How is Rebecca in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” a Groundbreaking Modern Protagonist?
With a small smile and a bottle of Coke, TV viewers bid farewell to Mad Men (2007)’s Don Draper and the once-ubiquitous small screen archetype of the prestige drama male antihero. In recent years, there has been a steady decline in Tony Soprano or Walter White-style leading men (sorry, Ray Donovan) and the self-serious dramas in which they lived. Instead, more and more critical attention is being devoted to female-driven comedies featuring complicated, non-traditional leading ladies. While the trend may have begun with the often-dour Girls (2012), recent iterations like Broad City (2014) and Inside Amy Schumer (2013) have placed sometimes selfish, frequently badly behaved, women in brighter, more overtly comic contexts. The CW’s new musical comedy, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015), pursues this combination in unique ways by situating Rachel Bloom’s dark, Golden Globe-nominated performance as heroine Rebecca Bunch in the context of an unusually perky show.
“Likeability” (i.e. being people-pleasing and inoffensive) is often the only personality trait deemed necessary for underwritten female character, a fact that Bloom’s performance rebels against unrelentingly. Rebecca is consistently complicated, messy, and self-destructive, to the point that the writers often seem to be daring viewers to dislike her. The show never shies away from mining the character’s profound anger, self-loathing, self-destructiveness, pretention, and neuroses for both humor and discomfort; in the first episode alone, Rebecca quits her impressive job and moves across the country after a chance encounter with teenage boyfriend Josh Chan, flushes her psychiatric medication down the sink, shamelessly uses Josh’s friend to get closer to him, pursues Josh despite learning that he has a girlfriend, and constantly mentions that she went to Harvard and Yale. Her depression and loneliness drive even worse behavior later in the series, from her callous treatment of a man who is attracted to her, to insinuating herself between Josh and his girlfriend, to eventually breaking into a therapist’s house to steal medication. Women behaving badly are not novel – after all, Girls’ Hannah Horvath has been a model of staggering selfishness and entitlement for four seasons now. What sets Crazy Ex-Girlfriend apart is the way in which it refuses to pull punches with its flawed lead character, while situating her within one of the most stylistically chipper shows on TV.
Visually, the show is consistently light and bright, with vibrantly colored costumes and the constant sun-filled light blue of California skies. The framing is clear and the editing is quick and fluid, creating an upbeat feeling of forward momentum throughout the series. These visual choices reflect the general emotional and energetic pitch of the series, which is fast-paced and full of rapid-fire jokes (like frequent throwaway gags about Rebecca’s gastrointestinal issues). However, the series takes the contrast between its intense lead character and the context in which she exists even farther than it could with these typical sitcom tropes. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is no mere comedy, but a musical, the jazz hand-happy genre of cock-eyed optimists. While the show uses its musical numbers to explore the inner lives of many of its different characters, the majority of the songs offer glimpses into Rebecca’s deepest fears and preoccupations, ones that she is incapable of acknowledging to herself outside of her fantasies. The songs are unrelentingly comic in their clever pastiche of musical genres and their insane, joke-packed lyrics, but they never exist solely for the joke. From a Bollywood-inspired number about feeling inadequate in a yoga class led by Josh’s sexy girlfriend to a melancholy chanson about self-destructive behavior during a depressive episode, the songs always strive to examine the roots of Rebecca’s dysfunction.
During the era of the male TV antihero, shows tended to operate under the assumption that, in order to explore the darkest corners of human existence, shows needed to be gritty, with dark visuals and dramatic confrontations and often spilled blood. More than perhaps any other current show, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rebecca proves that there’s often a heart of darkness lurking beneath a sundress and a jaunty tune.