From Monday through Wednesday this week, we’re presenting our third annual Vulture TV Awards, honoring the best in television from the past year. We’re taking a purer approach this time, with in-depth, critical essays in three major categories: show, actor, and actress. Each piece makes a thorough case for our winners, and why they beat the competition. The shows that were considered had to be ongoing, which disqualifies limited series and shows that ended their runs in the past year. They also must have wrapped up their season by June 26.
Comedy can be joyous and serious at the same time. There’s no better example of this principle than the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a great series that demonstrates the near-total creative freedom of TV’s latest evolutionary period better than any other.
Co-created by star Rachel Bloom and her writing and producing partner, Aline Brosh McKenna, this freshman series flouts received wisdom about which shows qualify as Art. There are no brilliant-cool-suffering dudes on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; the plotlines are built mainly around a woman, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), a lawyer who relocates to West Covina, California, to chase her ex-boyfriend Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III), with help from her best friend and co-worker Paula Proctor (Donna Lynne Champlin). Deftly switching between melodrama, cultural satire, and fantasy, the show is at once arch and sincere, risqué but never trashy, ambitious but never pretentious, and it’s consistently honest about its characters’ flaws and blind spots, even when the plotting (as in most romances and musicals) is blithely unconcerned with plausibility. It is not violent or “gritty” — unless you count Rebecca’s psychic self-flagellation, which we’ll get to. And yet it’s strong as any regular series on TV, different from all of them, consistently more surprising — not just in the twists and turns that its hothouse suburban drama takes, but in the way it expresses itself from scene to scene and moment to moment.
On top of all that, during an amazingly fertile period for genre TV — including science fiction, swords-and-sandals, superhero, action, and horror — it dares embrace a mode that’s still widely branded with a g for geek: the musical romantic comedy. For all its cultural durability, and despite the momentary cultural cachet of Hamilton and the fluky six-season run of Fox’s Glee, the old-fashioned, people-bursting-into-song musical hasn’t been mainstream-popular since the ‘90s, when Walt Disney released a string of show-tune-driven cartoon blockbusters. Crazy Ex-Girlfriendworks in this last mode with such confidence that it seems to have been piped onto the CW from some alternate universe, one where musicals are so popular that a couple of showrunners could make a fairly low-stakes, intimate one and be certain it would be found and treasured.
From writing to filmmaking to the performances, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend mixes comedy and drama to tell a story on multiple levels.
THE CASE FOR CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND
The show’s writing staff, headed by Bloom and McKenna, writes material that shifts between modes, and sometimes exists simultaneously within multiple modes at once.
Level one is a quasi-Seinfeld-ian, people-watching comedy that scrutinizes the rituals and texture of modern life and hangs pithy labels on them. Every five minutes or so, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend coins or hones a phrase that describes situations you weren’t sure how to sum up until you saw the show, such as “textmergency” (which got a whole musical number, detailed below), “The Harvard of the [insert geographical area],” “Flamingo leg” (a stance indicating sexual interest), and “the ‘Meant to Be’ Exemption” (a means of giving yourself permission not to hate a friend dating an ex because they seem perfectly matched). The script’s symbolism is right there on the surface where characters can easily notice and mock it.
Level two is a relationship comedy filled with characters you’ve either never encountered before, or who seem like types, until you get to know them and realize how weird and special they are. The show’s heroine is as near-helpless an addict as Jackie Peyton (Nurse Jackie), Don Draper (Mad Men), Dr. John Thackery (The Knick), or Elliot Alderson (Mr. Robot), but because Rebecca’s drug is the true-love propaganda that’s been piped into her brain since princess-crazy childhood — images and expectations that we’re conditioned to think of as positive, as something to aspire to — it takes a while for her predicament to sink in. (Fox/Hulu’s excellent The Mindy Projectattempted a similar deconstruction of these messages in its first couple of seasons, but either lost the thread or got bored with it.)
