“We got into this process in stops and starts,” Aline Brosh McKenna tells me one afternoon in late March, exactly a week before her television show is set to end. “For a while, it was just my pet project that I was working on with this cool girl that I had met. Then we wrote it, and that was an escalation. Then we shot it, and that was another phase. And then, nobody wanted it.”
Eventually, somebody wanted it. Brosh McKenna’s pet project with the cool girl — Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Rachel Bloom, respectively — found a home at the CW, and tonight it concludes its delightful, improbable four-season run with a two-hour finale. First, Rebecca Bunch’s (Bloom) story reaches its end. That’s followed immediately by Yes, It’s Really Us Singing, a concert special filmed live over the course of two nights last month at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles. Think of it as a last song and an encore, a final scene and a curtain call, a concluding chapter and a bright, musical epilogue. Or think of it as one last chance to keep the end from actually ending.
“It’s disappearing slowly, like a melting snowman,” Brosh McKenna says. “There were a lot of lasts. There was the last table read. There was the last day of the writers room. There was the last day of shooting. Then there was the last day of editing, then the concert special, and the editing of the concert special. A lot of milestones to mark along the way. I think maybe, when those things air, it will feel more done? But then there’s the Radio City show.”
She laughs. “It sloped into being, and I think it’ll slope out of being.” We hang up, and she goes back to work sound-mixing Crazy Ex-Girlfriend for the last time, another milestone. Well, until Radio City. And then maybe something else. Who knows. It’s not over till the Josh Groban sings.
In a way, this gradual fade to black mirrors Rebecca Bunch’s quest to find the happiness promised to her by many, many butter commercials. Two steps forward, one step back. Quiet periods, then chaotic bursts of energy. Progress, sometimes halted but always begun again. Over the past four months, I rode along on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s slow slope out of being, playing witness to a cast eager to savor every last moment of being a cast, a creative team worn out but not burned out, and a pack of fans ready to turn this farewell into a madcap celebration.
In “The End of the Movie,” one of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s many original songs that manages to blend oddball comedy, genuine pathos, and complicated truths, Groban sings that “life doesn’t make narrative sense.” Yet somehow, the life of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and the end of its life specifically, does. It starts with a good cry. It ends with a standing ovation. It’s still unfinished.
The Table Read
Esther Povitsky is having a good cry.
It’s the afternoon of January 25, and the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend cast is in the middle of another long workday. An hour before Povitsky, who plays Maya, lets it all out, they sit down to read yet another script. Some arrive fresh from a morning away from the set. Others swoop in at the last moment, costumes paired with slippers, coming from shooting a scene for an earlier episode. It’s the first time the show has allowed press to attend a table reading, and some odd looks are exchanged — So weird, right? — but for the most part, it’s another day at the office. Just another table read. Just “I’m in Love,” the 17th episode of the show’s fourth and final season. Just the end.
It’s all business as usual, except for when it isn’t. There’s a concerted effort to find the right balance between marking a milestone and keeping things casual. Bloom arrives, fresh off filming one scene and ready to shoot another, and bellows, “Eat the pretzels and the cupcakes! We have free food! Someone eat it! It’s embarrassing!” There’s a big laugh, and she pops a piece of free pretzel into her mouth and smirks. “Welcome,” she hollers, waving. A camera crew navigates the space, chronicling the comfortable chaos for a documentary special, and all the while people chat about work or sneak a few bites of lunch. Then the cast sits down and Bloom and Brosh McKenna call the proceedings to order.
“Each and every person here has put in, not just their hard work, but their heart and soul,” Brosh McKenna says, perfectly composed but working for that composure. “When I watch the show, that’s what I see. I see in every frame, in every moment, the hard work, the love. I see the time away from your family, and the times you got up early to make an extra drive, and the time you asked that extra question that made all the difference.” She speaks about how she met Bloom, how they began working on the show ten minutes after they met on a “blind date” in the CBS offices, how grateful she feels, how proud she is. It’s all said as casually as her announcement about the special T-shirts she had made for the finale. Just part of the process.
Bloom follows that speech with one of her own. “Six years ago, I was making internet videos,” she says. Then she took a meeting she thought would lead to nothing, “like everything in this business,” and six years later, she’s still “flabbergasted that we get to do this piece of work.” Bloom is gripping Brosh McKenna’s shoulder, but like the woman of whom she speaks, she’s in complete control, thanking her in easy tones for being “the most wonderful showrunner and sister and mother and aunt.”
