2016 in Review: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is the Becks

Every miserable year that begins anew comes with a singular, though powerful, consolation: I will see a TV show that is better than the other TV shows I will see. Last year, Donovan was surprised by Steven Universe because he didn’t think he’d be into it, and on the Year End Review 2015, concluded by saying it’s one of the most important things in his life.

When we talk about media being political and important to discuss, it’s because it can really affect our minds and our hearts, and that’s hard to prove. So I’ll do my best.

In terms of the Year End Reviews, for as long as I’ve been doing this podcast, the track record has been pretty incredible, with Kill la Kill and Moribito. Thinking I wasn’t gonna review the year in December, I didn’t really think about a best media experience, and for a while didn’t have something that was so transcendent like those previous two.

And then I met Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and I transformed. This show has been all I can think about lately, it’s all-consuming. The music plays in my head constantly, I think very hard about the relationships between these fictional characters, and I’m on my third rewatch of the first season, which just gets better. Like I mentioned with Berserk, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend doesn’t feel like a TV show, it’s an incredible story that happens to be broadcast on television. Sharing space with horrible things on other networks upsets the processors in my mind.

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I’ve talked about it a lot, or I feel I have, and it’s the only thing I want to share on social media. But there’s a lot of anxiety there. I’ve gotten this way before, really into a show, where I was really into Revenge last year, for example, and then like a day later I couldn’t bring myself to watch the last half-season. Twin Peaks was the same way. Something just switches in my brain and all the interest is gone as quickly as it came, and so that’s the tell — the instant fandom, and also, something new.

If I contrast Moribito to another case study like Veronica Mars, the word I kept using to describe Veronica Mars was “Whedonesque,” and I hate that kind of writing. Moribito on the other hand comes from the guy who did Stand Alone Complex, so even though it was fantasy, it’s the best possible iteration of that genre for me.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a dramedy musical, and I’ve never met a dramedy I’ve agreed with. Transparent, Orange is the New Black, independent film from the 2000s. And as a straight man I would never dare even explore musicals. So, because it’s not something I’m typically into, I worried it would fade, and it’s only been about a month, but it’s made such an indelible impression on me that I don’t expect from or ask for in media.

And also, one of the reasons I haven’t been able to not talk about this show is because the ratings are pretty bad. And if it ever got cancelled, which is looking likely, after the move to the Friday Night Deathslot, it would mean the end of so much. No more episodes for one, but then the music would also stop. And Rachel Bloom would tuck that Golden Globe under her arm and do other things, but she’d stretch herself trying to act professionally while also doing music. With this show, she’s able to do both things at once, and that’s perfect. If you explore her work beforehand, this really is the reconciliation of her two disciplines.

She did music videos on YouTube, including great songs like “Pictures of Your Dick,” and “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury,” and she also wrote on TV shows like Robot Chicken. Kind of Felicia Day, she just put herself out there and was discovered by Aline Brosh McKenna, writer of the film The Devil Wears Prada as well as 27 Dresses. This is why Crazy Ex-Girlfriend feels so personal. This isn’t someone who came through the system, which is run by men, she proved herself first and then came onboard. As such, the show feels really voice-driven and utterly women-driven, which we’ll get into a little bit later.

First, I just want to say that I am smitten with Rachel Bloom. She’s really vulgar and hilarious, a super energetic, thoughtful actress, and an extraordinarily sensitive writer. She and the team decided to make the romantic male lead an Asian guy, just because it’s a reflection of her reality growing up in Southern California, and in West Covina, a quarter of the population is actually Asian, and that’s reflected in the show. There’s this one character who comes out as bisexual, and the song he sings to do so has been used by real life bisexual people to come out, where they cover the song on YouTube. And then, as a few critics point out, and I would have to agree, its central fist in the air for social justice is its depiction and exploration of real female friendships.

You have Rebecca Bunch the main character, and her friend Paula Proctor, who sees in Rebecca’s journey an expression of pure love, and comes to reevaluate her own life and her happiness through that lens. They work together on all the schemes to try to nudge Rebecca between the ex-boyfriend and his current girlfriend. In season 2 there’s a deconstruction of that, because it’s kind of TV-ish in the first season, where Paula becomes that sidekick archetype, and so they explore what that really means in terms of one-sided relationships and miscommunication. And also, incredibly sadly, the foundations of friendships. When you form a relationship with someone on a singular basis — like chasing a boyfriend across the country — when that goes away, what then do you have?

