Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: Musical Numbers and Mental Illness
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a musical comedy about a mentally ill woman who, after having a nervous breakdown, convinces herself that true love will magically fix all of her problems and make her happy again. In the mind of our protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), “true love” is an ex-boyfriend from her teenage years who now lives on the other side of the country, and the story begins when she uproots her life to move to a small town in California and try to get her ex, Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), to fall back in love with her.
Seeing the title and the plot summary laid out like that instantly raises some alarms. The idea that love can cure any affliction, particularly mental illnesses, is a common trope in heterosexual romances, as is the figure of the “crazy ex”, and aren’t we all a little tired of romantic comedies anyway? But from the very first episode, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend makes it clear that there is nothing romantic about Rebecca’s mental illness or the expectations she has of romantic relationships.
But, though the story centers around Rebecca and her struggles with mental health and relationships, the ensemble cast that surrounds her is also full of hilarious, dysfunctional and pretty diverse characters:
Rebecca herself is a chubby Jewish lawyer who loves musicals (and Josh!). Josh, the idealized love interest, is a kind, sweet-hearted Filipino California surfer who still hasn’t quite found his footing in adulthood. There’s Greg (Santino Fontana), a brooding white dude archetype that the show isn’t afraid to call-out as such, and Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin), a chubby forty-something mother of two who oscillates between being Rebecca’s friend and her enabler.
Then, to complete the main cast, we have Heather (Vella Lovell), an edgy Brown girl with colorful hair who lives next to Rebecca; Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz), Josh’s beautiful and perfectionist Latina girlfriend; Darryl (Pete Gardner), a white divorcee in his forties who’s coming to terms with the fact that he’s bisexual and — last but not least — White Josh (David Hull), who’s pretty much identical to Josh, except white and gay.
Like Rebecca, all of these characters are cartoonish, exaggerated versions of very real people, always hilarious but never becoming offensive caricatures. They are all multifaceted and complex, with motivations, wishes, and problems that have nothing to do with the “love story” that Rebecca builds for herself, and they balance Rebecca’s romantic drama with great secondary storylines and the appropriately-timed reality check.
Musical theater, pop culture references, and a boyband made up of four Joshes
There are many things that set Crazy Ex apart from other romantic comedies, and the music is without a doubt what best shows the amount of talent, thought, and craft that goes into the show. It is never easy to weave a comedy about subjects like mental illness and toxic relationships that is both respectful of the issues being discussed and manages not to get depressing after a couple minutes.
But, starting with the theme song, the show always finds a way to fit the music in a way that adds to the plot and conveys to the audience messages that may otherwise be lost between the lines or clumsily communicated in exposition dialogues.
The songs of the show range from a Back-Street Boys’ “I Want It That Way” tribute to an homage to Les Miserables’ “Do You Hear The People Sing”, crowd running down the street with flags included. There’s a tap-dancing number titled “We Tapped That Ass”, a Dream Girls homage featuring Amber Riley called “Dream Ghosts” and even an “Uptown Funk” parody.
The best part is probably, the fact that the universe that the show is set in is pretty realistic, which of course means that people don’t just randomly break out into song at a work meeting to announce their coming out, like Darryl does during his iconic 80’s rock number, “Gettin’ Bi”. Most of the musical numbers are presented as a part of Rebecca’s way of imagining the world, and as such get a lot of creative liberty. There’s a number where Rebecca turns into a Disney-type Evil Witch, a Marilyn Monroe homage that includes around twenty dapper choir-men in suits and there’s even a song featuring Nipsey the rapper (as Nipsey the rapper).
Scenes that could be boring and overdone speeches about a character’s internal monologue or dense pep-talks from a character to another are replaced with hilarious and beautifully crafted songs. Love confessions (“Oh My God I Think I Like You”), break-ups (“It Was A Shit Show”) and apologies (“You Go First”) are conveyed in songs. Also the stress of organizing a casual hang-out (“Having A Few People Over”), the problems that come along with big breasts (“Heavy Boobs”) and a make-over montage that also doubles as a Fifth Harmony parody (“Put Yourself First”).
Given that most of the songs are strongly tied to the plot, it’s hard to pick just one that conveys the talent and craft in the show without spoiling anything major, so let’s just go with Darryl’s amazing coming out song.
