Season 3’s premiere date was recently announced and we’re beginning to look ahead to October 13. I don’t know why, it’s still ten lifetimes away, but we’ll make do with whatever else is on. Surely. In this looking ahead, straining eyes, craning necks, maybe we reflect on the nature of what’s becoming the prior season, an expanse of television so unusual and whose complexity is given microcosm in episode 206: “Who Needs Josh When You Have A Girl Group?”
This episode holds a special place in my heart, because I’d seen “Friendtopia” ahead of time and didn’t realize the show had a bye week, so I watched this promo a lot, just waiting. And it really delivered, and felt special apart from my own strange attachment. It combines so many beloved elements and delivers a quintessential showcase with each, amidst the turmoil of Rebecca and Paula’s disintegrating relationship.
I love this episode because it exists both within and without, so meaningfully, very much a part of its own arc as the setup to the final arc, then becoming essential to the season, and yet also as a singular experience which feels unique even in the context of an endlessly inventive series.
In our first sequence here, leading up to “Friendtopia,” we’re introduced to three plot threads in an organic way. We begin with Trent, whose reveal is underscored by a bit of suspenseful editing and music itself immediately undercut by himself. He talks with Tessa the Surf Shop Lady about a 42-point plan called Bunch Inception, which begins by apparently spending a Rebecca-level amount of money and then infiltrating a guy friend group.
That provides us transition to said guy friend group, who attempts to get a table at Home Base, which has never been a problem before. But this is finals week, and the bro squad no longer has someone on the inside. Rebecca and Valencia emerge from the bathroom, a major talking point for Rebecca, and they meet up with their insider.
They’re all very excited about this burgeoning friend group, where you could argue none of them have had that in their lives. Heather had suggested an unseen group, the one with Zeke, but she’s also had that eye-opening experience with Rebecca, making her a friend close enough to want to live with.
Rebecca has loved both Heather and Valencia from first contact, though in markedly different ways. She grew a jealousy dick for Valencia, but now she’s gotten to know the true Valencia. Plus, she has to feel additionally accomplished for bringing everyone together. So we have “Friendtopia,” and in terms of story beats the writers would choose to highlight with a number, in retrospect, this moment is less than obvious.
It’s less about plot and more related to theme and character. For theme, this episode explores a number of different relationships, but for character, this feeling is what becomes Rebecca’s motivation for the episode, very much an emotional thesis statement, and that’s a very powerful approach.
Rebecca invites Paula over, despite the upcoming Torts test. I remember those times. Not with Torts, but ahead of any test, I wanted to do nothing but study, because of extreme anxiety over what I knew was not very important. But that didn’t matter, you can’t fight anxiety with logic. She gives Paula the tour of the new house, which she and Heather moved into after the previous one caught fire. But the new one has old wounds too, scars you can’t hide forever, especially when you’re banging on the walls. Proverbially speaking.
For Rebecca, that scar has something to do with self-obsession, as will Paula point out later. If she was truly being considerate Paula’s feelings, she’d have respected her distance, which was specifically about her career. So where, in the thematic framework does this recurrent element of self-obsession come in?
I really meant “self-centered” but say “obsessed” three times
If we start from “Rebecca the crazy ex-girlfriend is on a journey of self-discovery disguised as a journey of happiness,” she is following a certain path, and self-obsession is one of the equippable items one needs to walk that path, and I think it’s pretty realistic how someone’s various issues complicate life beyond the individual, affect other people. It reflects on the moral ambiguity of self-obsession itself — yes, one shouldn’t make themselves the center of the universe, but it’s hard to know when self-love crosses that threshold.
Rebecca from a young age has been told that this specific happiness is important, and the part not often brought up on the show but a given is the consequence of not walking the path — the mythology of spinsters, or the cat ladies in the modern parlance, however primitive the idea. That dark possible future is like the bomb on the bus from Speed, so I get the urgency in Rebecca’s quest, even if it comes at the expense of a delicate touch.
Paula’s just had an abortion, and she’s kept it from Rebecca because that’s her understanding of the relationship, which has a mutually-understood mother-daughter inflection. Thus far in the season, Rebecca’s been exhibiting the qualities that make it hard to communicate — first the delirium of the hunt, then the aftermath, when that hunt bottoms out. In this episode, Rebecca is driving those qualities to a breaking point, to where Paula is trapped in the house, figuratively then literally, and they’re impossible to ignore.
But throughout these early scenes of Paula’s exhaustion, it’s another instance where my sympathies are split. Paula is absolutely in the right, but Rebecca just isn’t aware, which follows, given all the communication that hasn’t been happening. It’s not malice on Rebecca’s end, and I remember “Friendtopia,” I know how much this means to her.
