In the mid-2010s, a revolutionary creative duo was born when the award-winning writer Aline Brosh McKenna discovered the comedy music videos of Rachel Bloom. And the script McKenna had in her back pocket at that time was for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a feature film she thought would be perfect for Bloom, considering most of those videos up to that point were about bringing violence and instability to romantic comedy. So this is a crucial moment not only for either woman but for television itself. The ingredients to make it so are McKenna, who’s navigated to the top of a system that works so well when it’s working against her and those like her, the idea for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend the movie, female-led and female-featuring, and Bloom, the quadruple-threat and counting with a completely new voice, and whose teaming up with McKenna turns a writer’s natural introspection into a dialogue.
Together, they reworked this feature into a television show, and the medium of television at this point was becoming increasingly amorphous post-HBO and post-digital, stretching the hour of the week into a broad, blank canvas. They took that to heart, because their show, a comedy musical, is only barely likely on any given network, and it took the equally unlikely Jane the Virgin for McKenna to consider The CW, after a traipse with Showtime, who ordered a pilot and then rejected it while Bloom was on her honeymoon.
So in another classic Hollywood story of things that don’t actually happen, our magnificent two took their R-rated Showtime pilot to the family friendly CW and the CW picked it up. And like with The Wire before it, this future cult classic struggled with ratings, and with every renewal came a big sigh of relief and maybe a bit of confusion. But I certainly know I’m thankful, and with the fourth and final season around the corner, I’d like to celebrate by asking you what you’re expecting from the end of Rebecca Bunch’s journey. It’s a fair question, or so it has been historically, for other TV shows. But there’s something different about the prospect of prediction this time that may have to do with the crucible of revolutionary that is Bloom and McKenna. So what am I expecting from the final season? Well, I’ll give it a shot.
I had this great professor in college, and he asked us one day “what is the purpose of literature?” I remember one of the kids got it, but we initially chuckled because it sounded strange: “to instruct and delight,” evidently, the ‘Horatian platitude.’ And what better ambition for a storyteller? When I think about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend in its historical context, it’s during the digital age of television, of course, a time of decentralization, and it’s also riding the edge of the MeToo Movement. It began during a time when I didn’t question the people who created the things I enjoyed. But with its existence came the very first question along that line. Not a question for Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna, but a question for pretty much everyone else. What have you guys been instructing me this whole time, understanding that this instruction comes whether intended it or not.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a comedy-musical romance story which follows Rebecca Bunch as she forgoes her promising upscale life in New York to pursue a summer camp romance in his hometown of West Covina, California. However, I would also contend, in this very blog post, that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is also science-fiction. Somewhat like an inverse of how the movie Gravity is science-fiction, because that is literally fiction regarding science, but Crazy Ex-Girlfriend builds a world and asks what if questions. And what I love about the science-fiction genre is that what if questions are kind of infectious, or at least, one suggests the next.
Nonetheless, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend begins with that previous genre, the romantic comedy. Just by cultural osmosis and experience with sitcoms, I understand the tropes, I understand what we’re doing here. Love triangles, a race to the airport, even the darker side with stalking. But the point of view is different. Not only is this character new to the spotlight, she’s usually an object within this story. So the first what if is flipping the board around: what if we followed this woman’s journey at the exact moment she enters the narrative of someone else’s story?
She’s doing all that story’s crazy ex-girlfriend activities, but she’s not in the background like usual, like the monster in It Follows. And let’s talk about this term, the monstrous connotation it has. It is directly a product of a sexist world, because it is typically understood as a label given to a woman by a man after some downturn in their dalliance. It is something that any woman in any such dalliance could be labeled with, and probably any woman ever, as it’s related to other terms designed to silence and marginalize. The crazy ex-girlfriend is dehumanized, and over the course of its three seasons so far, the show has extended the work of humanizing to those other terms, to other kinds of women, other kinds of people. Further infection, as the musical backbone of the show is often described.
