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I first learned of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend when I saw a poster in the mall: a photo of Rachel Bloom clutching a balloon with a crazed expression. My dad scoffed at the title “I bet the feminists are going crazy over that one.”
That may be the show’s curse: that it appears so different from the outside. The title and unsure marketing has hidden pretty much everything about the wonderful and inventive show that is Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. And while those who watched it can attest to its brilliance, most people are unaware that one of the best shows of this latest era of television ran its course with little fanfare.
The series, co-created by Aline Brosh Mckenna and Rachel Bloom, is unlike any of its contemporaries or what aired before it. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a comedy musical that starts as a commentary on rom-com tropes and evolves into a deeper discussion of mental health and becoming a more evolved person. Over its four-season run on The CW, the series included more than 100 original songs written by Bloom, Jack Dolgen, and Adam Schlesinger.
The music of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is by far one of its strongest attributes. Aside from a wide-ranging collection from straight comedy songs (“I Go to the Zoo” is an all-time great) to emotional ballads (“You Stupid Bitch” being the show’s masterpiece), Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has some of the best musical composition and direction of any show on TV. The songwriters’ understanding of theme and motif are unparalleled, as songs often reappear as full reprises or instrumental variations that give the show a brilliant thematic throughline.
The music alone could make Crazy Ex-Girlfriend a great show, but the series can’t be limited by just one aspect. It also contains one of the strongest supporting casts a show could dream to have. While many of the characters start off as stereotypes that would fit into a romantic comedy (the cool girl, the hot / mean girlfriend, the overbearing boss, the sassy / helpful best friend) over the course of the series they all evolved into fully realized versions of themselves. Every character gets their moment to shine, their own emotional ballad (or several), and their own chances to break away from the tropes that originally defined them.
The best example is that of Paula Proctor, played by Broadway legend Donna Lynne Champlain. The bored working mother gradually transforms into one of the most interesting characters on TV with the type of arc most shows shy away from: a middle aged woman pursuing her passion for law as she struggles with her marriage and her relationship to motherhood. Champlain gets some of the best songs of the series as she refuses to get pushed out of the spotlight like most “best friend” characters are. It’s refreshing to see a character like Paula in a comedy who isn’t taken as a joke. No character is reduced to just a joke; Crazy Ex-Girlfriend believes everyone is capable of being complex if they allow themselves to take the big steps toward improvement.
For a show so driven by the big picture, it is also rife with some of the best running gags of any contemporary comedy. It’s something that becomes most apparent on rewatches, from the amount of characters who leave their wives for prostitutes to plenty of meta-jokes about The CW itself. While fans of shows like The Office or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia may have entire wikis to keep track of their running gags, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s feel like those wonderful moments where the writers just thought one idea was so funny that they had to keep bringing it back.
While the second golden age of TV was all about pushing new ground, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend became one of the best TV shows that represented formerly taboo subjects. From one of the few coming-out narratives on TV without unnecessary inter-personal conflict, to educating about topics including antidepressants, abortion, and the different symptoms of heart attacks in women. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend also contains one of the best depictions of modern Jewish identity, and created a song for the ages with “Remember That We Suffered” that is very helpful for explaining Jewish culture to those who are unaware. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend always strove to talk frankly about mental health and sexuality (it was the first live-action network show to say the word clitoris) but it was never about just educating. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend had all-encompassing goals of what it wanted to achieve—pushing the envelope for what was accepted on TV just happened to be included.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is that the show never has lulls. Every season innovates on the initial premise and contains an episode, song, or arc that could rank among the show’s best. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend often walked a thin tonal balance between a zany comedy and the darker material that lay beneath it, and yet it never felt like it dipped too far into one end. It’s the rare show that always feels like it’s moving forward, where each episode is a delight to see how the cast develops and the themes evolve. When the finale ends there are no more paths the show could have gone down; it comes together as a full picture and every character has a clear journey.
So how did Bloom and Mckenna pull off such a feat of storytelling? It’s clear everyone involved had a passion for realizing the show’s story to its highest potential. It’s a series that illuminates what’s possible when creators are unimpeded by outside forces. There was always a sense that everyone behind the scenes believed in the story of Rebecca Bunch and fought for every small thing, whether it be a stupid joke about parking, or a groundbreaking depiction of abortion.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend feels like a miracle that aired on broadcast TV. The show was the least-watched series to ever get renewed for a third and fourth season in TV history. There are a billion universes where Crazy Ex-Girlfriend got cancelled sometime during its run and remained an unfinished masterpiece, or it aired on a less compromising network and its vision never realized to the extent Bloom and Mckenna wanted it. And yet we exist in the world where it is complete. Many shows during the era of “peak” TV have been praised for pushing boundaries or reinventing what a television show could be, and while Crazy Ex Girlfriend was critically lauded at the time, it deserves to remain in the conversation alongside the best of prestige era television for the strides it made during its run.
If my several rewatches prove anything it’s this: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend will forever secretly be the one of the best shows on television. During an era with dozens of streaming services and hundreds of channels with original programming, one brilliant work of art was made without most people noticing, a show that’s just as funny as it is clever and emotional. For years into the future people may discover Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and think, “why wasn’t everyone obsessed with this show?” And while it never received the wide audience it deserved, Bloom and Mckenna were still able to make one of the best-written shows around while also having a four-season long running joke about a butter commercial. It’s such a delight that a show like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend just happens to be… here.
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Leila Jordan is the TV intern for Paste Magazine. To talk about all things movies, TV, and useless trivia you can find her @galaxyleila
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