It’s nice, and then it’s time to move on. Brosh McKenna announces the episode, written by the pair “through a lot of tears.” She’s proud to be directing, she says, notes the door is closed, drops her glasses on the table, and gets ready to work. “And here we are,” she says, then stops, and lets out something between a gasp, a sigh, and a start.
“Wait. Let’s just take a breath.” They all do. Bloom and Brosh McKenna remain composed, but their eyes move briefly around the room, taking it in. Then it’s time to work.
“I’m in Love” jumps around in time, not something Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has often done. To help guide viewers through the story, they’ve come up with a couple of clues: a dress, a pair of earrings, an unexpected ponytail. But in this context, it’s Brosh McKenna reading stage directions, keeping pace with Bloom, Donna Lynne Champlin, and the rest of the cast as they breeze through the script. Ending on Valentine’s Day, as an earlier episode promised, the episode sees Rebecca trying to figure out which point in her “love quadrangle” would make her happiest, and begins to worry that happiness just isn’t in the cards. The belief that there’s a simple solution to perfect happiness, a box to be checked, is something she has struggled with since the first act of the pilot, but the Rebecca of “I’m in Love” has a number of advantages on the Rebecca of “Josh Just Happens to Live Here!” The biggest of those: Paula Proctor.
Nearly all of the recurring characters who populate Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s world get to say a last good-bye in “I’m in Love,” but the episode leans hard on the relationship that the show, to say nothing of Bloom and Champlin, have worked to make as rich as possible over four seasons. That relationship, which Bloom and Brosh McKenna both acknowledge contains echoes of their own, is one of this romantic comedy’s most indispensable love stories. Of course there’s a lot of Paula in the finale. Of course it’s a Paula scene that seems to hit the cast — nearly all of whom are finding out how the story ends at this table read — most squarely in what Heather (Vella Lovell) calls “the feels.” But it’s all affecting stuff.
So when Rachel Bloom’s final line of dialogue is greeted with cacophonous applause, Povitsky cries. She isn’t the only one to betray strong emotion; she also isn’t the first. But Povitsky’s tears are the most unabashed. After the reading ends, she’s hugged by a few of her colleagues, then moves off to the side, away from the embraces, laughter, and selfie-taking tumult in the center of the room. As Bloom and McKenna bounce giddily from person to person, Povitsky takes a minute for herself. Then she does something that seems, from the outside, to be a very Crazy Ex-Girlfriend kind of move. She laughs about how hard she’s crying, smiles, shakes her head, and laughs some more.
The cupcakes go mostly uneaten, but eventually the T-shirts make the rounds. The back references “The End of the Movie.” On the front, right where a left breast pocket would be, it says, “I’m not sad, you’re sad.”
Rachel Bloom needs a nap.
It’s February 7, the second-to-last day of shooting, and the busiest person on set has a nasty cold. The previous day’s shoot went long — the show’s final musical number, “Eleven O’Clock,” has proven even more complicated than anticipated, and it’s now the first item on the list today. There’s no shooting the song, or the scene that follows, without Bloom, who stands with Champlin on a turntable in a vast, black space. They shoot what will be the final musical moments of the series, then hustle from that stage to the one that contains Rebecca’s house.
I follow Bloom as she gets as much as she can out of a rare, relatively unoccupied moment. She has a question or two for her assistant, and a couple of things to chat about with Champlin. She points out the giant floating pretzel from the pilot, a few signs from the West Covina businesses they’ve created for the world of the show. There’s a conversation about the expense of awards campaigns, the unbelievable skill of the show’s actors, her frustration over her cold and also how she plans to combat it, the forthcoming live show, and the fact that someone’s mother is visiting the set today. She makes sure I know where the bathrooms are and tells me to make sure to hit craft services. It’s been maybe 90 seconds total.
We cut through a hallway between sets and wind up in Rebecca’s bedroom, where executive producer Erin Ehrlich and Brosh McKenna are preparing for the next set of scenes, all taking place in Rebecca’s kitchen; a video monitor and some chairs have been scattered throughout the room, but people seem to gravitate toward the bed. It could not be more apparent that the group at large is very comfortable in this room. Perhaps it’s because it feels so honestly occupied. There are candles in jars all over the place. A stack of books on a desk includes both Codependent No More and The Language of Letting Go. Ruth Gator Ginsburg, Rebecca’s enormous stuffed alligator, is also on the bed, and makes the rounds from one set of arms to another. McKenna and Bloom touch base, Bloom and Champlin knock a few things out, and then Bloom is off to the nap room while Champlin and Bloom’s stand-in get as much done without her as possible.