The show’s supporting characters — a no-big-deal patchwork quilt of races, nationalities, and sexual orientations — are likewise addicted to the hope dope of Happily Ever After. Josh Chan — a Filipino American who’s helped define a social type rarely celebrated on TV, the Southern California Asian bro — has stuck with Valencia Maria Perez (Gabrielle Ruiz), his first serious girlfriend after Rebecca, for 15 years without proposing; he seems to think if he marinates in comfort and predictability long enough, passion will emerge. Josh denies it, but he’s still hung up on Rebecca; he keeps lurching into her orbit and falling for her I Love Lucy–level schemes to trick him into spending time with her, pulling away again, then drifting back. Valencia, meanwhile, is a bridezilla-in-waiting, who sincerely loves Josh, but seems to love the fantasy of being a glamorous young wife more. She misdiagnoses Josh’s fear of marrying her as fear of marriage. Paula is an addict once removed: Vivian Vance to Bloom’s nearly unhinged Lucy, getting a contact high from helping her bestie stalk an ex. Late in the season, Rebecca enters a new romance with Josh’s childhood friend Greg Serrano (Santino Fontana), a bitterly ironic bartender, and asks Paula to stop manipulating Josh on her behalf because she’s trying to break the habit. (A scene of Rebecca throwing away her Josh-related memorabilia evokes an alcoholic dispensing of booze before entering rehab.) Paula’s insistence that they don’t give up on Josh seems odd at first, until you learn her reason: Like an enabler whose best friend just went cold turkey, Paula’s worried that if they can no longer bond over a shared intoxicant, Rebecca won’t love her anymore. At every turn, supporting characters reveal their humanity when you least expect it.
When we call a show “well-structured,” it’s usually to praise an intricate, kinetic plot. But it applies to the ground-level mechanics of storytelling as well: How well the series raises, manages, and satisfies our expectation, and how effectively it surprises us while still playing fair. Structurally, the show is as sophisticated as any long-form drama, planting rhyming or mirrored situations, bits of symbolism, and analogies both subtle and overt, and making them pay off (“Ahab, can’t you see/the whale is a metaphor?” sings Rebecca in a flashback to a college production of a musical version of Moby-Dick).
Lurking beneath all the farcical rushing-about is one more intriguing layer, and once we discern its outline, we realize that all the comical lies, schemes, and misunderstandings on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are means to yet another end: showing the damage people suffer when they can’t or won’t grasp what they truly want in life. All of the show’s characters are living a lie, including Rebecca, a child of divorce whose love life is an overreaction to her self-involved, cold father and her smothering mother, and who (surprise!) always wanted to be a musical star but became a lawyer instead. For all her hyper-verbal outbursts, Rebecca’s self-awareness is tragically limited; it appears in brief bursts and then recedes, perhaps because the way she is now is the only way she can ever imagine being. “You lie to yourself well enough,” Rebecca admits to her therapist Dr. Akopian (Michael Hyatt), “you can convince other people.”
Only a few characters — most notably Rebecca’s boss, Darryl Whitefeather (Pete Gardner), who comes out as bisexual and starts dating another of Josh’s friends, “White Josh” Wilson (David Hull) — reject the false, “safe” path and embrace one that’s truer to their nature. This is a theme teased on many great TV dramas, from The Sopranos through Mad Men and beyond, but no live-action series, comedy or drama, has gone at it from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Dutch-tilt angle.
