Since it began, the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has been full of surprises. Somehow, the musical romantic comedy has been able to churn out — via co-creator and star Rachel Bloom and fellow songwriters Adam Schlesinger and Jack Dolgen — two to three clever and catchy song parodies per episode. And somehow, Bloom, co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna and the rest of the creative team have been able to effortlessly dance between ridiculous, explicit, proudly lowbrow comedy (no current show enjoys poop jokes more) and thoughtful and heavy drama about mental illness.
But perhaps the most surprising aspect of CXGF, which begins its final season tonight (I’ve seen the first two episodes) is how likable Bloom’s eponymous heroine Rebecca Bunch still is, despite hours and hours of profoundly off-putting behavior.
Rebecca very much fits into the tradition of the No No No No Stop Doing That Right Now protagonist (see also: Hannah Horvath, Michael Scott). She is intrusive. She is inappropriate. She is oblivious. She can be more dangerous as your best friend than as your worst enemy. Many is the time when her behavior creates a moment so awkward, I have to watch the series as if I’m sitting through the part in a slasher movie when the blood and guts start flying.
I should hate Rebecca outright. I should have no interest in watching a show where she’s the protagonist. Yet I feel deep sympathy for her, and the dominant emotion the show gives me is joy, not mortification.
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So how have Bloom, McKenna and friends pulled off this magic trick and protected Rebecca’s reputation from her own worst instincts? It comes down to a few important factors.
The first is that as Rebecca’s behavior has grown worse, the series has become more explicit that its title isn’t just a joke. When people think that there is something seriously wrong with Rebecca Bunch, they are correct. It wasn’t until early last season — after a suicide attempt on a cross-country flight — that she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. But it was clear much earlier that she wasn’t just some wacky caricature, but a very real and very damaged person. When she was stalking ex-boyfriend Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III), abusing the trust of best friend Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin) or otherwise making a mess of the lives of her loved ones, it was coming from a genuinely sick place, and that was made apparent early and often.
The second is that both the show and the other characters on it know that Rebecca can be The Absolute Worst, and they call her on it constantly. The new season opens with Rebecca in jail after pleading guilty to pushing her own stalker off a roof. Her behavior behind bars is as exasperating as it is everywhere else, but her fellow prisoners (led by Britney Young from GLOW) won’t give her an inch. They point out each and every moment when she’s acting like the privileged, narcissistic rich white girl that she is. The premiere’s first big musical number, a spoof of Chicago‘s “Cell Block Tango,” is all about how much worse the lives of Rebecca’s new friends are compared to her own, and how it never would have occurred to her otherwise. Shows where the obnoxious main character bulldozes over everyone around them can be tough to watch, but Rebecca’s comeuppance arrives whenever it’s tonally necessary.
The third is that the same overdramatic streak that can make her unbearable to be around can also make her into a great friend. In the near term, she’s almost always a headache. Yet if you look over the arc of the series, the life of nearly everyone around her has dramatically improved largely thanks to Rebecca nagging them into making huge choices they didn’t think they wanted to at first. The selfless macro helps compensate for a lot of the selfish micro.
Finally, the songs provide a crucial emotional release valve for whenever Rebecca is at her most irritating or just plain sad. They don’t undermine the show’s reality, but they offer a break from it, which in turn is a break from Rebecca making someone want to climb out of their own skin. Bloom’s abundant and versatile vocal talents help, too: Singing Rebecca is such a gift compared to Talking Rebecca that it’s easier to let some of the latter’s sins slide.
Rebecca Bunch is terrible. I love her anyway, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, too. That such a weird and fundamentally abrasive show will get to play out its entire four-year arc is one of the great pleasures of Peak TV.