The very title of Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna’s CW series, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, was bound to raise a few eyebrows. Plus, it’s a musical “comedy” about a successful New York lawyer, Rebecca Bunch (Bloom), who moves on a whim to the Los Angeles suburb where her former summer-camp boyfriend, Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), “just happens” to live. (Or, really, a suburb of a suburb: West Covina, Calif. is laughably far from Los Angeles when you factor in traffic, which you should always do in Southern California). The series’ opening number was a colorfully optimistic joy ride on a giant pretzel for anyone who appreciates the fine art of a soaring overture and still has a tinge of high-school theater kid syndrome. And there was enough wordplay and on-cue monologuing to make us empathize with Rebecca, a heroine who in any other situation would have been branded a stalker and treated as a leper.
Of course, not everyone needed the hard sell. I am a Jewish woman with a minor in theater and a history of depression and social awkwardness. I’m married to an Asian American (although my husband is of Chinese descent; Josh is Filipino) and my parents live near the real city of West Covina. I understood Rebecca and her reignited infatuation with Josh, the idea of singing and dancing to cope with your feelings, and even the regional in-jokes that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend enjoys so much. (There really is a street named East Cameron, although it’s more residential than the one on the show). But given the ratings, I know I’m in the minority. So, in honor of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s final episode, I made a list of 10 of the many ways the series has changed TV, both on screen and off.
Although it (literally) danced around the topic for years, CEGF got real in Season Three, offering a depiction of mental illness that was both pragmatic and inspiring. After running away from her problems once again and then attempting suicide, Rebecca found a diagnosis that seemed to work for her: borderline personality disorder. But the series was responsible enough to emphasize the personal growth she’d have to undergo and life changes she’d have to make in order to make her condition manageable. In doing so, it joined the ranks of FXX’s You’re the Worst and Showtime’s Shameless; comedies that also stressed that mental illness is neither a frivolous plot point nor an after school special-level crisis.
“I think that sometimes in these shows with anti-heroes, you kind of keep them frozen there so you can maintain the pathology,” Brosh McKenna said at the time. “But she [Rebecca] still has underlying issues to address. She still does, and always will. So it doesn’t mean that she’s fixed.”
Let’s talk about the most frequent portrayals of my people. Male Jewish TV characters are often miserly, nebbishy and/or intellectually superior like some knock-off Woody Allen (thanks, in no small part, to Woody Allen). Female Jewish characters are frequently status-obsessed social climbers who are spoiled by their fathers or husbands and who only get passing glimpses of the world beyond their social bubbles. (Somehow, these projects still win awards—looking at you, Amazon’s Marvelous Mrs. Maisel).
Then there’s CEGF’s Season One number “JAP Battle” and its reprise in Season Four. People talk a lot about the importance of diversity and being able to see yourself on screen. It was not until the first song’s airing that I knew other Jewish women were also sick of the assumption that we’re not self-sufficient, educated people. In fact, we’re often highly aware of our privilege and would rather join forces to help those who aren’t as fortunate than compete against each other like our mothers taught us. We also understand the dichotomy set out for us when we are expected to support the state of Israel and its sometimes-hard-to-justify political decisions.
“Now, I think of the ‘Jewish princesses’ thing as a completely different thing,” Bloom told me then. “I don’t associate being JAP-y with not having a job and wanting your husband to do everything. It’s the entire package. The princess aspect of it, to me, is kind of white privilege… that’s true of anyone upper middle class in this country, especially if they’re not of color.”
Similarly, Asian and Asian American men have only recently begun to fare well in romantic comedies. CEGF premiered a year after John Cho gave us a modern-day Henry Higgins in ABC’s short-lived, beloved Selfie, and a lifetime of “peak TV” after Harry Shum, Jr. and his abs were celebrated in the halls of William McKinley High School—despite never achieving permanent leading man status—on Fox’s Glee. But while Cho’s role as a trendsetter since he popularized the term “MILF” in the movie American Pie should not be ignored—I fully endorse the #starringjohncho movement—it’s significant that Josh Chan is different. He’s not necessarily confident or smart. He’s not here to sweep you off your feet or fix you. He’s just a sweet, simple man who appreciates martial arts and magic and is a freakin’ good dancer when the song requires it.
“Josh Chan is distinct from the John Chos who came before him in that he’s not a nerd or control freak whom the girl eventually realizes is sexy, or a skinny Asian buffoon whose horniness is played up for comic relief (looking at you, MILF guy #2 and Long Duk Dong [from the movie Sixteen Candles])—Crazy Ex-Girlfriend treats his good looks as a matter of fact,” Jada Yuan wrote for Vulture in 2016.
He also always loved Rebecca just as she is.
When I think of bisexual representation on TV (particularly of the musical variety), my mind always goes to that Friends episode where Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) tells a coffee shop of kids that there are bisexuals, but “some [people] just say they’re kidding themselves.” Like so many other things about that popular sitcom, it… doesn’t age well.
