limerence’
It’s from a book from the 1970s written by Dorothy Tennov. She coined the phrase. It’s similar to what Helen Fisher writers about, but from a different angle. It’s an attempt to scientifically break down what romantic love is and why we pursue it in the way that we do. The idea is that Rebecca has underlying mental-health issues, but she’s also being plunged into this severe infatuation state, and the term for that here is limerence. It’s affecting her ability to move on from Josh Chan. [It’s] the idea of what we’ll do for love and the biological imperative behind it.

7. Carol Burnett
She’s my childhood hero and probably my biggest role model comedically. I always had in my mind, How can I do something that resembles The Carol Burnett Show in some weird fashion? When I saw Rachel’s work for the first time, that’s something I thought about instantly. We had lunch with her not long ago. She’s a fan of the show and we’re trying to find something for her to do in season two.

8. Our childhoods
The character of Rebecca Bunch is a mixture of Rachel and me. The parts where she escaped into fantasy and sees everything as a plot point in a giant musical comes from Rachel and her childhood and her immersion in music. The grade-grubbing, overly Type-A, being concerned about things like an Oxford comma, correcting people’s grammar — that comes from me. I went to Harvard, and you can’t talk about Harvard without sounding smug. They talk about it incessantly. We both always felt like outsiders growing up, which you especially see in the song Rachel wrote, “We Have Friends.” It says a lot about childhood.

9. Liz Lemon
This was a huge inspiration for us in terms of Liz being an anti-hero whenever they wanted her to be. That show broke ground for women because Liz is so flawed in such a hilarious way. I’ve always said that the last frontier of feminism is getting to be an asshole, and Liz Lemon can do things that are so craven and selfish and ridiculous, but you still want to understand what she’s doing and why.

10. Romantic comedies and Disney-princess musicals
I’m really familiar with the rom-com trope, as I’ve written a few (27 Dresses, The Laws of Attraction), and Rachel wrote a brilliant parody of Disney princesses. The similarities between the two genres is the idea of being sold some happily-ever-after that’s going to fix your life, particularly marketed to women. It’s all amazing in light of the fact that we know this is not true, we know this is not what happens, we know this is not the way the world works, but we continually market this stuff to very young girls, despite the fact that we live in a world surrounded by busted love stories. Half of families are people who got divorced. Often what those “magical moments” lead to are hideous breakups. They don’t solve personal problems. The problems that these girls have are not going to be solved by a love partner. Yet it’s such a persistent fantasy. The theme here is the behaviors that are treated as normal in society but are actually quite crazy. Rom-coms and princess narratives are a huge part of normalizing irrational behavior in pursuit of love.

11. Top-40 radio
Rachel and I are from different generations, so we have very different pop-music references. The song from our show, “We Have Friends,” definitely comes from a '90s boy-band style or credit sequence for a '90s TV show. Adam Schlesinger, our brilliant songwriter and producer, and I are the same age and have similar top-40 memories from growing up. Adam and I have songs like “Textmergency” and “Getting Bi” from our era; hair-metal rock and a Huey Lewis influence. But then, “Put Yourself First” is a contemporary girl-group sound, and “Having a Few People Over” is an EDM sound. Adam has an amazing frame of reference that spans both Rachel and me.

12. Lena Dunham
A lot of the things we’ve done we wouldn’t have been able to do without Lena. She really changed how women can be depicted, going really boldly into the anti-hero idea. Exploring her body with little or no vanity? Rachel’s all about that. She’s never concerned about “Do I look pretty in this?” She’s most concerned about “Is this real? Is this how this person’s body would actually be seen?” Rachel doesn’t like to present an over-idealized, aspirational view of what a woman her age would be. And Lena has been such an innovator in terms of an authentic 20-something voice. The fact that Girls was already on the air and had made such a huge cultural impact was very meaningful when we were pitching the show. The same holds true for Broad City in terms of people understanding that there was this new wave of comedians who have different relationships with their bodies; with what it means to be objectified and how that feels. A song of ours like “Heavy Boobs” isn’t about the experience of someone looking at boobs — it’s an experience of having boobs. 

13. West Covina, C.A.
Rachel grew up in Southern California, and I’ve lived there for 25 years. We are just tickled every day that we get a chance to set our show in the Southern California suburbs. Everyone has seen a lot of depictions of the East Coast suburbs, like where I grew up in New Jersey, but I don’t think people were as familiar with what I call Hot New Jersey; that Southern California baking heat, where you get into your car and it’s sort of like going into a piece of actively erupting Vesuvius. We love West Covina. We went there to do a lot of research. We try to shoot there as much as we can. It was a huge influence on the show in terms of the actual place and the fact that it’s so ethnically diverse. Again, to go back to Breaking Bad, the way they used Albuquerque so specifically, that’s something that we strive to do with our show.

14. Jane the Virgin
Without this show, we wouldn’t be on the air. When Showtime passed on our pilot, we were desperately looking for another place that would pick up the show. We tried a million places and got passed on. I had started watching Jane, and although it’s a different show in many ways, in terms of how it was formally interesting, it had a handy way to describe a woman: virgin, ex-girlfriend, but sort of exploring the stereotype of that and getting out from under it, and the idea that it’s not totally realistic. It’s doing something fizzy and fun, but also treating serious themes. Gina Rodriguez really galvanizes the show in the same Rachel does ours. I remember watching Gina win that Golden Globe and I swear to God, I was texting Marc [Webb] saying, “This could be Rachel next year. It could be Rachel.”

15. Hamilton
A lot of TV shows have a “room show,” a series that everyone watches. Our room show is Hamilton. We are super mega fans here. If I sing a line from it, there are at least four people who will sing the next one. After we made the pilot and were thinking about moving forward with it, I saw Hamilton, six weeks into its run [at the Public Theater]. I had never heard of it, so I was lucky enough to see it un-hyped. I brought my son to New York for spring break, he was 15, and I thought, “Maybe this is a musical that won’t make him barf.” It was so brilliant that I started weeping halfway through it because we were witnessing this thing that you could tell was going to be so huge. It’s obviously a hip-hop musical and we only occasionally do hip-hop—like the “Jap Rap Battle” – but mostly it’s that Hamilton isn’t corny. That’s very inspiring because we are always looking for influences in musicals that speak to contemporary people, not those that seem like relics from another era.