Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a national treasure, and so is its star and co-creator, Rachel Bloom, who tears through the first episodes of season three like a show-tune-belting tornado. Perennially a top candidate for the title of “the best show you’re not watching” — though it goes without saying that if you’re reading this, you’re already a fan — Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna’s series about a self-destructive lawyer is one of TV’s richest ongoing achievements. The sheer number of things it does well amounts to a show in itself. It’s a screwball comedy, a romance, a musical, a fantasy, a workplace satire, and an affectionate portrait of modern life in an unremarkable suburb (specifically West Covina, California). And it’s a lacerating psychological drama that understands and empathizes with all of its central characters, even the most destructive, while seeing through their hypocrisies and self-justifications. And it’s one of two current comedies — BoJack Horseman being the other — that apply all the right lessons of Mad Men’s approach to anti-hero-driven storytelling, diving into painful territory without extinguishing laughter.
The new season picks up a few weeks after the literal cliff-hanger finale of season two, which saw Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) get cold feet on the afternoon of his wedding to heroine Rebecca Bunch (Bloom) and run away to become a priest like Father Brah (Rene Gube). Rather than jump from a Byronic precipice into a raging sea, Rebecca swore revenge against Josh and drew her sympathetic workplace comrades (including best pal and surrogate mom Paula, played by Donna Lynne Champlin) into her rage vortex. The returning episode inserts a brief ellipsis: Rebecca breaks down and goes missing, kicking off a local obsession with her fate that’s spelled out in a Beauty and the Beast/”Little Town”–styled number gathering the entire supporting cast together in a European gingerbread fantasy sung in faux-English accents. (If you ever wanted to see Rebecca’s boss, Pete Gardner’s Darryl Whitefeather, milking a goat while singing, here’s your chance.)
In due time, Rebecca makes a triumphant and unnerving return to the office, sporting dark-brown dyed hair and a Basic Instinct dress and making like a femme fatale. “I have emerged from the cocoon of female submission as a scorned butterfly!” she purrs. Unfortunately, despite her delicious promise of a grand plan, all Rebecca can come up with is tricking Josh into eating poop-infused cupcakes. Her alternative scheme, which I won’t reveal here, is a classic example of Rebecca devising a solution to a destructive pattern that’s really just a reenactment and continuation of the same behaviors that got her in trouble to start with.
The show does a fine job of integrating Rebecca’s apparently psychotic break with subplots about other recurring characters trying to will new realities into being. Darryl pressures his own mate, “White” Josh (David Hull), to raise a child with him, shoehorning the topic into every other conversation. Paula tentatively allows her cheating husband Scott (Steve Monroe) to reenter her life, and eventually her bed, but only after he fulfills a stringent regimen of atonement and passes a series of lie detector tests. Josh Chan, meanwhile, dives into his fantasy of becoming a priest, under the assumption that it’ll press the emotional and spiritual reset button on his life, only to discover that priesthood is an actual job that you have to train for, and that it’s not a good fit for everybody. “If you haven’t really thought this through, or if you’re trying to avoid responsibility for something you’ve done, you can go home,” a veteran priest warns him.
The baby-steps advancements of all of these stories are beautifully measured. The show is skilled at taking us to the edge of epiphany while leaving room for the illusion of happiness to disappear when human nature (and TV plotting) requires it. The standout here is Josh’s solo musical number set in the empty church, which gives Rodriguez a chance to showcase his Gene Kelly–style muscular hoofing, using pews, support struts, and a confession booth as props. “I’ve got my head in the clouds,” he sings. “Blessed with a permanent smile / I feel like blessed little Baby Moses / On the day he was found on the Nile!” Realizing he just pronounced “the Nile” as “denial,” he promises the audience, “It’s just a river in Egypt!”
Another upcoming number channels Bob Fosse in sweaty-grindy Chicago mode: Rebecca entreats her boss and potential new lover Nathaniel (Scott Michael Foster) to do his dirtiest, shimmying like a grind-house seductress while crooning some of the most borderline-filthy lyrics ever heard on commercial TV. “Tell me ’bout your sins / And shock me with their luridness! / Let me be your pupil / Let me choke on your cocksuredness!” Nothing if not generous, the series continues to award juicy solos to minor characters that might otherwise get pushed to the margins. One of Rebecca’s co-workers, Michael McMillian’s Tim, does a number in a Jean Valjean–Les Miserables vein about his inability to sexually satisfy his wife, slumping against a locked bathroom door and singing with his eyes cast heavenward.
There are times when Crazy Ex-Girlfriend overreaches, struggles to do justice to the choices it has made, or strains inventiveness while trying to figure out how to escape the corners it paints itself into. But the high bar that Bloom, McKenna & Co. have set for themselves folds the creative process into the show’s ongoing, multifaceted spectacle. Like two of its ancestral predecessors in colorful self-critique, Moonlighting and St. Elsewhere, it gets meta when it feels the need; sometimes it admits that it’s made a convenient or obvious storytelling choice, but in such a disarming way that it turns skeptical viewers into a writers room cheering section (see “Who’s the New Guy?” which introduces Nathaniel by asking, “Do we really need a new guy this far into the season?” and “Is this some desperate move to help our ratings?”). That it consistently manages to feel so big on such an evidently small budget amounts to icing on a towering though sadly uneaten wedding cake. Musical-theater geeks probably get the most out of this show, but it’s so unusual that I recommend it to everyone I meet. It’s primordial showbiz magic.