Through all that intricate character work and thematic resonance, it does come down to the performer to sell the complicated package. We’ve been buzzing about the Emmys for a while now, as they’ve been campaigning, and I’m sure Rachel Bloom submitted the season finale for Outstanding Lead Actress, but this episode would’ve been a strong submission too. Rebecca is irritating but also sympathetically desperate, and trying to vain to mask that with this really wild energy. She’s extra bouncy, making extra faces and noises. And when Paula finally breaks through and Rebecca is hit with that curveball, she is wrecked by that. But we’ll get there.
Meanwhile, Trent is putting his plans into action, and the second song of the night is a delightful callback. “The Trent is Getting Ready Song” further draws the equation between the two crazy exes, although there’s no ex with Trent, leaving nothing but the stalker element. But as a version of Rebecca, he’s about to learn a lesson she’s learned several times over, sometimes with these very people, that you can’t force a friendship, and it’s all a matter of motivation.
I love Trent. All of his scenes in the first season are great, but he’s mostly playing off of Rebecca. Here, we have more witnesses to his madness, which makes it that much better and more strange. The absurdity is finely tuned with Josh not noticing at all.
In this episode, Josh is pursuing his own romance, doing exactly the opposite of what Rebecca’s doing, by putting one relationship above other relationships. That the two are so distant this way is critical for Rebecca, because we’re seeing how she follows the same Josh-chasing methodology even when he isn’t in the picture.
That methodology which justifies the series title has to be big and compelling as they alternate here with the smaller nuances. And so, Rebecca opens the door and her eyes go wide. As much as this is an on-brand inevitable Rebecca disaster, we are also firmly in the realm of the sitcom. Karen strides in and raises the absurdity bar quite admirably, to a television unreality where some critics were able to predict this outcome. I was not that astute.
Karen in this episode is a good example of abstracting out the content or the verb of storytelling. When I try to conceptualize the creation of a story, the first thing is premise, of course — a logline. From there, I follow not plot or character but theme, and reach a conclusion.
The problem I run into trying to tell my own stories is they often have these nice skeletons and everything fits, but there’s no content. That’s the part that takes a truly inspired mind, to not take an action set piece off the rack, so to speak.
Blade Runner is actually a good example, because there isn’t a lot filling it out that doesn’t pertain directly to the plot. Most of the set pieces revolve around hunting the replicants, and that looks like it sounds. But maybe you have a movie like The Terminator, and you could end up having a repetitive action movie with the premise of running away from an unstoppable robot. So the creative minds optimizes each opportunity — if it’s gonna chase you, it won’t be on an empty street but a police station full of cops. And if it is an empty street, it’ll be a car chase, and one with this added ingredient of explosives.
How do we demonstrate “Rebecca’s girls night is a disaster”? You could have everybody standing around awkwardly, but again, that creative mind steps in and has Karen arrive in all leather to show off sex toys. Where does that come from? Like all of the comedy in the show, it doesn’t exist just for itself.
And it is very practiced comedy, because you have that range of reactions. Rebecca is trying really hard to be interested, even though she’s usually not interested in Karen at all. Paula is silently seething, doing her best to not blow up in front of Rebecca, while we very much understand her feelings about Karen.
But then you have Valencia and Heather, who have both come through big experiences with Rebecca. Valencia is giving an earnest effort to make this friendtopia work, as you can see throughout she’s very interested and paying close attention. I love how she gets into Rebecca’s loopedy-loop song.
And one of the smaller details I love about this episode is the dynamic being developed between her and Heather, to which there’s two levels. There’s the friendship, which is just so beautiful, and then there’s the interplay of Heather’s tolerance and Valencia’s adaptation.
Valencia’s trying hard because as we know, she’s a stranger to girl squads, having had difficulty with them as a kid. She may be slow to adapt to this new scenario, but Heather’s there to help her along and she does so without judgment. I think that’s a really great touch. Maybe it’s something in the water over in West Covina, but the muscle of tolerance is well-exercised, and it’s not only about a post-racial society — it’s everything, and that’s true of our society too. We talked about implicit bias — we don’t always know how connected our various intolerances are as they’re exercised in the everyday, so it’s probably safe to assume they’re all connected. So maybe give people the benefit of the doubt. In West Covina, you really have to be Bunchception-level strange to alienate people, so now we have a nice measure.
Heather and Valencia also exist outside the context of Rebecca, which makes sense if we’re looking ahead to the potential future of the girl group. If they have to split up into teams of two for recon or perhaps to ride on a rollercoaster, you’d have Rebecca/Paula and Valencia/Heather. That’s the strength of a good cast dynamic — no matter the permutation or combination, it’s always entertaining. I think the episode following this one is a little underrated, in fact, given the bumbling caper duo of Rebecca and Valencia.
