I love Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, it’s my favorite American TV show since The Wire, at least, but it’s also important to me for a number of reasons. I used to do a podcast that more and more talked about the better tomorrow, and one of the driving takeaways was this notion that media and entertainment was our intermediary from here to, let’s say, utopia. Because if we want utopia, or an egalitarian society, a matriarchal empire, however you want to call it, we need to first imagine it. Put it on paper so we can cross things out and circle things and demystify. That’s what media does, even broadly, it facilitates our imagination. A lot of that work goes on in science-fiction, which was the subject of that podcast. But to my surprise and delight, I found that work going on elsewhere.
Namely, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and that progressive, nay, futurist aspect of the show is well known. These are creators and writers making a concerted effort toward carving inroads into that imaginative space by highlighting corners of human experience which are largely ignored or downright feared by certain people. We have Paula’s abortion being treated so unusually humanely, not stigmatized but not tossed off as an afterschool lesson either. It made an impact because it’s a big deal, but it’s a big deal for her and her family, on the other side of the country.
The arrival of the character who would be played by Scott Michael Foster was teased for a long time before episode 209 “When Do I Get to Spend Time with Josh?” I was a little bit worried, and that worry was captured entirely by “Who’s the New Guy?” of just, I like all the characters we have already. Now you’re gonna make me care about somebody else?
Because the show is giving us signs that this guy is bad news. He’s one of the show’s only villains, or the only, because Valencia was far too sympathetic and Audra Levine is more like a frenemy, and also Rebecca is, also, the hero. And I never learn. Discovering the TV renaissance in college, I quickly developed a personal trope which I called the Prez 180 — the character you least suspect to be sympathetic will probably turn out to be sympathetic. Prez, Jesse Pinkman, Pete Campbell. And Nathaniel is another such character, though I did see it coming. I just never anticipate how much it will hit me.
And for Nathaniel, also so critical, alongside traditional character values, is what he represents symbolically. He is a straight, white man. And even though we had Greg, who was also that, it’s rare in media as it is in reality for whiteness to be built into identity. Because usually, it’s the default. Luke Cage is fundamentally a black American narrative and cannot be transmuted. So, that’s not an appropriate argument against black Spider-Man, and if you find yourself on that side of the debate, just take an inventory. In other words, there might not be white narratives because there are just narratives.
But in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a women driven show taking place in a racially diverse part of the country, the straight white man isn’t the default. West Covina is minority white, which I guess is a term. And in fact, here’s Aline Brosh McKenna noting just that in season 2:
“We did something really interesting: we did four episodes with no straight, white, male characters on the show at all. Except for Trent [Paul Welsh], all the male characters on our show are either people of color or gay or bi. We had no straight, white men for four episodes.”
Considering how many people in the world aren’t straight, white men, it’s kind of incredible this is even notable, but it is. It is highly unusual. McKenna then goes on to say “And then we come back with the straightest, whitest male as possible.” Nathaniel does border on caricature, but I think it’s because the show creators don’t see his whole deal as a true identity, but rather a facade put in place to mask insecurity. An interesting theory about his real world counterparts.
Getting over my initial misgivings, I see how Nathaniel is so necessary because he proves that truly, everyone has a place here. This is a step in the process we don’t think we should have to do, which is address the admittedly comical but unfortunately real anxiety of white male genocide, and the show does that by extending one of its central messages to the final person: you belong. And more importantly, this is how that could work.
Because look, diversity and globalization are so stigmatized within the mind of so many who subscribe to the idea that interracial couples are tantamount to… genocide, that the vision of America’s future the rest of us want is existentially terrifying. People will fight hard against that change. We saw. The self-destructive nature of anti-globalization political statements like Brexit and Nov. 8, 2016 in America speak to a profound anxiety. And we see it in the micro, certainly. Every video-game loser who’s ever felt that feminism is taking away our guns or something — it’s the thought that progress is penetrative, that people coming in means we no longer have a place. Which is only true when you make it true. I’m looking for counterprogramming to such a powerful idea which has been facility to so much horror, granting passage to all sorts of terrible things.
