(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching, why it’s worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)
The Series: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Where You Can Stream It: Netflix
The Pitch: Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), an Ivy League grad and hotshot lawyer in New York City, runs into her old summer camp flame, Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III), and decides to leave her life in New York behind. She moves to West Covina, California, to be closer to Josh, but soon realizes that she’s running away from herself as much as she’s running towards him. Rebecca makes new friends, starts a new career, finds love several times, and battles with her mostly-untreated mental illness. The twist? Rebecca’s inner monologue isn’t just words — she imagines everything as fully orchestrated and choreographed musical numbers.
Why It’s Essential Viewing: Series creators Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna managed to pull off the impossible: they made Crazy Ex-Girlfriend absolutely, mind-bogglingly brilliant. It’s an earnest look at what it’s like living with mental illness that still manages to be side-splittingly funny and has some absolute bangers in each episode. The music’s not just good, it’s great: late Fountains of Wayne frontman Adam Schlesinger helped co-write 157 songs that range in style from big Broadway ballads to riffs on Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” with Bloom and music supervisor Jack Dolgen. The lyrics are funny and heartfelt, the beats bop, and these actors can really sing.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend uses its musical numbers to be refreshingly frank about several touchy topics. The series digs into reproductive health, abortion, mental illness, inherited trauma, parental abuse and neglect, and more. The characters are deeply flawed people who do some truly awful things, but we’re given so much insight into their damaged psyches that it helps us understand why they act the way they do. Using the musical numbers to break the ice, the show manages to have honest conversations about topics other shows wouldn’t touch with a 50-foot-pole.
While the series initially focuses on Rebecca’s attempts to steal Josh away from his girlfriend Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz), it expands into being a much greater story of growth. Rebecca’s fixation on Josh and her behavior with her new friends and lovers leads her to realize she needs professional help, and she is eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD). The series follows her as she grapples with her behavior, the consequences of her actions, her eventual diagnosis, and learning to love herself.
Even if you don’t identify with Rebecca’s struggle, there’s bound to be a character on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend that tugs at your heartstrings: Greg (Santino Fontana in the first two seasons, who was subsequently replaced by Skylar Astin in season 4 due to scheduling conflicts), an underachieving alcoholic bartender who develops complicated feelings for Rebecca; Heather (Vella Lovell), an apathetic college student with perfect sardonic wit; and Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin), Rebecca’s new best friend and co-worker who’s also a wife and mother trying to live vicariously through Rebecca as a coping mechanism. The supporting cast are written like real people, warts and all, and go through incredible character development and growth. It’s subversive, it’s smart, and it’s what makes the show feel so genuine.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is one of the only fictional portrayals of mental illness that doesn’t feel like an indictment of the people who struggle with it. The series never lets Rebecca get away with hurting others, even if it’s unintentional, but it does give us overwhelming insight into her rationale. When Rebecca breaks into song before getting her new diagnosis, she’s excited because she will have a new understanding of how her brain works. It’s a kind of relief you don’t really see portrayed in fiction, where a mental health diagnosis is always a negative situation. Instead, we’re shown the ups and downs of it all, soaking up the nuance of what it’s like to live with a brain that’s just a little different.
Nuance is the real key here. When a character decides to get an abortion in season 2, her friends and family support her and try to help her with the emotional impact of the decision instead of shaming her. When a character comes out as bisexual late in life, his friends embrace him because he’s still the guy they’ve always loved. There’s a clear desire to share the series’ progressive values without ever making it feel like a morality lesson. Rebecca, Josh, Heather, and the rest of the gang grow as people throughout the series and the hope is probably that the audience grows with them.
I’ll be completely frank: I am a person with both mental illness and a uterus. There are episodes of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend that made me cry because I felt like some of my most difficult experiences had finally been addressed by fiction. I didn’t have to look for metaphors or find similarities with themes. Instead, I watched stories that directly mirrored my own experiences depicted with humor, empathy, and wit. It’s an incredible thing to feel seen in that way, and I think there’s enough in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend for everyone to have a taste. It’s a series that will make you laugh, cry, think, and dance, and we’d be better off as a society if everyone gave it a watch.
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