We’re still a long way from the finale, but in many senses, this is the episode that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has been building up to for the past four years. Of all the genres the show has parodied, it’s always reserved its most savage barbs for the romantic comedy, highlighting precisely how its tropes have warped Rebecca’s perception of herself and her relationships. That goes double for Paula, who literally descended into criminality in her attempt to manifest them in real life. So when a lovelorn Nathaniel turns to rom-coms to understand how to get Rebecca back, the show digs in its claws, offering an episode-length, beat-by-beat savaging in the spirit of Rebecca’s Swimchan fantasy.
Joining Nathaniel on the jealousy train is Maya, who’s recently been dumped by Joanne, a cute girl who works in the MountainTop building. (I’m all for the inclusive storyline, but damn, not using her established crush on Father Brah here was a missed opportunity.) Together, Nathaniel and Maya star in a sort of She’s All That–My Best Friend’s Wedding hybrid, with a soupçon of The Devil Wears Prada’s office politics. You know the story: they pretend to date each other to make Rebecca and Joanne jealous, only to actually fall in love in the end.
Showing the tropes of the rom-com through Nathaniel’s eyes allows the show to make a sneaky argument: that this woman-targeted genre is largely made by men, and thus has a whole load of sexism spun into its sugar. “FYI, I have opinions, and a brain, and I know that makes me hard to love,” Maya tells Nathaniel, 30 seconds after he’s characterized her as “quirky but cute, could be a stunner if she tried harder.” Maya’s also prone to mentioning her dead mom, about whom Nathaniel couldn’t care less. Meanwhile, Rebecca gets her va-va-voom dial turned way up, and her personality basically turned off — a supporting role Rachel Bloom digs into with relish, dispensing plenty of chirpy You’re so funny!s to suddenly bro-y beau Greg.
Nathaniel’s “movie” puts the entire MountainTop gang through the rom-com filter, from work-obsessed Paula to harried underling Tim. The episode highlight, though, is Bert, who gets to do his best Miranda Priestly with dark shades and perfect dismissive lines like, “We don’t do business with people who wear cheap suits.” Considering that Aline Brosh McKenna herself wrote The Devil Wears Prada’s screenplay, I’d expect no less.
McKenna’s time as a scribe in the studio trenches clearly informs a lot of the episode’s best jokes, which turn on how thin and manufactured rom-com plotting can be. Like a cheerful Good Place Janet, Tim is constantly popping in to remind Nathaniel and Maya of narratively useful events that are happening implausibly quickly. B-roll between scenes incoherently cuts between West Covina and New York, Beverly Hills, and Tokyo. And the episode’s lone (terrific) song, “Gratuitous Karaoke Moment,” expertly undercuts the plot beat it contains, from the crowd “being annoyed but then getting onboard” to that weird sideways shimmy-dance that characters almost always do near the song’s end.
The letdown here is in the filmmaking, which doesn’t quite give the heightened sensation that would make the parody fully click. The “look” of Nathaniel’s fantasy needs to be brighter and glossier, especially the scenes at MountainTop, which is shot just like it is in every other episode. Many sequences feel overly long and flat, though a few manage to achieve the right over-the-top tone, particularly the overly long, slo-mo “makeover reveal” and the “work montage” that ends with Nathaniel and Maya lovingly draping each other in a blanket while they nap. Overall, there’s just not enough visual pop — the peppy scoring has to do too much heavy lifting to move things along.
The formulaic story does manage to achieve that certain lulling quality that rom-coms have, which makes it jarring to suddenly realize that Nathaniel is really on a path to end up with Maya. But when he undertakes his “grand gesture” speech, Maya is suddenly replaced by the real Rebecca, encouraging him to let her go if he really loves her. It’s not any more original a sentiment than what preceded it, but after all that stale storytelling, the directness and authenticity feels refreshing.
He may not have spent as long in it as Rebecca, but Nathaniel has come to the end of the movie, and as we know, real life isn’t a movie. (Where’s Groban when you need him?) “It’s like I was trying on a persona to figure out something in my life,” Nathaniel tells Rebecca, who looks like her brain might explode from surprise that she’s not alone.
The question, as always, remains what kind of story Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has left to tell when “normal” plotlines are its target. Is Nathaniel really done with Rebecca for good? Can Rebecca and Greg’s tentative and sweet sobriety relationship hold up against seven more episodes of storyline? It’s the essential tension at the heart of a show that both hates and needs plot, that wants to say real life isn’t a tight 42 minutes, but also needs to produce them.
• Obviously, there are tons of other great rom-com potshots here. George as the sports-loving best friend is a field day for Danny Jolles, who’s been having a great season as he finally gets to expand a one-note character. “I’m unreasonably cocky for such a slight man!”
• It’s also great to see Esther Povitsky, who’s consistently been the standout of the MountainTop squad, essentially take over as the lead for an episode. In addition to being funny as always, she believably sells all the romantic moments of her mismatched pairing with Scott Michael Foster. Her bizarro “big presentation” (“tree frogs, real estate, compliance, environment!”) was a highlight.
• Bro-Greg wearing the douchey shoulder sweater over the douchey gray blazer is a really great, subtle visual joke; I wish the episode hadn’t patted itself on the back by verbally shouting it out toward the end. Same goes for the final joke, with Leonard making sure we’re all very clear that this is a Devil Wears Prada parody.
• Notice how Nathaniel’s rom-com DVDs were spread out on his bed, just like Rebecca’s revenge ones in the season-three premiere? I did, because how does West Covina still have a video store?