If we want to work it out mathematically, when people are worried that accommodation for the humanity of the other means genocide, the psychological antidote is the true sale of the idea that those people are not out of place in that future, and this is what society could look like. In this, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a laughing cure. The sale of Nathaniel as utterly acceptable in this egalitarian context — of either the show or the world of the show. So, how does it work? How does he find his place?
Nathaniel’s insecurity mentioned earlier is one of generational influence and literal patriarchy. It makes him miserable, and his slow process of reclaiming himself works in tandem with our unfolding sympathizing with him. He comes to West Covina, and it’s the place of healing, of actually confronting issues rather than continuing to ignore them. This was the same for Josh, although that was kind of a reverse scenario, where he had almost always lived in West Covina, was the same guy for decades, and then Rebecca comes in and forces him to change. Similarly, Greg, who lived there for so long, had Rebecca demonstrate how much his life needed to change.
So there’s West Covina the place and West Covina the place now that Rebecca’s here, and that’s so true, that these physical locations, even if suffused with culture, are nothing until people inhabit them. And share their lives and feelings and anxieties, and connect. That’s what society is, and it’s illustrated so beautifully in the show but not directly spoken to. It’s just a consequence of the story they’re telling.
And what’s so great about West Covina is that it’s actually a real place. Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna were actually given the key to the city by the mayor. So, the rainbow coalition on display in the show isn’t trying to force a progressive vision which must naturally be fabricated. No, this is what reality oftentimes looks like, and notice how functional and even relatable it is. This is why when people bitch about the monochrome nature of Girls or resurrecting Friends to bitch about that, it’s an important point to raise, that when diversity is erased in fictional depictions of diverse places like New York City, you’re playing into a false narrative that already exists. You’re providing unfounded confirmation for thinking that can spiral immediately into violent territory.
And with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, I mean, it’s such a beautiful through-line, where Rachel Bloom grew up in a racially diverse Southern California, and brought that experience to the screen. You see it with the extras, the cultural explorations, and the principal characters. But credit must be given where it’s due. It’s not only that Rachel Bloom is shining a light on her hometown, in essence, and pointing excitedly, but that she and Aline Brosh McKenna and the writing team are specifically giving voice to a variety of people and perspectives.
The work is more than stopping after Affirmative Action, so to speak. Yes, it’s one thing to want to have diverse stuff so you have the black friend in every sitcom or the token Asian guy. I mean, the idea of tokenism is a lesser evil in terms of these conversations. Writers who struggle with that are at least past whitewashing or cultural appropriation. But it’s still indicative of the same comically unsolving solution that leads to, like Dr. Ken around the same time as the cancellation of Selfie. And granted, TV is not a monolith. The same people were not involved in either decision, but it’s received as a monolith. So long as these decisions are still being made somewhere, it reflects on the whole. And so our classroom is only as strong as its laziest and most ignorant member. To go off on a little side tangent, it seemed like, for so long, this was a problem without a solution.
Because let’s say there’s a TV writer who does want to make a difference, and include the United Nations representatives. But they think, whether because they were told specifically or read it somewhere online or just got that vibe, that they’re not licensed to tell somebody else’s story. That’s a difficult discussion, but I think as writers, you can tell anybody’s story, so long as that real world anybody is also allowed to tell their story, and that’s not been the case historically. This is a matter of who holds the pen of history, and historically, that’s been one type of person. And the majority writing for the minority brings with it no introspection, and maybe even some ego for having the generosity.
So the reason this is a problem without a solution is because the real solution is expand your hiring field, all you Hollywood executives. Give a shit about stories coming from women and people of color. Greenlight some of those, and make space, because space is ever available. The CW is unique for making that space. Women showrunners, diverse writing rooms — there’s no magical diminishment of quality, these shows are great. And this element of Nathaniel is the next logical step.
Again, in the world they create, truly everybody belongs. Even those who are traditionally thought of as anathema to inclusion. The alpha male thing is kind of necessarily an enemy of introspection and that’s really toxic. You may need some outside influence to recognize that, somebody with a fresh angle, and what so perturbs Nathaniel isn’t just the small town, again, it’s Rebecca. His feelings for her can initially be explained away because they’re two people cut from the same cloth, but as Rebecca told Audra, that person doesn’t exist anymore. After a while, it is the Rebecca who tries to stab you with a pen and has that kind of manic intensity, or who might ruin people’s lives and pass it off as quirky.