That’s why Pete Gardner’s portrayal of the follicularly gifted Darryl Whitefeather is such a welcome change. Early on in CEGF, a post-divorce Darryl has an epiphany that he might be attracted to men and women. (“I’m bothsexual!” he proclaims.) And he sings about it in a neon-hued 1980s-style pop anthem that includes the lines, “Now some may say / ‘Oh, you’re just gay’ / ‘Why don’t you just go gay all the way?’ / But that’s not it / ‘Cause bi’s legit / Whether you’re a he or a she / We might be a perfect fit.”
“I think that there’s something poignant about somebody at a later stage of their life coming to this realization while in a relationship with someone who has been out and [for whom] it’s not a big deal,” Brosh McKenna told The Daily Beast at the time.
The other notable aspect of this storyline? Darryl’s coworkers don’t bat an eye when he comes out to them. Nor is there much of a ripple later in the series when Rebecca’s enemy-turned-friend, Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz), begins to date a woman. And it’s certainly not a thing when Esther Povitsky’s chipper supporting character, Maya, is into ladies.
CEGF was originally made as a pilot for Showtime before getting picked up by that network’s younger corporate sibling, The CW. So it’s interesting that, on a channel teeming with people who look like they were rejected by Abercrombie & Fitch out of fear that they’d make the clothing company’s other models feel inadequate, the series has made a point of casting actors who look not just like regular people, but who have regular body types. Front and center on this is Bloom herself, who once unapologetically sang about her weight gain to Stephen Colbert and celebrates her cleavage in the show’s song, “Heavy Boobs.” Your move, Riverdale.
One of the perils of doing a complicated relationship piece on broadcast TV is the limitations on how creators can both show and tell about it, whether because of what’s set by the Federal Communications Commission or by the network’s own stringent Standards & Practices department. This has been a sticking point with Bloom in particular, who has tweeted and spoken out about her frustrations with sex scenes that are unrealistic when it comes to female pleasure.
“I think that seeing how normal people fuck, how regular people fuck, what fucking is actually like, I think is really important,” Bloom told me recently. “How do you bridge that gap? Porn definitely does not help with that aspect.”
The series did, miraculously, manage to get the word “clitoris” on air, and also featured a memorable song in which Rebecca’s colleague, Tim (Michael McMillian) comes to the cold, hard realization that he hasn’t been pleasuring his wife.
Despite how much TV creators want to pat themselves on the back for being so progressive, women’s health choices, in particular abortion, have often been treated as fodder for melodrama. CEGF helped change this in the fall of 2016, when the writers decided that Donna Lynne Champlin’s wife and mother, Paula, would not put her dreams of becoming a lawyer on hold to raise another child and—after talking it through with her husband—terminated her unplanned pregnancy. The episode aired around the same time that You’re the Worst and The CW’s Jane the Virgin also sought to show that a free-thinking woman could make this decision. Eventually, we’d have shows like Hulu’s new comedy, Shrill, covering the topic without fanfare. (Photo: Scott Everett White/The CW)
It shouldn’t be a surprise that one of the most feminist shows on TV also has some empowering writers behind the scenes. At the height of the #MeToo movement, CEGF writer-producer Audrey Wauchope came forward on Twitter to speak of the sexual harassment and uncomfortable working environment she experienced early in her career. While she didn’t name names then, it was later confirmed that she was speaking of One Tree Hill creator Mark Schwahn. Eventually, more people came forward to discuss Schwahn’s mistreatment on that and other series, and he was later fired from E!’s The Royals after a sexual misconduct probe.
Brosh McKenna has also spearheaded the online movement #FemaleFilmmakerFriday. Inspired by a post on her friend Tamra Davis’ Instagram feed, Brosh McKenna told Indiewire that she started the campaign because “people carry around an image in their head of what a director looks like. It’s a dude, and there’s kind of a baseball hat, and there’s maybe some cargo shorts.” “We just need different images,” she continued. “Images are very valuable, so seeing images of women direct while they’re pregnant, and petite women, and tall women, and just all different types of women. I think it’s important to show that.” (Photo: Greg Gayne/The CW)
Wauchope also used the power of Twitter this season when she and writing partner Rachel Specter directed their first episode. Due to Directors Guild of America rulings, theirs was not allowed to be labeled a directing partnership, and Specter did not receive official credit for her work on the episode. Wauchope let this injustice be known, offering a thread that detailed exactly why it’s problematic. While she wasn’t able to change complicated and archaic guild laws, she was able to bring awareness to them. (Photo: Robert Voets/The CW)
Both Bloom and Brosh McKenna have publically tried to help others both struggling in the industry and with how to break into it. As Vulture reported in 2017, Bloom helped shed light on what the article described as the “racist, homophobic mess” that was the CBS Diversity Showcase— even though her show is produced by CBS Studios. She spoke with human resources representatives about the issues she’d heard about the workshop through the comedy community and listed directions for how to report grievances on her Facebook page.
And Brosh McKenna told me last year that one of the best ways to create an influx of diversity in Hollywood is to look outside of it when hiring entry-level help like assistants.
“We need to have a better system for supporting young people when they’re trying to break into the business and one thing that would really help is having these entry-level jobs pay better and that we support people as they try to move to L.A. and New York,” she told me then after she’d helped a talented person with no ties to the industry get a job.
These ladies are definitely not stupid bitches. (Photo: Greg Gayne/The CW)