Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: a magical blend of comedy, tragedy, earnestness and irony

What sets this musical comedy series apart from other romcom fare is its respectful but unsentimental handling of mental illness

On 1 April, Rachel Bloom, the star, co-creator, co-writer and co-songwriter of musical comedy series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (CXG) revealed she’d given birth to her first child. It was, she said on Instagram, an intense thing to experience – especially during a pandemic that had landed “a dear friend in the ICU”.

That dear friend was musician and producer Adam Schlesinger, who died from Covid-19 the same day. Schlesinger was the bassist and lead songwriter for Fountains of Wayne, and along with Jack Dolgen, Bloom’s songwriting partner on CXG. Over the show’s four seasons, the trio wrote 157 original musical numbers that affably parodied every musical genre of music you can think of, from early 2000s pop punk to 80s Pointer Sisters-style vocal anthems to hip-hop.

The plot revolves around Rebecca Bunch, played by Bloom: a mega successful but deeply unhappy New York lawyer (is there any other kind?) who impulsively quits her (mother’s) dream job to move out to West Covina, California (“only two hours from the beach!”). She does this after running into her high-school flame, Josh Chan, on the streets of Manhattan. Just don’t say that she moved there for Josh.

Until Rebecca learns to accept herself, she’ll always live in denial.
‘Mentally and emotionally troubled, Rebecca imagines her life as a Busby Berkeley musical gone awry.’ Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Mentally and emotionally troubled, Rebecca imagines her life as a Busby Berkeley musical gone awry. Hijinks ensue as she lands a job at a shambolic law firm owned by “proudly 1/8th Chippewa” Daryl Whitefeather, and becomes besties with paralegal Paula who turns out to be more of an enabler than a friend. Together they scheme to lure Josh away from his longtime girlfriend, the beautiful but (from Rebecca’s perspective) mean Valencia.

Despite rave reviews, two Emmys and a core audience so devoted that the cast performed packed live shows across the United States, CXG’s ratings were so persistently low that by season four it became a joke in the show itself. I’ve never understood why the show performed so badly.

Music and comedy aside, what sets CXG apart from other romcom fare is its handling of mental illness that turns the “crazy ex-girlfriend” trope on its head.

A still from Crazy Ex Girlfriend
‘Despite rave reviews and two Emmys, CXG’s ratings were so persistently low that by season four it became a joke in the show itself.’ Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

Rebecca is deeply delusional. She bounces from love interest to love interest, back to first love interest, to second love interest’s dad and back to – well, you get the picture. It soon becomes clear to everyone but her that the kind of love our flawed heroine is searching for is not the romantic kind. Until Rebecca learns to accept herself, she’ll always live in denial.

The show handles mental illness with respect but without kid gloves. Rebecca’s behaviour runs the gamut from quirky to melodramatic to illegal to unforgivable but she is played with such genuine empathy, we can’t help but root for her. Blending comedy, tragedy, earnestness and irony, the show pulls off its eclecticism with a sincere but never sentimental commitment to non-judgemental depiction of severe mental distress.

Rebecca is an extreme version of those of us who have ever pretended we didn’t do this thing or that thing to win the attention of that person. She feels so much more intensely, and reacts so much more disastrously, to what we struggle with everyday: fearing rejection, yearning for validation, and hoping despite all evidence to the contrary that happiness lies just around the corner. If we could only nab that guy, that girl, that job, close that deal, then “we’ll never have problems again.”

Bloom and Schlesinger’s partnership has been tragically cut short. They’d just begun working on a Broadway adaptation of 90s sitcom The Nanny when the coronavirus struck, and his death is one heavy drop in the great gulf of loss drenching the world at the moment. We’ll never know what other wonders they would have gifted us, but Crazy Ex-Girlfriend will live on as a testament to the electricity that ignites when creative minds find each other at just the right time in their lives – and in ours. We’ll always have West Covina.

• Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is available to stream in Australia on Netflix


Ruby Hamad

The GuardianTramp

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