With the introduction of Nathaniel into the colorful, tolerant world of West Covina, the world of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is complete. I mean, just in terms of ‘minority’ and now ‘majority.’ There are definitely minorities still to come surely, but majority and minority together as inclusion is really significant and honestly, really brave.
But that of course raises the final question. Should we have to do this? And I say we as if identifying liberal somehow puts me on the frontline. But, I mean, in terms of just thinking about these things; we are all part of a conversation, one started by the creators, and continued by everyone.
But anyway, the concept of inclusion seems quaint when it’s what we choose to fight fire with instead of… fire. In this game of flowers versus the 2nd Amendment. Or, thinkpieces versus xenophobia, I don’t know. Why should we give the straight white man a chance when we’ve given him all the chances and plus he’s usually the one who gives out chances, what is this sudden reversal of the power dynamic? Well, even if I’m not emotionally ready to accept everyone, across the aisle, I know it’s the only way. And we must arrive there in the future sometime. Because what’s the alternative?
For so many, an egalitarian and truly free society, a realized America, is scary. Because they imagine that it will require compromise of some kind, perhaps sharing. And in a way, some of that might be true. You may have to contribute individually to the betterment of the whole. But what they don’t also imagine then, is that they could potentially want to do that. To one day, be interested in sharing and reaching out to your fellow human because you want to, because your love for the world and people is so strong to extend even to strangers.
And granted, the words “contribute individually to the betterment of the whole” do ring slightly dystopic. But nobody’s talking about making anybody do anything, instead it’s about tapping into humanity’s natural and evolutionary-based predilection toward empathy and society. And doing so by ingratiation to contact with other kinds of people, cultivating things like friendship and care which run counter to xenophobia and may lead to helping others. Ultimately, the scenario I’m speculating about here is people building and accepting a utopia because that becomes the preference. It’s not the preference at the moment because there’s been a number of smear campaigns run over the course of history, just so much mythology defaming the egalitarian society, making feminists look angry and foreigners scary. The world we want is a beautiful thing, but it doesn’t take a lot to be convinced otherwise if there’s a reason to be convinced, and some fear already in place to be stoked.
But maybe you think, Nathaniel’s so obviously meant to be a villain, who would possibly identify with that? Well, there’s two things there. One, people do. It’s hilarious every time, and my go-to example isn’t actually Walter White, but Kazunda Gouda from the second season of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Here’s a guy who attempts to return Japan to its glory days by putting into play a conspiracy which ends with Americans launching a nuke at immigrants. Yeah.
In YouTube comments at least, he’s praised for his intelligence, and I don’t know if they’re joking or not. God, he’s terrible, but he’s smart and sociopathic, the qualities we more and more pine for in our TV characters. But that’s an aside. It’s not what I’m pining for.
More importantly, in terms of the possibility for identification, it’s not necessarily that a stereotypical WASPy guy is already watching this show and finally, he sees himself, receives the message, because we assume somebody like that probably wouldn’t like the show to begin with.
I mean, that’s why it’s so important for the show to be seen, so it can teach lessons to other storytellers. It provides a workable pathway to resist our natural inclination toward stereotypes, because that’s miles away from true construction and media can be so powerful. It’s like a gun. When I die, no matter how I go, I will have in some way been murdered by media. It led me, irrevocably, to my final moment.
So instead of a guy like Nathaniel watching the show and seeing him on the screen for the first time, which would be impressive, it’s that anybody is seeing how the world of the show can include him. It’s a utopia blueprint, a lesson for all of us, that if we’re building toward an equal future, we might take a look at this one example, which took a gamble and made it work, made it feel real and doable.
If you have a moment, be sure to look at Scott Michael Foster’s filmography. It’s pretty interesting how he played these traditional simple guy names in the beginning, and then I think he decided it was time for a change?
Originally published to A Generic Wonderful on 03/03/2017