You’ve probably seen the ads at a bus stop or on a billboard by now: A woman standing slack-jawed and murder-eyed in a hot pink dress, clutching the string of a heart-shaped balloon that’s threatening to sink back to earth. Beside it, in unhinged all-caps: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
It’s a loaded title, to be sure — one that carries the baggage of decades of vengeful, smoking-at-the-nostrils fictional females familiar from rom-coms and stalker flicks alike. (“Psycho Ex-Girlfriend” even has its own extensive entry under TV Tropes.) But far from adding another cardboard jilted lover to the archetype bonfire, the CW’s new hit series sets out to take an honest, irreverent and frankly feminist look at what happens to a smart, capable woman when love sends her over the deep end. Oh, and did we mention it’s also a musical.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend follow Rebecca Bunch (co-creator Rachel Bloom), a successful New York lawyer staring down an existential crisis. A chance encounter with her beaming, square-jawed high-school boyfriend, Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III), leads her to a drastic decision: It’s time to uproot her entire life and move to West Covina, the glamour-free inland California town where her ex-beau resides. Upon arrival, Rebecca performs an elaborate song-and-dance number involving scores of back-up dancers, singing billboards and a giant replica of a pretzel. But between soaring choruses straight out of Rodgers and Hammerstein, she furiously denies that she made the move for her long-lost teenage fling, or that there’s something more insidious brewing beneath her aggressively cheery denial — like, say, the beginnings of a serious nervous breakdown.
“We were interested in exploring the issue of: What are the biological things that love does to you, when it takes over the most intellectual parts of your brain?” Bloom says. “And I think the more intelligent you are, the more it drives you quote-unquote crazy, because you know you shouldn’t be feeling this way or doing these things.”
“She really came from our Id,” series co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna says of the character. “Women are sold this idea that love is the most important thing. Why does that become such a central preoccupation for an intelligent woman? And instead of questioning those things in a rational way, she just sort of explodes.”
McKenna and Bloom’s collaboration began in an unlikely way. In 2010, fresh from NYU’s musical theater program and having done work at the Upright Citizens Brigade, Bloom combined her love of song-and-dance and sketch comedy into a music video called “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury.” The raunchy sci-fi ode went viral, and she became a minor Internet sensation; more videos (“Historically Accurate Disney Princess Song”; “I Steal Pets”) and two musical-comedy albums followed.
It was during late-night trip down a YouTube rabbit hole that McKenna discovered Bloom’s videos and was instantly hooked. The seasoned screenwriter (The Devil Wears Prada, 27 Dresses) reached out, and the two met up and discussed a concept McKenna had been tossing around — a deconstruction of the crazy ex-girlfriend stereotype. A partnership was born.
From the beginning, it was decided that Bloom should play the lead. “Her characters have this manic intensity,” McKenna says. “But also there’s vulnerability and intelligence to them, which I think is really important for our character. When we had our very first meeting, I said to her, ‘You know what? I’m really not interested in doing this unless you’re starring in it. I just don’t see the point otherwise.'”
Bloom, who had dipped her toe in TV writing on shows like Allen Gregory and Robot Chicken, had pitched musical television series in the past to no avail. “Making a musical television show was always the ultimate dream,” she says. “But I really didn’t think it would ever happen. Because who’s going to make a musical television show?” With McKenna in her corner, the two shopped the concept around to cable networks, eventually shooting a pilot for Showtime. When that didn’t shake out, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend eventually landed at the CW; though its creators had to tone down some of the more explicit content for network TV, the series maintains its raunchy, alt-comedy heart.
The six episodes that have aired so far are peppered with musical numbers running the gamut from a Fred-and-Ginger-style soft shoe about lowering expectations (“Settle for Me”) to an R&B breakdown of the insane things women do to primp for dudes (“The Sexy Getting Ready Song”). In the latter, a rapper starts riffing about Rebecca’s “tight little dress” but ends up appalled by the grim reality of the female beauty regiment. “This is some nasty-ass patriarchal bullshit,” he says. “You know what? I gotta go apologize to some bitches.”
Bloom explains that the songs act as “emotional tent poles” for the various crises that Rebecca is going through. “On our show you’ll never have someone be like, ‘Huh, I’m hungry. I want a burrito. I’m gonna sing a song about burritos now!’” she says. “It’s never detached in that way. We always want the songs to be from a heavy emotional place. She’s on this quest for identity. She’s trying on these different personas to make sense of her situation.”
That search for identity is what makes Rebecca, despite all her woman-on-the-verge-of-a-brekadown–ness, such a relatable character to viewers trying to reconcile the many societal demands of being a woman in today’s age. “There’s so many confusing messages that you’re being sent about being pretty but not too pretty, smart but not too smart, ambitious but in a way that makes people comfortable,” says McKenna. “It’s very hard to navigate. So a girl who doesn’t know who she is and is trying on different identities by referring to popular culture is only bound to get more lost and more confused. We’re all trying to be Beyoncé and Sheryl Sandberg at the same time.”