Mental illness and toxic relationships
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, despite sticking out in the genre due to being a musical, could easily be grouped with shows like “Broad Girls” and “Master Of None” as a self-referential comedy. Rebecca Bunch, the protagonist, is a mentally ill Jewish woman who loves musicals, much like her creator, Rachel Bloom.
Going in with the knowledge that the show is, if not autobiographical, a dramatized and exaggerated retelling of the creator’s own experiences changes one’s perspective of the story and characters being presented. The creator, who’s openly talked about her own experience with mental illness and how it’s paralleled in Rebecca’s narrative (link). Rebecca is shown and described as suffering from depression, anxiety and an unnamed personality disorder (which seems to be heading towards a borderline personality diagnosis) and the portrayal of her mental illness has been really well handled, if dramatized for comedic effect, through the show.
The great thing about Crazy Ex is that it both respects Rebecca’s emotional needs and acknowledges that a lot of her actions are strongly influenced by mental illness, but it also demands that she grows and heals, and holds her accountable for the consequences of her actions and how she deals with them. The show tells us: this is a symptom, this is out of Rebecca’s immediate control, but how she chooses to react to the consequences of her symptoms and how that reaction affects both her and the people around her is still her responsibility.
There are many aspects of the heterosexual romantic narrative that contribute to the normalization of toxic or even abusive dynamics, and Crazy Ex tackles that too; drawing direct parallels between rom-com tropes (like disassociation, need for a favorite person to give them attention and love, impulsive decisions, magical thinking, jealousy, obsessive behavior, and manipulation) to real mental health issues like childhood trauma, depression and personality disorders; while also commenting on the heteropatriarchal pressure to adjust to these ideals of perfect romantic relationships.
Now, if you have never stopped to look at the tropes that surround mentally ill people in media you might not have noticed that people living with MIs and personality disorders are always fit in very narrow boxes. Mentally ill characters are either villains or victims and fit one or more of these narratives:
A depressed or anxious person who will be cured by romantic love without ever needing therapy or treatment or any kind of proactive behavior to heal.
Tragedy porn in a state of constant pain, healing for an episode only to relapse minutes later for the sake of drama, always hurting themselves and others and never actually getting any closer to being happy and healthy.
Adult children who have no ability to make any informed choice and have absolutely no means to do anything for themselves, and so can’t be held accountable for their actions but also can’t choose to heal and search happiness for themselves because they are not actual people with agency.
Rebecca is neither of these things. In fact, Crazy Ex swiftly debunks these tropes:
To begin with, the show is about Rebecca learning that romantic love cannot bring her happiness and that the unhealthy behaviors caused by her untreated mental illness will make her unable to have healthy relationships until she actively works to heal herself and construct healthy, responsible relationships with the people that surround her.
The show is about Rebecca’s proactive, conscious search for happiness, about her realizing that she is mentally ill and that she needs help, and about what she can and cannot do to be happy.
The show holds Rebecca accountable for the bad things she does, and demands that she apologizes and grows. She is not a flawless heroine or an irredeemable villain, she’s a growing person who has to take responsibility for the consequences of her actions. For a good, though spoilery read on how Rebecca is an anti-heroine and how the show holds her accountable, check this piece on White Feminism and the female anti-hero.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s first season premiered on October 2015 to a rather lukewarm reception. Much like its companion from the same network, Jane The Virgin, Crazy Ex was heavily criticized because of its title and basic premise, and both audiences and critics seemed reluctant to give it a chance. But, just like Jane The Virgin, Rachel Bloom’s show proved itself to be smart, insightful and beautifully crafted and, by the end of its first season, the reviews had turned around.
But, despite the excellent critical reception after its first season and the Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice that it now has to its name, Crazy Ex’s ratings have always been lackluster. Thankfully, since Jane The Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are the only shows on the CW that are actually liked by critics and awards committees, they will probably continue to get renewed, even if they never reach Supernatural’s ratings.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s third season will air in the 2017–2018 TV season, which means that those who haven’t yet embraced the ridiculous masterpiece that is this musical comedy have at least six months to catch up.
Author: Drea Merodeadora
Editor: Han Angus