This is important because to my mind, dehumanization is a crucial ingredient to violence. When we think somebody’s a crazy ex or a walking selfie or an office bitch or a dumb jock or a drunk or a rich white boy asshole or a not so rich white boy asshole, the span of our what if’s collapses in on itself. What if I could be friends with that person? What if there are people who care about this person? What if I am that person? are questions we don’t ask so long as we define this person by a label of that nature.
Is there a person in your life of whom you held preconceptions whose authorship proved elusive upon a rare lightning strike of self-reflection, you fool? Maybe this person was an acquaintance who became a friend, who revealed their complexity through anecdotes or behaviors which had a citrusy tinge of familiarity. We’re not so different you and I, as the big thinkers say. And it is a big thought, hardly a guarantee from birth because we are socialized in a world where the term crazy ex-girlfriend exists. We’re taught to think about women certain ways, and if left unattended, the male gaze always seems to mutate into the same spiky, sludgy kaiju rumbling over the Tokyo that is America and the world. “If left unattended,” specifically, if there is no allowance for a person who challenges preconceptions with her very proximity.
I like to think of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend as a science experiment that replicates this experience of humanization in a work of art, so it not only brings the power of art to bear but can provide that proximity instantaneously, thanks to the wonders of technology, like Netflix, and subways. And this is important because you may never meet someone like Rebecca Bunch in your societal radius. Or rather, you may never open your mind to a misunderstood woman. I think probably everyone has met a misunderstood woman whether you knew it or not. But Rebecca who is at once specific and universal is presented like effect and then cause, where the effect is “crazy ex-girlfriend,” and we as viewers are granted access to the cause and not only do we think, “not so crazy,” but also, “kind of like me.” Preconception successfully challenged. In addition to, well, what does the word “crazy” even mean? This simple but elegant foundation is like the bottom-most layer of what becomes, via musical numbers and a labyrinthine narrative, our complex and colorful garden, the soil perhaps, but I don’t want to say that word.
In an alternate universe where everybody was that perfect blend of creative and compassionate which produced Aline Brosh McKenna and Rachel Bloom, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend would simply be another in a cinematic universe of such humanizer simulators, taking a preconception and challenging it. By focusing on the term crazy ex-girlfriend though, we see how that strain of sexism and stigma around mental illness is so interlaced in a larger network of intolerance that can then be identified and critiqued: we go on to explore Jewish heritage and children of divorce all in one character, not to mention millennials and closeted bisexuals, and none of them are non-sequiturs, which is or should be true in life.
How do we get those what if’s back? We follow these interconnected characters as they peel layers away along a journey of self-discovery. One of Nathaniel’s layers is toxic masculinity. You peel that away to discover a buried truth — and humanize — while also learning that the layer was so laid in the first place because of unaddressed childhood trauma. You could’ve just done the one thing there, show, but nope. Wasn’t enough.
I’ve had powerful experiences with works of media before, where I’ve been brought to tears (at everything I’ve ever seen) or sometimes I have a laughing attack and miss the next few minutes, and certainly to where I’ve wanted to blog about something or record a podcast episode, but Crazy Ex-Girlfriend had such a unique effect, that this very YouTube channel exploded out of a buzzing energy I couldn’t contain and tried to define. And part of it was having long theorized about a work of media which could provide a very explicit, so to speak, humanizing exercise, and then discovering it in a work that was brimming with new and exciting ideas so bright and shiny like the California sun. That sort of media, I thought, would justify my own interest in storytelling itself, and now that I’ve met that work of media, I got to say, it lives up to the hype.
So Bagels After Midnight was an attempt to understand how that exercise worked, our science experiment, because it was just so beyond anything I’d seen, I had to stop and study it. And this is, briefly, what I found, so far.
A large part of it comes in the writing, in terms of how its form has spoken to me, because that’s more my background in terms of studying film. So let’s start there and look at the narrative so far in a very film school way: three-act structure. The late great Syd Field and for my purposes Pilar Alessandra especially, talk about the second act of story being two parts. So this maps pretty well. Season one provides an introduction to a tone and to a language, to a character and her perspective. The show arrives with the announcement that it is a revisionist romantic comedy, tearing at tropes with the ferocity of social justice because it dares to suggest that what we watch in movies and shows and plays is important, especially as we develop.