Speaking of Dutch tilts: If Crazy Ex-Girlfriend were just a straightforward, quasi-satirical comedy, it might still be a candidate for the year’s best show — the characters’ interactions are often captured in a handful of simple shots, the better to let us appreciate the actors’ chemistry and their relationship to their environment. While the dominant mode is sitcom-broad, it goes subtle in reactive close-ups — some so piercing they make you feel guilty for laughing at the characters instead of with them. But it’s the expressionist touches and we’ll-try-anything musical numbers that put it over the top (in every sense). Most vocal tracks are recorded live on set, with prerecorded music piped into an actor’s earpiece, which makes it feel as though even the most fantastic musical numbers are happening in the same universe as regular dialogue scenes. As written by Bloom and Adam Schlesinger, and staged by choreographer Kathryn Burns, the show’s songs draw on every musical-comedy tradition, including the dance-driven hip-hop video (“Heavy Boobs”); the smoldering R&B psych-yourself-up number (“The Sexy Getting Ready Song”); the Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers hoofer (“Settle for Me”); the Fiddler on the Roof–styled, Yiddish-inflected musical (“Where’s the Bathroom“); the 1990s Disney musical cartoon (“I’m the Villain,” which channels Snow White and The Little Mermaid). A dream-sequence-driven episode of Rebecca hallucinating a conversation with Dr. Akopian during a plane ride morphs into a Diana Ross and the Supremes–sounding, Bollywood-inflected number titled “Dream Ghost,” in which Akopian and two backup singers peer into the minds of other passengers, à la the angels in the 1987 romantic-fantasy Wings of Desire. The show’s integration of slapstick, cringe comedy, sentiment, music, dance, and fantastic imagery is thrilling.
It’s probably impossible to entirely separate writing and direction and music, but no matter how you parse this kind of thing, the show’s control of tone — upshifting from wacky hijinks to suffering and back again — is remarkable. It’s often expressed through image and sound, as in the season finale’s lovely shot of a couple embracing atop a magic carpet hovering over West Covina at night, backed by a Disney-esque song that embodies the fantasies Rebecca can’t let go of.
Here’s an example from the purely comic end of the spectrum: “Textmergency,” a song from season one, episode 11, “This Text Was Not Meant for Josh.” The plot is sitcom perfection: Rebecca accidentally sends Josh a text intended for Paula, then drives across town and breaks into his house to delete it. But watch the clip to see what the show does with just a bit of its convoluted, hour-long plot. This long sequence treats the other characters (colleagues, rival lawyers, and a judge) as both freestanding, autonomous individuals and extensions of Rebecca’s panicked psyche: a Greek chorus at times. Rather than reprimand Rebecca for ditching the meeting to solve her text crisis, the lawyers and judge unite in sympathy and horror, bless Rebecca’s mission, and become members of an ’80s-style hair band performing “Textmergency,” feeding Rebecca clues to help her find the spare key to Josh’s apartment (“Check the Buddha sconce!”) while competing to see who can coin better catchphrases (“textscuse” versus “textplanation”). Besides driving the plot forward and illuminating Rebecca’s self-defeating psyche in the manner of a first-rate stage musical, this number embellishes the show’s ongoing fascination with how iPhones and social media complicate our lives.
Here’s a moment from that same episode, representing the darker end of the tonal scale. It’s an example of how audacious Crazy Ex-Girlfriend can get; it’s funny, but the laughs stick in your throat. After Rebecca gets caught inside Josh’s apartment, she contrives (with help from Paula and Paula’s husband) a cover story about a break-in, which Josh eventually figures out is a lie. This leads to the show’s most wrenching musical number to date, “You’ve Ruined Everything,” presented as a showstopper by a Barbra Streisand–type superstar. The lyrics amount to Rebecca beating herself up, then donning brass knuckles to beat herself up some more. She doesn’t just chastise herself for a day of terrible decisions, she excoriates every aspect of herself, including her weight, systematically affirming what she considers her worthlessness. (“Yes, Josh completes me/But how can that be/When there’s no me left to complete?”) The result is a frenzy of self-loathing: a definitive statement on internalized misogyny as well as the damage inflicted on people (women especially) by the uncritical embrace of romantic fantasy.
That it’s all delivered with a veteran superstar’s confidence makes it more painful and revelatory. When the audience starts singing along — a symbolic confirmation of Rebecca’s fear that the world is joining in judgment of her — an already-great sequence becomes one for the ages. “Yes!” she exhorts the crowd. “I deserve this!”