“Did you hear that… Madge?”
Finally, we have the third major thread, Darryl and Maya, who are feeling left out by Rebecca in a way Paula is not. Possibly to corroborate the earlier note about self-obsession being symptomatic of chasing the prescribed happiness, Maya has this curious note about how people might perceive Rebecca: “She makes me think women can have it all.” Well, heavy is the head. But it’s interesting because Rebecca does appear very confident, and she has a lot to be proud of, especially as the big fish in the white feather. But maybe Maya is also sensing Rebecca’s journey to a degree, here’s someone who’s chasing her dream guy, and that’s empowering. That’s the insidiousness of the mythology, though really in this case, I just think it’s a funny line, it works as a non-sequitur.
The Darryl and Maya relationship comes to a head here, and it’s interesting how it didn’t begin with the second season — it probably begins moments before Darryl comes out to the office, after which Maya also comes out as bisexual. This does not amuse Darryl, and we wonder about his uncharacteristic disdain for someone so innocent, or for anyone, really.
I’d begun to think that Maya was the Jerry or Zoidberg character of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the member of the cast everyone disproportionately dislikes as a running joke, and it was a little concerning. As funny as those two characters are, undermining bullying by blowing it up to an absurd level is playing with fire, and if inelegantly handled, could be accidentally normalizing something we already don’t take seriously.
So while I’d rather the archetype simply not spread, the writers took a more drastic step to demolish it. First, of course, the bullying is really just Darryl, maybe because the rest of the office doesn’t seem to notice Maya, any more than they notice George. But second, the matter is actually put to rest. Exhausted by their party-crashing planning meeting, Maya confronts Darryl, and so we get two things in this scene: a recognition of when workplace harassment is harassment and not just teasing, and the depiction of how a bridge is actually built.
We ask ourselves, “Is this scenario realistic?” in which a woman employee stands up to her male employer and isn’t immediately fired. Again, and this is something we’ll go into more in depth soon, but Crazy Ex-Girlfriend exists in that largely post-intolerance world. So it’s less that women are being instructed to put their jobs on the line and stand up to the man, why don’t you, which would be idealistic to say the least, but rather here, men are getting a good role model. When women or anyone say, ‘look, you don’t fully realize the things you say have consequence specifically for me,’ it’s on the perpetrators to think, “Oh,” with “Let me figure out why,” and, “I’m sorry.” A simple three step process that’s still probably decades off from mainstream penetration.
And when Darryl says, “Let me figure out why,” the bridge Maya had begun building is completed. He realizes that his bullying came from insecurity, that he saw too much of himself in her, and instead of indulging in that self-hatred, he should deal with it. And he can only do that by first realizing the existence and consequences of that self-hatred, and Maya helps him out there by raising the issue.
By the end of season two, Darryl is still a work in progress. He pushes Paula and White Josh a little too much, but he’s always willing and enthusiastic to learn and do better. So in this regard, the character is more about demonstrating a process than identifying a problem. But the identifying stage is still so important, and that’s another valuable lesson: how do we know when it’s bullying? The answer is when Maya says it is. That’s it, the first and last parameter, and as simple as it sounds, it’s not easy to learn or implement, I know. But it’s imperative.
The birth of Darryl and Maya’s friendship ends with the note that they’ve finally hatched their party-crashing scheme. Noting the other examples on the board, it’ll probably be something rather silly, and again, as part of that sitcom language.
Paula is trapped in the bathroom, providing us another all-too precious Heather solo. A big part of “Paula’s Stuck in the Bathroom” is remarking on how this puts a pin on the whole night, and it is almost too protruding as a visual metaphor. There’s the feeling of being trapped, and then there’s being trapped. But this is all very deliberate, which is why the song points everything out.
Because following this, we have characters coming in and out like a sitcom, you can practically hear the applause off the live studio audience. Sunil is first and he gives the performance of a lifetime, where his “We have to go get Tommy before he’s killed with Tetanus,” is another one of my favorite lines. And then Trent comes in, finally freeing Paula and leading us into the moment where everything stands still.
V is having none of Sunil’s theatre major
The argument between Paula and Rebecca draws its initial power by stopping the tone and flow of the episode dead in its tracks. In a night of absurdity, this is all too real, and it follows up by having characters finally voice what they’ve been silent about for a while. Setup and payoff, the building blocks of TV in particular.
And that’s when Darryl and Maya finally bring their party-crashing scheme into the party, and it falls flat. I mean, it’s hilarious, but it is so awkward, and I think it’s because this argument has murdered the sitcom part of the show. This isn’t the first time we’ve juxtaposed absurdity with cutting reality. When Rebecca finds Gregs by the ducks, she’s in her ping pong outfit, a matching style with an 11-year-old boy, but Greg pours his heart out to where she cries.
