"The TV series is a bold attempt to tell the story of a woman struggling with mental illness by simply giving her a voice and adding a tune," writes Darsana Mohan.
Spoiler alert - Review contains mentions of general premise and a spoiler for season 3.
2018 is my year of trying to be regular with therapy. I’ve been making more appointments and being better with my thought work but the sessions are really at the mercy of my whim rather than my therapist’s decisions. Usually the first thing he asks me when we start a session is to know the impetus behind the appointment - What prompted me to actually schedule this one out?
It’s a good barometer for my mental health but probably something I should be better at.
In the show ‘Crazy Ex-girlfriend’, the protagonist Rebecca Bunch believes in this meandering routine of therapy. She sees her therapist Dr. Akopian only when the circumstances are dire enough for her to realize she needs help. It’s never the walk up to the plank that warns her, it’s when she’s actually at the end and staring down at the sharks. Dr Akopian, in her own right, is usually disheartened since Rebecca uses therapy as an echo chamber without even paying heed to what her therapist has to say. In a lot of ways, I see myself in Rebecca while in a lot of ways - she seems very out of reach.
Crazy Ex-girlfriend starts out as an innocuous but familiar story of a big shot New York lawyer, Rebecca Bunch, recognizing her miserable monotony in life. The conflict in the story arrives in the form of a major promotion offered to her, causing Rebecca to suffer a full-fledged panic attack. This is augmented by an existential ad for butter, asking ‘When was the last time you were truly happy?’
Quite by ‘fate’ or mere coincidence, she then runs into Josh Chan, an ex from summer camp and her brain immediately latches on to the fleeting happiness that was their teenage romance. Josh tells her that he is leaving NY for a happier life in his hometown of West Covina (only 2 hours from the beach!) and Rebecca is instantly inspired. This is a sudden inexplicable crossroads for her and it is exactly here where we, the audience, leave the familiar cocoon of a sitcom.
After Josh leaves, Rebecca launches into a broadway-esque musical number ‘West Covina’ that espouses of her sudden relocation to the sunny but almost inconspicuous town West Covina in California. The song ends with the lyric ‘Josh just happens to be here’, her self-delusion and grandeur so potently visible to everyone but herself. This is the Rebecca we meet at the outset and without context we do not realize what this impulse decision represents. It is almost easy to dismiss her as the sexist degrading trope that is the ‘Crazy Ex-girlfriend’. We are unaware that this decision, like most others in Rebecca’s life, represents her endless pursuit of wanting to belong or as Rebecca herself puts it in the season one title song – “The situation is a lot more nuanced than that”
Rebecca has moved to another state, quitting her well paying job and upsetting her exacting mother, to be with an unsuspecting Josh Chan. There is no subtlety to her and as a viewer that is jarring since we are supposed to be investing in this brazen character. There is also a sense of shame that we feel, the German word ‘schadenfreude’ perfectly encapsulating it, as we follow Rebecca making one after the other attempt to win Josh over. The first 2 seasons have her dedicatedly pining for Josh and other men in between, since they represent the solution. To her, they are the end to all her problems and the lynchpin to access all forms of love in the world – romantic, familial, self. As a character with a number of issues that include an overbearing parent and an absent father, Rebecca operates from a singular space of wanting to overcome her issues without actually having to address them
I started out the series exasperated by the protagonist as she walked the tightrope of ‘morality’ in her quest. It was the music that kept me watching since the songs are hilarious but later, episode by episode, I found myself having deeply invested in this story. Rebecca’s story and that of the other characters in West Covina, while almost larger than life in the things they did, resembled real life to me in a way that a lot of shows did not. Considering that the show is a musical comedy- that is saying something. Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna, the creators of this show, had somehow carved out a slice of life and simply peppered it with fantastic musical numbers that hit you over the head with the subtext.
Take the song ‘Sexy French Depression’ in Season 1 episode 7. The song is depicted in black and white, with Rebecca wearing a beautiful black dress and walking around town lackadaisically. It then cuts to Rebecca in her normal clothes, lying on her kitchen floor, her things lying around her. The song while soothing to listen to, calls out the romanticising of depression and mental illness. Depression and anxiety simply stall the character’s life here instead of making her seem sad or anguished, like a lot of media depictions tend to do. It’s a brilliant technique to grab the audience’s attention - to be singing through a dark concept in a sitcom. In an interview, Bloom elaborates on how she thinks that ‘Songs are not only amazing joke-delivery devices, but they’re also great devices to deliver an idea. Songs are kind of like musical essays’ and CEG is a wonderful execution of that.
Another example is the song ‘Boyband made up of 4 Joshes’ where Rebecca envisions a boy band made up of 4 different versions of Josh who are also mental health professionals. She routinely misconstrues love from a significant other as approval for healing and the song easily helps us understand that. As the audience, it is both endearing and terrifying to chart Rebecca’s deep seated anxieties. There’s a turnaround in season 3 though where, without giving much away, Rebecca finally received a diagnosis, the overwhelming emotion of it expressed in the poignant song ‘Diagnosis’. Now, while I wax poetic about Crazy Ex-girlfriend, I also have to acknowledge that it has its flaws. There are some tone deaf moments and sometimes the plot runs dry but there’s always the saving grace of characterisation. A good point to note is that the show also refuses to victimise Rebecca as she takes accountability for her actions and her recovery in the last episode of Season 3.
Crazy Ex-girlfriend is unashamed about what it is and refuses to be pigeonholed as it marries reality with music and humour. It is a bold attempt to tell the story of a woman struggling with mental illness by simply giving her a voice and adding a tune.
Darsana Mohan is a Bengaluru-based poet and writer.