The cast of Crazy-Ex Girlfriend is a casually integrated ensemble that shows what no-fuss multicultural TV looks like. The show has earned praise for, among other things, giving its Prince Charming role to an Asian-American, and portraying the character’s Filipino extended family in a culturally specific, believable way, while allowing each of them to be genuinely memorable, often abrasively so, as opposed to blandly, tediously “lovable.” Nearly all the recurring characters are played by brash new faces or veteran character actors who blended into the woodwork elsewhere, but their only shared trait is an ability to really, really sing, or do something else that’s every bit as impressive (take the martial artist and gymnast Rodriguez’s Footloose-inspired angry dance). You don’t just get great comic and musical performances out of these actors, you sense their life force — never more so than when Paula blasts Rebecca’s ingratitude in a belter modeled on “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy, or when the defeatist sourpuss Greg reenacts the one-take, walking-and-singing sequence from Oncewhile talk-singing “I Could If I Wanted To.”
Towering above the rest of these skilled players is Bloom, the closest TV may ever get to an elemental force. She’s a onetime sketch comedian turned TV writer (Allen Gregory, Robot Chicken) who remade herself as, basically, Dirty Weird Al Yankovic (her popular songs include “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” and “You Can Touch My Boobies”). But despite the show’s satirical and parodic elements, including Rebecca’s hyper-aware asides to herself, Bloom’s acting and singing are heartfelt, strengthening the audience’s bond with her character, and turning Rebecca into a Don Draper–esque, likable antihero whose psychic turmoil illuminates the supporting characters’ struggles. How many examples are there in TV history of a star who co-wrote, co-produced, and starred in a series while also co-writing and performing original musical numbers every week? Carol Burnett, if you count occasionally singing established songs with spoof lyrics; the Flight of the Conchords guys, maybe, although a lot of their songs were written years before their HBO series debuted. In any case, it’s a very short list — and if you want to get strict about it, maybe a list with just one name. That Bloom’s personal achievement is just one of the remarkable things about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend explains why this is the best show of the year.
WHY WE PICKED IT
This year is already shaping up to be one of the all-around best for scripted series in the medium’s history. Before you can select a best show at the end of a TV season like this, a critic first has to make a top 30 and winnow it down. To start, I immediately eliminated both Walking Dead series, The Blacklist, Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder, and Modern Family, because while they’re very good at what they do (or at least know how to satisfy), aesthetically and in terms of character complexity there’s not a whole lot to chew on. Solidly excellent but not dazzling series like Game of Thrones, House of Cards, and The Good Wife might have been locks for the top bracket in other years, but not in this highly competitive one.
In the past year, the best miniseries and anthologies alone — The Girlfriend Experience, Horace and Pete, Fargo, The Night Manager, American Crime, and The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story — were all pantheon-worthy, but they were disqualified from consideration here because this contest is for ongoing series with continuing story lines, which requires a more ambitious sort of long-form storytelling.
The ongoing series that I considered a head above the rest include Veep, Bob’s Burgers, You’re the Worst, Black-ish, Silicon Valley, UnREAL, Rectify, The Leftovers, Outlander, Orange Is the New Black, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Jessica Jones, Transparent, Better Call Saul, Bojack Horseman, and The Americans. But if I were to nominate only five, the ones that impressed me the most were Better Call Saul, The Americans, The Leftovers, Orange Is the New Black, and BoJack Horseman. I fixate on them because of their consistent excellence in every department, their ability to shift between wildly different modes with improbable grace, and their constant sense of surprise. Even when you feel as if you’ve gotten to know these series as well as you know a good friend, they throw you curveballs, not just from week to week but from scene to scene.
