Monday, June 26, 2017

Five Random Thoughts On...Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

I have kind of enjoyed doing, sporadically when I finish re-watching a television series, a bit of a postmortem on the season or seasons of the show that I just watched, and like all things in my life (and on my blog), I'm behind on a couple of series I recently reinvested my time in, so I will be kicking off a few series in the next couple of weeks here that I've gone through, and be handling them in a variety of ways.  With the show for today, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, I'm going to be handling it via our traditional "Five Thoughts On..." as I have never discussed the series (even in passing) on the blog, as it was a bit of a whim that I decided to start watching the series as my nightly lullaby.  The series, starring Rachel Bloom as an ambitious young lawyer who moves from Manhattan to West Covina, California, largely in pursuit of her camp boyfriend whom she hasn't spoken to in years, is an original musical-comedy that tackles more taboos then you'd expect from the commercials and the cutesy premise.  It has been a critical and awards darling (Bloom won a Golden Globe for the series), but a bit of a ratings miss, which is sadly all-too-common for excellent broadcast television (it doesn't have to be on HBO or FX to be good, people), and is surprisingly fresh-and-real for such a well trod subject matter.  Let's take a deeper dive, shall we (spoilers ahead if you haven't watched, and while it's not for everyone, I suggest you at least give the first couple of episodes a chance)

1. The Show is Bold About Mental Illness

Perhaps the most shocking thing about the show is not the musical numbers, the aggressively sexual jokes (how some of these things get by censors I'm floored), or the lack of a traditionally likable leading character (more on that in a second), but instead the way the show is extremely bold about mental illness.

After watching the second season finale, when the show kind of turned its format on its head, showing that Rebecca's musical delusions aren't necessarily whimsical but instead a darker indication of how disturbed she is by past trauma and how she burnt an ex-boyfriend's house down when he wouldn't leave his wife for her, I came to realize the show is littered with people with diagnosable disorders.  You have Rebecca (delusions of grandeur, potentially bipolar), Paula (depression, paranoid), Darryl (self-esteem issues), Greg (alcoholism), Heather (social disorder), Valencia (body dysmorphia), Hector (unresolved oedipal complex), White Josh (unresolved electra complex), and Nathaniel (suffers from parental neglect, possibly emotional abuse).  These are all handled in cutesy ways, but they're all there-one of the genius aspects of Bloom's series is that even if you want to laugh or cheer alongside some of these shenanigans, you also have to deal with the fact that these people have mental issues that impair their lives, and occasionally make bad things happen to them because they're in denial about the issues.

All of this is weirdly juxtaposed against Josh Chan, the center of pretty much everyone's obsession (everyone, including the lead protagonist, seems to revolve in some way around Josh, to the point where one character literally gets his identity from Josh's name/appearance).  Josh is bizarre not only because he's a blank slate for everyone to write upon, but more so because he's the only person on the show who doesn't show any signs of mental illness.  He has problems, of course, but nothing clearly certifiable.  As a result, every person in his life seems to want to change him to fit their world.  It's a really bold study for a show, something I don't remember seeing, and thankfully Bloom appears to be acknowledging it in the second season finale, where she and Paula appear to be targeting Josh in a major way, with the audience now far more aware of Rebecca's past.

2. Rebecca is Hard to Like or Watch...But That's Kind of the Point

TV has had a recent series of antiheroes that have become a part of the television firmament; men like Don Draper, Walter White, and Frank Underwood have become the bad guys that you root for, sometimes even confusing them for the hero.  However, TV has struggled when it comes to portraying female antiheroes on the small screen, frequently having critics (read: male critics) dismiss them as crazy or lesser than their male counterparts.

Bloom takes this idea on its head, but also challenges her critics with lead character Rebecca.  In the first season's credits, she openly states calling her "crazy" is sexist, but then she also creates a character that surely has some sort of mental illness, and perhaps more importantly to the script, is not a good person.  Think about it objectively: she came into town, disrupted not only a relationship, but also a friendship, and frequently takes advantage of those around her, to the point where her desperate-for-validation boss pays her despite her almost never coming to work.  Rebecca's antics are almost entirely selfish, and rarely grounded in reality; aside from a physical attraction, is she really a good match for simple, sweet, but unambitious Josh?  It's frequently addressed on the show, but kind of hard to comprehend that Rebecca may not be the hero of this story, and is perhaps its villain (something that was the source of one of my favorite musical numbers of the series).  It's not entirely clear, however, if she isn't the hero-who is?  Particularly with Greg gone, it sort of falls upon Josh Chan to be the hero, and Rebecca teaches us to both love and loathe Josh Chan.  I am hopeful we continue to see this weird dichotomy as it makes for fascinating television, particularly since...