This, Brosh McKenna assures me, is part of the job: making sure Bloom stays healthy, so she can actually do all the things she needs to do. If she’s in serious need of sleep, they find a way to get her some sleep. But it would seem that the nap room is necessary, because when McKenna finds time to discuss the finale, she, too, sprawls on Rebecca’s bed.
There have been many great shows about people spiraling in some way, Brosh McKenna acknowledges. “But those are tragedies, and ours is a comedy. And I take the Shakespearean part of that very seriously. In a tragedy, it’s, He’s dead. And he’s dead. She died, too. She took the poison. She’s also dead. But ours truly is a comedy. [Rebecca] reached her emotional low point on the airplane, and her external obstacle low point, which was prison. This season has been this journey out of that. In comedies, you have a nice woven basket at the end.”
Champlin has finished all the shots she can manage with Bloom’s stand-in, so someone gets Bloom from the nap room. When she arrives, there’s another tornado of information: Bloom is amazed by how convincing the stand-in looks on camera, she makes sure I know that Ehrlich is a genius and Champlin is incredible, she tells me to make sure to watch rehearsal, she apologizes for the napping and the cold, she talks about the importance of the show’s final song, and talks to Brosh McKenna about a prop and a line change. You’d never know that she’s sick.
The next day’s shoot wraps well past midnight, and that’s it. Bloom later describes that final day: “I was in the shower that morning, and thought, Fuck, I’m still sick. And I said to myself, Okay, I’m going to get through today. I’m going to do whatever it takes for Rebecca. I’m sending off Rebecca today. I owe it to her to be at 100 percent. And I think that mind-set, in addition to those naps, really helped me. I didn’t need a double the entire day. I wanted to be there. I had to be present for everything.”
That need isn’t simply practical, and she isn’t the only person to have had that reaction. Weeks later, I speak to Kabir Akhtar, the show’s Emmy-winning editor and one of its most frequent directors. He tells me that nearly everyone in the cast and crew, even the people who weren’t working, turned up for those final hours: “I think for a lot of people it was very much like, We don’t have to be here, but I think we have to be here.”
David Hull has his arm in a sling.
It’s March 12, and the cast of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is taking a well-earned lunch break. They’re at the midpoint of one of several long rehearsals for Yes, It’s Really Us Singing!, and it’s as if the luxury of extended rehearsal time has made them all a bit high. It’s Gabrielle Ruiz, who plays Valencia, using that word, luxury; Champlin calls it civilized; Kathryn M. Burns, the series’s choreographer, says it’s next-level; Scott Michael Foster, who plays Nathaniel, likens it to going to an amazing class reunion two weeks after you graduate.
But even without those descriptors, the energy would be obvious. Hull, who plays White Josh, dislocated his shoulder doing “The Moment Is Me” with Vella Lovell in a recent rehearsal, but he can’t stop gesturing with the injured arm, sometimes taking it out of the sling and tossing the empty fabric back over his shoulder.
“The doctor said, ‘I can’t authorize you to use it,’ and it’s like, ‘Cool, so I’m off to rehearsal!’” he says, laughing. There’s a lot of laughing. “But hey, it happened doing a cartwheel, so at least it was in pursuit of something dignified,” he adds.
Within minutes he’ll be back on the rehearsal floor, the sling again empty and flapping uselessly, but even before the dancing recommences, it’s not getting a ton of use. He’s just too slaphappy to keep that arm still. They’re all in that place. Ruiz chatters excitedly about getting to wear the “Let’s Generalize About Men” jackets again. Foster laughs about Nathaniel’s love of zoos. Burns is very excited that she finally got to do some choreography for “Period Sex,” a recurring joke on the series that never got a proper showing. (“It’s a very crotch-centric yet beautifully seductive dance,” she says. “It’s a very amazingly shocking and kind of sexy 30 seconds.”)