Darryl points out that this is the house where all those drugdealers were mur… and this is something Paula had referenced earlier, so we’re reminded before the scene with Trent, in which she expresses some frustration about living in this house of horrors. It was so slightly jarring when Rebecca expressed that awareness. The joke might be an old one, the trailing off and sheepishly redirecting attention, but it works here for the comic talents involved. And then the way it works is there can’t be a reaction, otherwise the continuity of the world breaks down. Achieving that physics-bending no reaction space comes through the rules of film editing: if nobody acknowledges the thing, it doesn’t exist. But then Rebecca does acknowledge it at the very end — that joke is another casualty, because it cannot exist in this new world of Rebecca’s.
So the episode creates a new space where the sitcom is no longer a viable language for anything, but especially as solutions to problems, despite M-Dawg and D-Money’s dance taking off on YouTube. We’ve witnessed a number of classic television schemes undertaken by several characters, and Rebecca’s most of all has crashed and burned. Funnily enough, there may be an extra layer of metatext here given that Trent is re-upped as a stand-in for Rebecca. While blending friends and crashing a party are general tropes seen on sitcoms at large, Trent may be representing for that sitcom called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Ultimately, the old rules no longer apply.
And in the next episode, Rebecca and Valencia attempt those old rules with some cartoon detectivry, and come up with nothing. We’re on the road to reality — no more excuses. And that’s very important when we take this as an episode where Rebecca doesn’t think about Josh. Her underlying issues are bigger than that, or at least, more widespread within Rebecca. She jumps at these theories about how to solve problems, without first assessing how real that problem is, and anyway these theories always seem to preclude actual communication. Whether it’s about getting with Josh or balancing her friendships, something’s going on here.
We know that she has a vision of happiness in her head, and that she didn’t put it there. And when the struggle for that happiness coincides with the life she actually lives, depression rears its head. So while the solution to the problem presented in this episode is the same as the one regarding Josh, hashed out by Rabbi Shari and Dr. Akopian, it’s important to characterize that problem, to really understand its scope. When Rebecca hears that the dream man won’t solve all problems, we can reference back to this episode.
The title “Who Needs Josh When You Have A Girl Group?” I think reflects less on Rebecca’s state of mind and is more a statement of fact. The end of the episode doesn’t answer the title by saying, “No, even a girl group isn’t enough,” because it’s Paula, and not Josh, at the forefront of her mind.
The answer to that comes in during episode 208, “Who Is Josh’s Soup Fairy?” when Josh arrives and is turned around. We’ve seen the state of reality change, and Rebecca’s finally accepted it. Life isn’t a sitcom — or a two star movie — a man running in to proclaim his love is actually a harbinger. In this moment of victory, we feel that she’s on the right path because this is a payoff to what’s been set up in 206.
But then Rebecca steps on a banana peel and slips off that right path, and I think she has a gut feeling about it. It’s such a kick to the stomach because she’s overcome so much, and established the workflow to actually achieve the happiness she so clearly desires, as we all do. And she means so well, and is so relatable, it’s hard to see her constantly hover over that banana peel.
Everything in Ruin
Setting up payoffs to then blow up those payoffs can be a wonderfully sadistic storytelling strategy — I mean, I’m one of those hapless dorks who still thinks Berserk is cool — and while so much of looking back at season two now is affected by how it sets up season three, the show always manages to express these building blocks in ways that optimize each moment. You don’t feel like you’re waiting for things to click together, or for a mystery to be solved, because Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is too preoccupied with the present.
TV critics sometimes like to point at that as the difference between good and bad prestige television, which is the lineage Crazy Ex-Girlfriend hails from. You have the more classical show like Mad Men, which treated every episode like an episode, and you have Netflix shows which feel like arduous eight-hour movies — one experience split up across seven credits sequences. Breaking Bad has its both ways, and was a formalistic wonder. I don’t think that’s what formalistic means, but, uh, of or relating to the form. What’s the word for that? Somebody please tell me.
In case we ever wondered, an episode like 206 is proof positive for the artistry and intelligence behind the show, required to tell a story with a lot of moving pieces that then becomes a moving piece itself. A tour-de-force, absolutely A++, would buy from again.
As mentioned, George is the other overlooked Whitefeather employee, of course, though via retcon, Rebecca knew his name back in season one. Oh, snap. Bet you didn’t think I’d pick up on that, did you?
And along that track, Blade Runner and The Terminator are very different movies, I’m not trying to compare them on their respective quality. I think we all agree, Blade Runner is the better film, but it is also infinitely more boring. So pick your poison, or don’t.
Originally published to A Generic Wonderful on 07/02/2017