Act II is then split across seasons two and three, and to my mind isn’t so much a sequel as it is a criticism, the analytical lens now shared between the tropes and the show itself. And the perspective. “You were really enjoying Rebecca Bunch, weren’t you? Let’s take that apart.” This was quite a gamble, and I saw fans of the first season disappointed by its follow-up. I can understand it to an extent. Season one engaged its investigation of the “crazy ex-girlfriend” as a wellspring for a variety of related discussions. Episode 106 is about family, 107 is depression, 108 mothers, 109 friends, and so on. Somehow, Rebecca’s “crazy” quest to win the man of her dreams gets her entangled in a conflict which caps with a life lesson.
That was the show’s formula, and it was really good, but it also purposely stumbled and sputtered in the first half of the second season, never to be seen again. Rebecca learns, essentially, that she can no longer move forward in that genre space which is inherently solipsistic, that demands a protagonist and a sidekick and a rival. She sees that her actions have real consequences; the movie did not end with the big song. So we might say this is the mytharc outpacing the monster of the week, but I think there’s a better rationale here for the structural changeup, and it has to do with perspective.
This is where I see the more technical aspects coming in. When I think about modern television, I think about soft focus and city lights and a person’s face stumbling through the world that judges them so harshly but truly it’s this person and their big face who are the most correct. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is shot more traditionally, we might say, with the camera planted firmly and without strict preference for Rebecca in the frame. It’s as if to say this particular intimate character study inexorably exists in the context of others.
This is where we’ve left season three, on plot point 2 of act 2B, and that was really a fascinating run of episodes that balanced the tonal variety of the first season and the metatextual explorations of the second, while pulling in dark themes that had always lurked just beneath the surface. It ends on a note that makes me hopeful for season four not just as a satisfying conclusion to a good story but as an answer to problems the show’s helped many of us identify in ourselves: “how do we contextualize ourselves in our lives and our worlds?”
I think that that is Rebecca’s journey, and discovering that as a viewer was reckoning with this very Harvard-like overachievement complex coming from the storytellers, because this show would have made a positive impact simply by putting this term into the conversation and challenging it. The mission could’ve been, “crazy ex-girlfriend is sexist and here’s why,” it could’ve been a show specifically about sexism. However, had it done so, it would only be identifying problems, which while an important step, is only one step. In its form as it exists, the show demonstrably understands that these problems may not have such obvious solutions. And so, this is a show built on reclamation and process and inclusion. The answers provided are difficult but, again, decentralized — talk to people, value other voices, get over yourself, et cetera. In this way, it is like the uber-story, potentially, moving toward an endgame where all stories could end. Not the hero’s journey, but yours.
And so, what I expect from the act three, from the last chapter, season four, simply, has been set by what’s come before: something new to me, something that will educate me. And I’m talking about senior year. AP classes. I’m still a student at the criminally underfunded School of Women’s Interiority for Men. And so if the finale is consistent with the rest of the show, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend will in totality delight and instruct, as engineered with unmistakable passion and a breadth of experience evidently painful and anxious and joyous and wonderful.
This is a human show, but like with any television show, it has its struggles with inclusion. It’s ironic though, because some of these struggles are self-manufactured, in that by creating a space where a typically marginalized viewer feels welcome, that viewer naturally begins to wonder about others like her. And so a perfectly innocent line like this: “Yes, I like penises, but who doesn’t?” may prompt a question that’s right on the border of serious inquiry: “But not all of us like penises.” That might sound like end of the month PC policing, but I saw that, I think on Reddit. A Crazy Ex-Girlfriend fan asked that question and other fans engaged in that conversation I hope constructively. That only comes from a sports-season-like concern that the show maintain its level of openness, and we’re rooting for it all the way. The show has powerfully validated experiences, perspectives, and journeys. There are no universal experiences, but there are conversations where that Venn diagram overlaps between each of us. And I just think it’s so beautiful that the ultimate salve for Rebecca is for her to accept she isn’t alone, and that’s something I think about when watching the show and it’s giving me feelings: this show means a lot to me, and I’m not alone.
Originally published to A Generic Wonderful on 10/09/2018