At some point, my interview with Lovell and Hull is interrupted by Bloom, who sits on Lovell’s lap and tells me that they’re the same size, that they have “traveling pants,” and that “the length of her torso is literally the length of fabric you need to go over my boobs, so it works out.” She tells me about a nightmare she had about the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend cast doing Into the Woods, which then turned into a murder mystery; she also monologues about which cast members would survive the Hunger Games. (Ruiz is the likeliest to win; Lovell would go out early.)
When rehearsal begins again, everyone snaps back into work mode, but even then, that silly energy percolates. Jack Dolgen, Bloom’s longtime songwriting partner and one of the show’s executive producers, interrupts an attempt at a medley of the show’s more suggestive numbers to suggest a lyric change — it should be “the sexy getting medley song,” he says.
“Oh fuck, that’s good!” Bloom replies, then turns to the onlookers. “He took a UCLA writing course, and look at him now!”
The fact that this show will end with a concert jam-packed with innuendo isn’t surprising. Nor is the cast’s obvious enjoyment of each other and of performing these songs unexpected. The level of sustained excitement is something of a surprise, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. Ruiz explains it this way: “Rachel’s an incredible star. She can just stand on that stage, and not only does the audience go nuts but she just gives it right back to them. It’s that much love.”
The overwhelming response to the live performances, and Bloom’s ability to give that energy back, is something I hear repeated again and again from the cast and creative team. Several use the words “a wall of sound.” Akhtar, who helped to edit the concert special, describes a wealth of material to choose from, including the audience reaction: “All the applause was three, four times longer than what we included, every audience shot was great. All the songs were great. We had so much more than we could possibly use. It’s a concert special, and I think special really was the right word for it.”
When I see the final performance of the special at the Orpheum Theatre, Hull’s sling is nowhere in sight. The sex medley is, in fact, called “The Sexy Getting Medley Song,” and the name change gets a huge laugh, as does the medley-closing “Period Sex.” Brosh McKenna quizzes the audience between numbers and Bloom shouts out her favorite costumes in the crowd. At one point, she asks all the former theater kids in the crowd to raise their hands, and hundreds of arms shoot into the air; she does the same for choir, and someone from the back shouts, “Marching band!” and an enormous cheer erupts. Bloom beams. These are her people.
Rachel Bloom is walking her dog.
It’s a week before the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend finale airs, and as always, she’s multitasking. She’s taking her “tiny rescue dog” out after giving some notes on a pilot she’s executive-producing, but before heading into the second-to-last day of sound-mixing for the concert special, and she’s talking about the finale — “a relief,” she tells me, as to this point she hasn’t been able to discuss it with anyone outside the show. Then her dog stops.
“Oh shit, she just peed on someone’s L.A. Times,” she says. “Oh no. I feel bad. Oh God. Okay, I’m running away. Not good.”
It’s a moment that would feel right at home in an episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, had Rebecca Bunch ever adopted a dog. Perhaps she does, now that the cameras have left her alone. The point of the series, Bloom tells me, wasn’t to get her to a happy ending — it’s not about ending up with a certain guy, or some perfect kind of life. “This whole show was like a prequel to someone becoming herself. She needed this season to actually meet herself, to actually meet Rebecca,” she says, echoing the fourth season’s theme song.
Bloom, Akhtar, Dolgen, and Brosh McKenna finish mixing the scripted finale late the next day — another of Brosh McKenna’s milestones in the show’s slow slope out of existence. There’s no more work, so they go to dinner. The next night, Akhtar gets a text from Bloom. A local theater company is putting on a cabaret of the songs of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. She has a few tickets, would he be up for going?
“We just sat in the back and watched it,” Akhtar tells me later. “They were great. It was really great to see them, to see that this show goes on, [that] the show has life even after us. They had a whole band, and did song after song after song. It was just such a stunningly positive experience. We’re done with it, but this thing Aline and Rachel made, that we all made, means something to people. People still care. People are still doing it.”
Shinbone Theatre Company has done only one performance of that cabaret so far. Proceeds benefited Her Justice, an organization that Rebecca Bunch would have absolutely loved, and probably bragged a little too much about supporting. After their performance, Bloom tells the cast how thrilling it was to see the songs done this way, calling it a “rite of passage” for any composer. I ask Maeve Riley, the show’s director and one of its performers, if she could see how Bloom reacted in the audience.
“I was trying to stay in the moment,” she says, “but when we finished the finale [“Face Your Fears”], I saw her. I couldn’t help it. She was the first one on her feet.”