In high school, or middle school, or possibly at a summer program, or maybe all of them, I had a musical theater teacher explain that in a musical, songs begin when emotions become too big, too intense to be contained in mere speech. (Mostly, I found this disappointing: I am a very bad singer.) Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW’s quirky new hour-long musical sitcom, is a bizarro, wholesome gem and underdog of the fall season (with five more episodes just announced). It’s this kind of musical: speech alone cannot contain the show’s cheerfully manic intensity. It is too big and too zany and too bold, both visually and emotionally, to try to stuff it into normal network sitcom banter. Subversive and sensitive and incredibly silly, the show – co-created, written by, and starring comedian Rachel Bloom (of “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” fame) – uses larger-than-life aesthetics to get at painfully life-size feelings. Globally and politically, it has been a relentlessly terrible fall, but it has been a great fall for unlikely musicals.
Here, the “musical,” such as it is, takes place in the head of Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), once teen musical theater nerd, who has since traded in her character shoes and is a super-successful, super-miserable, super-lonely New York corporate lawyer with degrees from Harvard and Yale (undergrad and law school respectively, duh). But when she learns she’s about to make partner – a development that is “objectively fantastic, like, on-paper fantastic!” – she flees the office, encouraged by a taunting butter commercial (“When was the last time you were truly happy?”) and a general sense of doom. While hyperventilating in a parking garage, she spots Josh Chan, her boyfriend from that magical summer musical theater camp, now a chill, adorable cipher-bro. It’s love! Except that she hasn’t seen him in the decade since he dumped her, and he’s leaving New York to move back home to West Covina, California, two hours from the beach (four in traffic), a sunny SoCal suburb where “everyone is… like… it’s like they’re… happy.” But it’s love, or – more accurately, it’s hope – and so Rebecca impulsively hops a plane to live a happier, simpler, superior life that definitely has nothing to do with Josh, as she explains, in great detail, via a Disney-inflected musical number in her mind.
Rebecca is an overachiever in all things, including self-delusion, and the gulf between her stated motivations (happiness, growth, self-improvement) and her actual motivations (seeing Josh, being near Josh, seducing Josh) is the overarching theme of the first season so far. But she’s also not entirely wrong: moving to West Covina would have been totally crazy if she’d been blissed out on her half-million dollar salary in New York, but, as far as we can tell, she spent her spare non-lawyering seconds Googling sleep deprivation and stuffing full bottles of pills in her bra. She’s leaving the Big City rat race to go somewhere small and sunny and kind, not the actual suburbs but an all-too-relatable urban fantasy of them, a slower, simpler place where everyone is nice and you are instantly beloved by all. This fantasy element, an emotional makeover-by-airplane, grounds the show: Who among us doesn’t kind of want to move to a West Covina?
In her technicolor suburbia, Rebecca immediately finds her ragtag gang of trusty sitcom friends, frenemies, and potential love interests, all just a little bit bigger and brighter than people in the real world. There’s Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III), human Golden Retriever, and his girlfriend, the humorless, boxed-water drinking, yoga-teaching Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz), who is beautiful and controlling and beautiful and humorless (and beautiful). There’s Josh’s pal Greg (Santino Fontana), a brooding bartender with a heart of gold and Rebecca’s obvious romantic foil despite her committed disinterest, and Heather (Vella Lovell), her literally too-cool-for-school neighbor, who proves that vocal fry is not a tic but an art. Also, perhaps most delightfully, there is Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin), a middle-aged paralegal at Rebecca’s job, the law firm that never works, and partner in crime/seducing Josh. Paula needs this, we come to understand. With her oblivious, a cappella–obsessed husband and her sinister, sword-obsessed child, Paula is a woman who really, really needs to win something, even if it’s not her doing the winning.
And so, with the help of her new friends, Rebecca spends the first several episodes concocting various UN-JOSH-RELATED ploys to accidentally on-purpose capture the affections of Josh: she hosts a party, she befriends his boxed-water girlfriend, she finagles an invitation to his family’s Thanksgiving dinner and she aces it. You could call the whole thing broad – cartoon-ish, even – if it wasn’t all so emotionally precise. You know, like a musical.
The songs are generally great and funny and sly, and their hyper-slick music-video production values turn them into standalone sketches; they would be great and funny and sly even if they didn’t serve a narrative purpose. Musical highlights to date: “The Sexy Getting Ready Song,” a smooth R&B number in which Rebecca purrs her way through the physical torture that is female grooming; “Settle for Me,” a fantastic Golden Age Rebecca-and-Greg ballroom anti-love duet (“I know I’m only second place in this game/but like 2% milk, or seitan beef, I almost taste the same”); the too-catchy Sesame Street–esque anthem of personal reassurance, “I Have Friends”; and creepy girl pop number “Feeling Kinda Naughty,” which celebrates obsessive female friendship in increasingly creepy ways (“I wanna kill you and wear your skin like a dress/but then also have you see me in the dress”). They’re hilarious and subversive in a quintessentially Bloomian way (her “Historically Accurate Disney Princess Song” is what first got the attention of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna), and they allow the show to get both weirder and more earnest than might be possible in dialogue. They take full advantage of what the medium can do (why pretend they’re on stage when they’ve got all the bells and whistles of television?) while also showing off what Bloom can do (sing, dance).
The obvious potential pitfall for a show that revolves around an obsessive crush is very similar to the problem with being around a person with an obsessive crush, or having one: eventually, it gets boring, even with songs. The suspense of something maybe happening, followed by the constant letdown when nothing ever does, is exhausting. As a result, the world of the show risks feeling too small; the plot is wound so tightly, and can feel so Josh-focused, that one begins to worry that maybe there’s no place to go, and that three seasons from now, we’ll all still be here, hoping Josh texts to meet us at Boba. And while Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has gone to great lengths to flesh out a complicated Rebecca who is “crazy” for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with Josh – the obsessive need to be liked, abandonment issues, anxiety, oppressive societal norms – there comes a point when the world has to open up enough for something, anything, else to happen.
The immediate answer is the supporting cast, and in this week’s episode, the world expands. Long-suffering Paula gets a non-Rebecca-centric (romantic!) plot line of her own as she courts a potential affair with a classy client, a man who is all the things her a cappella–obsessed dolt of a husband isn’t. (One of the best things about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is its gleeful dismissal of a cappella even though this show is also a musical.) Josh, too, has a quietly tragic plot about a dining room table, which becomes a metaphor for his increasingly doomed relationship with table critic Valencia. Perhaps even more important than promising B plots: exceptional, extended, non-musical jokes. The show’s writing has always been clever and solidly joke-y, but here, uncoupled from Rebecca’s relentless Josh-pursuit, the hard jokes seem sharper than ever. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has arguably never been more straightforwardly funny than with a long meandering monologue from Josh’s sidekick Hector that is technically about tandem parking, but is also a brilliantly extended metaphor for sex (“The worst is when it’s alternate side of the street parking, ’cus then I gotta park it in back. I don’t even get why there’s a spot back there,” and it goes on.) This is the power and joy of secondary characters.
Rebecca can’t, of course, stay the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend forever (or at least, not Josh’s); the show has to evolve. The plot is beginning to move away from the obsession that started it, which is probably a good thing for both Rebecca and the rest of us.