Rebecca has had a very rough year, but let’s not underrate what’s happened to Paula. She unexpectedly got pregnant and had an abortion. Her husband cheated on her. Her new boss is a huge jerk. Her older son ran away, came back, and now deals drugs. She started law school in addition to working full-time, and then had Rebecca tear apart her first big case. Her best friend tried to kill herself, leaving her to play surrogate mom and pick up the pieces. It’s a good thing Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a comedy, because viewed from another lens, Paula’s life would be unremitting misery.
That’s why it’s refreshing to get an episode dedicated to what makes Paula tick, and the backstory behind her obsession with Rebecca’s romantic life. The catalyst is her need to stay with her father in Buffalo, who’s in middling health. Bob has been built up as a jerk for a while — Paula often makes references to her dad tearing her down when she was younger — but he turns out to be played by gentle giant Eddie Pepitone, whose “Bitter Buddha” routine is perfect for this role. Paula’s dad may be a nasty alcoholic who says some pretty hateful, hurtful stuff, both about Paula and about the world in general, but you also can’t help but love him.
Of course, Rebecca, the queen of daddy issues, falls hard for Bob’s charms, even as she sees his numerous liabilities. Encouraged by Dr. Dan to drop her perfectionistic approach to BPD treatment, she decides to go all-in on trying out Bob’s messy life for a few days, palling around as he takes shots of cheap vodka, throws darts, and watches Fox News. They even do a cute Shirley Temple–style number, “My Friend’s Dad,” in which Rebecca sings about the joys of hanging out with a parent without having to deal with any of the bad stuff: “She has spunk / And he’s a literal drunk / But that don’t bother me / ’Cause he’s not my dad!”
Nevertheless, this episode is Paula’s platform to shine, as she bumps into her own personal Josh Chan: Jeff Channington, the handsome, Camaro-driving stud who dumped her in high school after a screening of Fried Green Tomatoes. (“I still can’t listen to Kathy Bates doing a Southern accent.”) All these years later, Jeff — or at least recollections of his penis, which she immortalizes in song — still gives Paula that glitter-exploding-inside feeling. Having spent so much time trying to help Rebecca bury her problems in pursuit of an exciting relationship, it’s no surprise that Paula now wants to do the same for herself. And so, after all that effort to forgive Scott for his dalliance with Tonya, she comes perilously close to cheating in turn.
The thing is, Paula isn’t Rebecca. She’s messy and complicated and loves a good fantasy, but she’s practical. That’s why she realizes in the nick of time that what she wants isn’t an affair with Jeff, but the satisfaction of knowing that she has the power to choose, not to just be chosen. In the end, she still wants to be with Scott (or Thelma & Louise–era Brad Pitt, but since he’s not really an option, probably Scott). Donna Lynne Champlin’s performance, as both an actress and a singer, is one of the most underrated aspects of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and it’s great to see her deliver all the nuances of this character. This episode seems to have been made to get her a bit more awards consideration, and I hope it works because she deserves it.
Unfortunately, the smaller subplots that bubble up don’t equal the Paula and Rebecca story lines. The Josh story line, in which he takes a bartending gig at Home Base, tries to become Tom Cruise in Cocktail, and ruins a potential date after getting an infected pimple, is pretty standard stuff. There’s a lesson somewhere in there about how Josh needs to stop being a “big boy” and start being a grownup, but it’s mostly just a relaxed joke vehicle to give Vincent Rodriguez some screen time. The show will definitely need to work hard to find better uses for Josh; now that he’s no longer the object of Rebecca’s desire, his connection to everyone else feels pretty tenuous.
But the subplot that will no doubt spawn dozens of rageposts on Tumblr is one that’s been coming for a while: the Darryl-WhiJo breakup is finally upon us. I know that a happy relationship is anathema to interesting TV, but I have to say that CXG could have tried harder on this one. An otherwise perfect couple breaking up over differing opinions about children is the oldest trick in the book, followed in short order by learning an important lesson from the machinations of an adorable, wise-beyond-her-years tyke (in this case, Darryl’s daughter Madison, who engineers the tough conversation). This show is usually so great at ripping up storytelling clichés, so I was surprised to see such a paint-by-numbers conclusion to a relationship beloved by fans.
In the end, though, the heartwarming finish comes from Rebecca, who reaches more equal, less mother-daughter terms with Paula. decides to plunge back into her budding relationship with Nathaniel, and earns the scratch-and-sniff approbation she craved from Dr. Dan — precisely because she did everything the messy way. “My whole life, I’ve only known how to be really good or really bad,” she tells him. “But being human … is living in that kinda in-between space. It’s making mistakes, and that’s really very scary, but also very cool.” Well said.
• The previous episode was titled “Josh Is Irrelevant,” and they weren’t kidding. This is the first CXG episode not to have Josh’s name in the title, and I presume none of them will going forward. We’re definitely at a sea-change point in the life of the show.
• A couple of fun blink-and-you’ll-miss it moments: There’s a street sign for good old East Cameron Drive in one of the bits of B-roll, and I chortled at the “Suggestive Vegetables 50 Percent Off” sign displayed behind Paula and her backup dancers as they sang about penises in front of zucchini and squash.
• Did you notice that Rebecca is going out of her way to not call Heather “Heath”? Also, a great bit between the two of them: “Is there something you can fill out when you’re not a student, but you used to be a student?” “I think it’s called a job application.”
• I have never related harder to a character than I have to Paula being too busy to get through the current season of Outlander. (Someday, Claire and Jamie. Someday.)
• When it comes to relationship advice, Madison is rad-ison: “You gotta rip off the Band-Aid. That’s how I broke up with Jimmy — I ripped off his Band-Aid.”