My favorite episode from the first season, entitled “I’m Going to the Beach with Josh and His Friends!” ends with a moment between Rebecca and Paula that brings a tear to my eye, it’s so sweet. It’s tears not by way of sadness necessarily, but just overwhelming emotion that feels real enough to involve me. But there definitely is a share of sadness. Season 2 has just been heartbreaking so far, with the departure of one of the key characters and then this slow degradation of Rebecca and Paula’s friendship that is rooted in all that’s been built up in Season 1.

So, that’s the two sides of it, I guess. With Kill la Kill, Futurama, Steven Universe, Azumanga Daioh, Donovan and I have talked about comedy shows and their ability to wrench your heart open with laughter and then strike like a snake for the killing blow.

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As funny as Rebecca Bunch is, when you think about that character, she is so heartbreaking, just so devastating. That’s the ultimate deconstruction, but it doesn’t always play that way in the moment and I have to cite two examples. One is the season one finale, where we see that Rebecca has been singing the same fairy tale movie song to herself for her entire life, just waiting for it to come true.

And it’s funny because Rachel Bloom the actress has an amazing and versatile voice, with this incredible Marilyn Monroe impression and also the ability to really lay down some serious rap, but the character Rebecca cannot sing. All the musical interludes happen in the heads of these characters, and so when she sings for real, it’s quite pitchy. Which actually makes me kind of sad, but also sad is how yes it is funny when she’s singing to herself about “That One Indescribable Instant,” when all your dreams come true, but then you think about it and you have to laugh to keep from crying.

The other example is from early season 2, when Rebecca wants to find some commonalities with Josh and learns that he’s going to some ping pong hall later in the week to hang out with his buddies. So, she decides to hire a local ping pong champion, who of course is a little Asian boy, and tries to become a pro-level player in one afternoon. While doing so, she has this fantasy about Josh singing a pop-punk song about her being awesome at ping pong.

So, one part of it is subversive toward masculinity, because it’s that rarest of things, a woman’s fantasy, but it’s a man singing the song, so he’s singing these things like:

“Dudes sing these kinds of songs!

WHOA!

BRO!

SEGA!

JOCK ITCH!”

And that sort of necessary deprecation is never self-deprecation, especially on TV. So, you have this Asian man as a front for a rock band, as a sexual fantasy, and it is fundamentally a woman’s story about the perils of love and the pain of relationships.

The premise of the song is outwardly absurd, and that’s the beauty of it. There’s so much efficiency at work where the absurdity makes you laugh because you have Josh talking about penises, but the more absurd the song becomes, the more it underscores how vain Rebecca’s scheme is. Like, learning how to play ping pong will naturally lead to Josh want to marry her, and that’s basically the lyrics. So, it’s hilarious, but it’s really sad. And all the more so for being so relatable. We all invent these hair-brain schemes or logic out something that defies logic in the name of love.

And again, it’s unambiguously stemming from either a woman writer or a women-driven writer’s room. The thesis statement for the show is in the first episode, “The Sexy Getting Ready Song,” and no man would or could ever do that. The song is about how a woman gets ready for a night out, all the grisly details, and I had no idea. But it is horrifying. When she’s like sanding the bottom of her foot, or when she waxes her ass and splatters blood on the tub, it’s something that we never would’ve seen unless a woman had the reins, and even if it wasn’t so funny or constructive or just a great song by itself, it constitutes a new perspective, and that’s all I ask for.

It’s been so educational, and I’ve learned about so much, like UTIs and body rolls, which is what sex is. There’s this twice recurring joke where women call in sick to work by making up some junk about things men have no idea about, so Rebecca is on the phone with her boss, Darryl, and she’s like, “Yeah, my ovaries are eking out into my fallopian tubes,” and he’s like “Okay, feel better!” Bloom cites Girls and Broad City as kind of the trailblazers for women-driven TV shows, and that’s the future I want. If Bloom and McKenna are any indication, women are so much more inclusive than men have proven to be time and time again.

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From the AV Club: “[Crazy Ex-Girlfriend] tells its own unique story — that of a desperately unhappy woman who makes a dramatic and unplanned life change in hopes of achieving something like joy.” It’s a show about happiness, finding it, defining it for yourself, and it makes me so goddamn happy. Even though I am kind of trapped in it, it makes the world seem like a better place and it’s turned me outward toward it. Made me think about who I could become, and for once it’s not some terrible troll creature.

Like Shinra, Rebecca is the rare character I identify with, and I’ve noticed my mannerisms taking after her. It’s interesting because she’s the first female character who I’ve felt this way about. But she’s just so relatable and all the more devastating because of it. I really need her to find a good place at the end of the series, with a lot of fun adventures along the way, because it would actually give me hope about my own life.

Really didn’t see that coming.

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