3. I Still Miss Greg

In the first season, I think Greg became my favorite character.  Santino Fontana's weirdly sexy performance (I loved the continued "search term on a porn site" joke from the women on the show about him), combined with a raw comic timing and terrific chemistry with Bloom, was sorely missed when he decided to abruptly leave the show.  The show didn't do itself many services when it brought in Nathaniel as a seeming replacement for him (I think one of the few missteps the series has made so far), and the energy from him has been lacking.  Oddly enough, I'd argue that it was a smart decision from a predictability standpoint (we all know how love triangles in Hollywood work, and it's never the first guy she's interested in that wins the female lead's heart but the second), but Fontana is such a good singer and so much fun to watch I will admit to missing him and not quite feeling his energy replaced yet in the second half of Season 2, even if I still like the show and some of the directions it's taken.

4. Paula is the Most Interesting Character on the Show

Paula Procter, as played by Donna Lynne Champlin, has to be one of the most original characters I've seen brought to life on a broadcast show in ages.  Champlin, a musical theater veteran who has appeared on Broadway in shows like Billy Elliott and Sweeney Todd, is an ideal choice for a show with frequent song breaks, but initially I was a little bit perplexed what such a stock character was doing on a show that frequently upended your expectations of what a musical comedy character should look like.  After all, she played the doting best friend who seems to only have a life through the lead character with an easy charm, but her portrayal would have felt at ease in any 90's sitcom being played by a Joan Cusack or Rosie O'Donnell (something they stated in one of many meta moments on the series).

But then Paula is explored a bit more, and we see the dangers of her living vicariously through Rebecca.  Her marriage and her professional ambitions are squashed because Rebecca doesn't really care about Paula, to the point where Paula actually stops talking to Rebecca as a result.  Paula's problems are shown to be, weirdly, much more traditional and intense than Rebecca's random Greg-or-Josh routine: her marriage is in shambles, she hates her job, she eventually gets pregnant and has an abortion without telling Rebecca.  The combination of such little self-esteem and so much promise in her life aside from the Rebecca angle (she manages to get into law school and save her marriage, despite having no help from Rebecca) makes you realize that Rebecca's drama is genuinely bad for Paula.  As played by Champlin, we see the need to have this electric spark in her life, even if it means destruction for things she genuinely cares about, and it makes that devastating finale where she and Rebecca vow revenge against Josh all the more worrisome.  After all, what will Paula be forced to sacrifice by once again getting into Rebecca's world of misguided (and frequently illegal) drama?

5. I Have No Idea How the Show Will End

Perhaps the best part about Greg leaving was that the show at this point has no clear ending.  That can pose a problem if the writers don't have a plan, but it seems from the back-half of season two that they do, which is really thrilling.  After all, it's rare that a series doesn't play its hand pretty heartily about what will happen.  We know on most romantic comedies which character she's going to end up with, and when love triangles are truly equally-sided, the series finds a way to kill off one edge of the triangle through unexpected villainy, a fourth leg (turning the triangle into a square), or literally killing off a character.  Here-we don't have that.  It's pretty clear that Rebecca and Josh have now done irreparable damage to their relationship, and the writers have shown that it isn't healthy for either of them to actually end up together.  But what does that mean for an ending?  Will Rebecca get help for her mental illness?  Will Greg return in the end?  How does this end?  In many ways this mirrors a show the series is clearly borrowing from, Ally McBeal, which saw the two loves of Ally's life (Billy and Larry) both disappear through contract negotiations.  Hopefully Bloom's series has the ability to end the show in a more believable way, but regardless I'm thrilled to keep watching mostly because I don't know what's going to happen next, something few series on television can boast at this point.

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