A musical comedy about a young woman chasing after her one-time summer camp boyfriend doesn’t necessarily sound like something I’d be super into. Give me the grittiness of The Sopranos, the stylish depression of Mad Men, or the harsh reality of romantic relationships in Master of None. Yeah, okay, I love The Mindy Project and New Girl, but only because I stuck with the characters for so long. I once dreamt that Max Greenfield’s Schmidt and I were driving around Pike Place Market just making fun of people. To my horror, I found my initial skepticism and fast-forwarding through the musical numbers of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend turned into a guilty pleasure binge-watch, which slowly evolved into an interest and eventual shameless love for the show. But how?
Against all odds, the show pointedly titled Crazy Ex-Girlfriend somehow dispels all of the shallowness and clichés the trope and its particular vessel of musical romantic comedy bring to mind. Is it possible that a comedy series that makes obvious nods to some pretty silly genre-specific truisms, and centers around a woman moving across the country for a guy, is actually a relatable, feminist viewing experience? The answer is a resounding “yes!” sung from the rooftops of West Covina, California.
The series begins with a flashback to 2005. An awkward, teenage Rebecca Bunch is singing in a youth summer camp’s musical production of South Pacific. She’s an obvious theater nerd who has the ambition, but not quite the talent or presence to be center stage. After the performance, as everyone packs up to head home in their parents minivans, Josh Chan, Rebecca’s camp boyfriend, casually breaks up with her, because — well, duh — camp’s over. Rebecca holds back tears as she tries to convince him of what they had, and is left desperately shouting “I’m not dramatic!” as he saunters away, breaking her heart like only a teenage boy can.
Ten years later, Rebecca is a successful lawyer at a big firm in Manhattan, but a surprising promotion shakes some existential fear into her. Is she truly happy? A chance run-in with Josh for the first time since that fateful last day of camp inspires Rebecca to make some big changes. She quits her job in the Big Apple to move to the small Los Angeles suburb where Josh lives to start her life over. Hopefully, to start her life over with Josh.
After delightfully throwing away all of her mood-stabilizing medication, Rebecca is quick to track down Josh’s normal hangouts, along the way meeting some of his good friends, like Greg, a curmudgeonly bartender with a bad haircut. Her new job at the small firm that’s excited — if not a bit confused — to have her on staff includes Paula, a brassy middle-aged woman hungry for drama, whose initial skepticism towards Rebecca eventually grows into a Lucy and Ethel-esque friendship that drives the shows antics and becomes the emotional backbone of the series. Other characters that make up Rebecca’s new life in West Covina include her monotone college student neighbor Heather (think Aubrey Plaza-lite), her sweetly sincere, sexually confused and rather geeky boss Darryl, and the villain, of course: Josh’s Pinterest-perfect, rich “bitch” girlfriend Valencia.
Each hour-long episode is comprised of at least two musical numbers, with titles like “Having a Few People Over,” “Textmergency,” “Sex with a Stranger,” “Settle for Me” and my personal favorite, “Heavy Boobs.” These are full blown, impressively choreographed song and dance sequences that address an element of the narrative, usually with humor, and sometimes with surprisingly genuine pathos.
Through all of these corny musical numbers, the rom-com scenarios, and the outrageous I Love Lucy levels of scheming, I find myself relating to Rebecca against the odds. As a late-20s, self-aware and yet admittedly boy-crazy woman, I understand the “craziness” factor that comes with having an emotional interest in and romantic attachment to men. This show is hyper-aware of the socialized misogyny that Rebecca succumbs to because of these romantic fantasies, and it uses these situations to deconstruct and lay a critical eye on what happens when an intelligent, headstrong woman falls victim to feeling bad about embracing her emotions.
Much like Rebecca (although instead of a career-minded successful lawyer from New York, I’m a video store clerk from Seattle), I too am extremely aware of the societal and patriarchal pressure to avoid the stigma of being too clingy, too needy and too dramatic. As Rebecca tells herself she’s over Josh, she continues to act emotionally on her fairy-tale optimism no matter how irrational. She befriends his unlikable girlfriend, hosts a party made up of virtual strangers and eventually stages a robbery in her own house to get Josh to spend time with her. Being conscious of the stigma only enhances Rebecca’s conflict — what will it take for her to be truly happy?
Rebecca is smart, but not necessarily cynical. She still hopes for this romantic life she’s wanted since she was a little girl, singing songs from South Pacific to a crowd of hormone-fueled youths, and Josh symbolizes this. Having her constantly acknowledge that what she’s feeling is a bit over the top, but simultaneously embracing and fighting against it (sometimes winning, sometimes losing) is far more relatable than characters on your average teen soap opera, such as Dawson’s Creek, or on the other hand, characters on shows that highlight the lead’s quirkiness to an almost impossible level (here’s looking at you Season One of New Girl).
Framing the show as being obsessed with the romantic happy ending, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend uses that format in order to explore what happens when we only think we know what we want in love and in life, especially as a 20-something or 30-something (what I like to call) “fake adult.” While all of this Josh Chan distraction is swirling around her, Rebecca takes risks to actually get to know and understand herself, and to develop strong non-romantic relationships, especially with Paula — shattering the usual norms of the rom-com genre, and showing that it really is okay to be an emotional, romantic-minded woman, looking for love and trying to figure it all out.
Emalie Soderback (@esoderback) lives in Seattle, Washington and works at Scarecrow Video and seasonally for Seattle International Film Festival. She has a B.A. in Film Studies and is particularly fond of horror film and true crime, especially when it combines with a focus on feminine identity.