Better Call Saul, to name just one of my favorites, is an exquisitely crafted, highly atmospheric character study that dares to slow things down and give you time to really live inside of a moment, and it boasts an assortment of major and minor characters that both Preston Sturges and Elmore Leonard might have envied. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s grasp of psychology is comparably sophisticated, and I’d put its ensemble (as both characters and an acting troupe) against Saul’s, fully confident of an even matchup. But I give Crazy Ex-Girlfriend the edge because it explores its characters’ psychology and their world in a way you almost never see, alternating between satirical, sitcomlike interactions and original musical numbers that are not realistic, nor simply dreamlike, but expressionistic. There are many precedents on American TV for the likes of Better Call Saul, great as it is; there has never been anything like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and in my mind, singularity beats refinement of an existing template, no matter how clever and assured that refinement may be.
I keep coming back to the originality of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend as I match it against my other favorites. It does everything, or plausibly could do everything, that most other great shows do, and it also does things it would never occur to them to do, things that are rarely attempted in live-action because audiences insist on consistency of tone. This is why, for instance, I choose it over BoJack Horseman, an extraordinary series that, like CXG, invests sitcomlike situations with a mournful unease. BoJack’s visuals and situations are at once absurd and astonishing — there is a long tradition of this in so-called adult animation, and you can see family-friendly traces of it on Bob’s Burgers, too. But CXG achieves similarly eye-popping, heart-stirring effects in live action, where its performances make it more revelatory.
Orange Is the New Black bears comparison to CXG because of its melding of comedy and drama, its sprawling ensemble cast, its unglamorous setting, and its vision of a casually multicultural microcosm of society that stands in for 2016 America, in all its promise and frustration. But the Netflix prison series’ best moments and episodes have been undercut by consistency problems, and its success-to-failure ratio is not as good as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s, a series that had a stronger idea of exactly what it was and what it was capable of in season one than Orange did in its freshman outing. CXG’s consistency is so impressive, in fact, that I’d put its first season up against any first season in TV history.
But perhaps more so, I’m throwing down with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend because, for all of its darker aspects (in particular its portrait of Rebecca as a force of chaos who cannot see her own destructiveness), it’s a show that still struggles to be taken seriously on the terms that TV critics, myself included, have embraced in the post-Sopranos era. It’s funny, it’s goofy, it veers from romantic melodrama to sitcom shenanigans and back again. The major characters are every bit as complicated and confounding as the ones that power The Americans, a classic series that just completed its very best season, and The Leftovers, a metaphoric-laden fantasy melodrama about loss. But where The Americans could be an Off Broadway drama in which monologues are lit by a single spotlight, and The Leftovers is an extended fever dream about grief and loss, a similarly laser-focused richness is expressed on CXG as a high-wire act, with every character juggling chainsaws and flaming bowling pins while cracking jokes and sometimes singing. And it’s all so peppy and colorful that the show seems to be almost daring you to assume that it couldn’t possibly be as deep as a dire spy drama about family, patriotism, identity, and moral relativism. That’s one reason why my other favorite show of this year, and runner-up, The Americans, didn’t win: It consistently surprises, but within a narrower bandwidth.
Plus, the main character is a funny woman who jokes about her weight and her bust line, and who can and does hit the high notes — we should take shows like this seriously as art. We should eradicate the comedy stigma, and along with it, the notion that a portrait of a neurotic suburban lawyer’s romantic life is inherently less serious, and less worthy of scrutiny and praise, than a prison series about incarceration, power, and justice, a scathing animated Hollywood satire, a gut-wrenching Cold War spy potboiler, or a crime drama/legal thriller about one man’s incremental corruption. If you think that my need to make a blatant political statement is what tipped the balance here, well, guilty, guilty, guilty as charged — with the caveat that it’s just an awesome show, soup to nuts, dialogue to music; a weekly beacon of delight that draws you in, then wrecks you. It’s a comet passing through TV’s solar system, and we won’t see its like again soon.
* An earlier version of this post stated that Glee ran for five seasons. It ran for six.