Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's final season shows us how to build a better TV show
The first episode of the final season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which premiered over the weekend, is reminiscent of how Seinfeld ended: with its protagonist, Rebecca Bunch, going to prison for all the antics we've watched her commit over the past few years.
Of course, the context is wildly different — unlike Seinfeld locking its characters up as a grand metafictional joke, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend imprisons Rebecca as the payoff for its most surprising narrative thread, a dark and weighty look at the mental health of its lead after a suicide attempt. That it managed to handle this sensitively and humanely while still being funny is a testament to how deft a show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is. That it manages to do it while sharply deconstructing decades of storytelling tropes makes it transcendent.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a matryoshka doll of sharp storytelling; to watch it is to witness layer after complementary layer envelop one another, building to one of the warmest and funniest shows on network TV. If you haven't been following, it's the story of Rebecca Bunch, a profoundly depressed woman with a successful legal career who, on a chance meeting, learns that a boy she dated as a teen now lives in the California suburb of West Covina and decides to move there to win him back.
From the very start, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend couldn't find a trope it didn't want to subvert ("That's a sexist term," Bunch says in protest when the title is sung in the show's theme song.) That's because, when it comes to romance, pop culture has largely embraced plots that conform to "traditional" gender roles, romanticizing men who make grand, invasive gestures to ostensibly win the hearts of women they pine for, and vilifying women who might do something similar.
"A woman outside with a boom box in a trench coat like John Cusack …" began co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna, referencing Say Anything in a recent New York Times interview, "is a 'crazy bitch,'" finishes Rachel Bloom, the other co-creator and star.
Under this lens, the task that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has set out for itself — dismantling the portrayal of romance in pop culture — is a very big goal. But Crazy Ex-Girlfriend does it largely by not sweating its weight. Instead, the show just focuses on being a really good musical comedy that's intensely concerned about its ridiculous lead character.
Which brings us to the final season, wherein Rebecca Bunch goes to jail out of a sense of personal guilt and not necessarily because a judge convicts her. It's a punishment that stems from her antics across the series as a caricature of the trope the show is named after, but it's also deeply tragic. The resulting premiere is a masterclass of cringe comedy in which Bunch, willfully ignorant of the realities of incarceration, insists on getting locked up even though she doesn't have to be and tries to connect with her fellow inmates in a misguided attempt to do penance. (Said inmates, however, quickly turn on her the moment they find out she's only there to make herself feel better.) It spoofs Chicago and Orange Is the New Black and white savior complexes all in a single 42-minute episode, and it doesn't drag in the least. It's also, arguably, the end game for any work of art attempting to reckon with the cultural shock waves following the beginning of the #MeToo movement.
In a recent essay for Vox, culture critic Todd VanDerWerff lays out a compelling thesis for understanding how the attitudes driving the public discussion of sexual harassment and power dynamics are deeply steeped in pop culture and have been for a long time. It's something we all know, intellectually, but rarely grapple with in any meaningful way. And the reality of our pop cultural landscape is that we have long centered our stories around white men, given agency to white men, and lauded stories where they get what they want, no matter the cost.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a show about a kind of woman you've seen before, but never as a protagonist. There's never been a TV show that treats a woman as troubled or messy or dark or selfish or wrongheaded as Rebecca Bunch with such empathy. It allows her to be manipulative and dismissive of other characters, usually to comedic effect. But Crazy Ex-Girlfriend also has Rebecca account for it all, learning — through tremendous hardship — that, even though you never really get to see a character like her as a protagonist, life isn't a story about her.
It's also about Daryl Whitefeather, her hapless boss who, over the course of the show, discovered he's bisexual and decided to adopt a baby on his own. It's about her best friend, Paula, a married, middle-aged woman with kids who wants to go back to school to become a full-fledged lawyer. It's about Valencia, the woman who was initially her romantic rival but then became her close friend. And it's about the people we don't know as well, the ones who are unwitting pawns in Rebecca's schemes and romantic power plays, the people she manipulates, the inmates she callously assumed would make her life more interesting, richer, her penance more complete. That is, until she stops thinking about herself and starts to listen to them.
Which is maybe my favorite thing about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — its solution to most problems is caring about other people. Yielding Rebecca's narrative tyranny. Making its world a bigger one.