Friday, October 16, 2015

Crazy Fun: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Rachel Bloom and the West Covina marching band in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, on The CW.

This winter, ABC premiered a medieval musical comedy spoof called Galavant. Galavant tells the story of Sir Galavant (Joshua Sasse), a washed-up knight who fell off the hero wagon after his beloved Madelena (Mallory Jansen) is stolen from him by an evil king. Each episode boasted original songs and an ensemble cast clearly having the time of their on-screen lives. Add in a few insidiously catchy tunes (penned by Tangled songwriters Alan Menken and Glenn Slater), a regular sprinkling of anachronistic Yiddish, a few pointed Game of Thrones shout-outs, and several happy inversions of fairy tale tropes (including a damsel-in-distress who, as a song lyric put it, tilts "pretty sharply bitchward" as the season progresses), and you have one of the 2015's most underseen delights. Its plots were breezy and largely without consequence – pure candy perhaps, but in the best sense. Galavant's first season also included some of this year's most surprising – and often equally unrecognizable – cameo appearances: including the incomparable Anthony Head, "Weird Al" Yankovic, Ricky Gervais, Hugh Bonneville, Rutger Hauer, and even John Stamos (as a rival knight named Sir Jean Hamm, a one-off joke that I kept waiting to land but somehow never quite did). But the biggest surprise was yet to come: in May, ABC renewed the musical series for a second season. Not being a cross-platform, money-making juggernaut like Glee, the straight-ahead juvenile fun of Galavant seemed destined from the start to be a single season curiosity; ABC aired its 8 episodes two-a-night in January and the whole season barely clocked in at 3 hours in total, giving it the feel of a slightly too-long feature musical. In this era of so-called Peak TV, where it seems that practically everything gets made but very few shows live long enough to tell their tale, I am grateful and still not a little bit shocked that Galavant will be returning to prime time this coming January. But now it may turn out that Galavant's renewal was just the first wave of a trend. This Monday, The CW premiered Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a musical series that is easily the most refreshing new show is this still rather underwhelming fall television season.

Co-created by Rachel Bloom, an Upright Citizens Brigade veteran and viral YouTube star, and The Devil Wears Prada screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has a bit more meat on its bones than Galavant. (And even more than it itself originally had: first optioned by Showtime as a half-hour show, CW not only saved the series from oblivion – they expanded it to a one-hour format.) Bloom plays Rebecca Bunch, an overworked and overmedicated Manhattan real estate lawyer at the top of her field and at the end of her rope. Her life, on paper, is "objectively fantastic": Ivy-League educated, she's about to make junior partner at the age of 26 at her high-powered Manhattan firm. But then, on the very day she is offered the promotion, fate intervenes in the form of a flannel-wearing, skateboarding former-boyfriend Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), a boy she dated for two months at summer camp ten years earlier. It turns out that those few months at camp it turns out were the last time Rebecca was genuinely happy and also, it seems, the last time she ever successfully pushed back against her overbearing mother. (The show opens with a few minutes of Camp Canyon Grove – a place of young love, musical theatre, and orthodontics – and what we see is reminiscent enough of Wet Hot American Summer that I hope the show takes us back there soon.) A few passing words with adult Josh and suddenly the stunted dreams of her sixteen-year-old self begins to leak out.. in song. Josh and his home town of West Covina become immediately cathetically invested with everything her life seems to lack: family, love, fulfillment, happiness, and a beach ("only two hours away… well, four with traffic"). Rebecca turns down the job (and its middle 6-figure salary), packs up, and, one elaborate musical sequence later, lands firmly amid the Los Angeles sprawl.

On the surface, this trope – a highly successful woman whose heart beats in rom-com rhythms – isn't unfamiliar. We've seen variations on it in shows like Drop Dead Diva or The Mindy Project. But for better and often for worse, as both of those series demonstrate, there is frequently a too fine line between giving a character a deep romantic inclination and the infantilization of adult women characters. But here – in adding a real edge of mental instability to the mix – is precisely where Crazy Ex-Girlfriend owns its title and breaks out from the pack. Rebecca's version of romantic love is much closer to obsessive fixation. The first episode gives us – and Rebecca – very little about the adult Josh Chan. (And all we know about the sixteen-year-old Josh was that he seems to react, well, like a sixteen-year-old boy.). What the first episode dramatizes, and what I anticipate the entire first season will portray, is essentially an extended, musically-themed nervous breakdown. Splashy dance numbers and poppy melodies notwithstanding, there is darkness coming. The first hour pays passing reference to Rebecca's previous failed suicide attempts, and her stalking of the entirely oblivious Josh is clearly going to come with some painful costs.

Rachel Bloom and Santino Fontana on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

Prior to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Bloom was best known for off-colour comedy musical YouTube videos, including the raunchy and geeky " Fuck Me Ray Bradbury," which was nominated for a Hugo Award in 2013. (That that song received a Hugo nomination at all has given me a new, if bemused, respect for the prestigious 60-year-old science fiction award.) Bloom's darkly comic musical sensibility is much in evidence in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – so much so that I am willing to forgive the title, which I initially anticipated put the series in the same unfortunate company as Cougar Town and Trophy Wife: two strong, smart comedies that suffered from pointlessly sexist and frankly off-topic titles – only the former lived long enough to survive its name, and I have no doubt the genuinely enjoyable Trophy Wife would have acquired wider viewership if it had had a simpler, more appropriate, title. Like Galavant, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is as meta as it is musical – as inclined to invert musical comedy norms as to embrace them – and also like Galavant, the lyrics to its original songs are fast and clever enough to reward viewers inclined to watch with the Closed Captioning on. You can see the raucous envelope-pushing irreverence in the two main musical sequences of the premiere episode, "West Covina" ("See the sparkle off the concrete ground / Hear the whoosh of a bustling town / What a feeling of love in my gut (I’m falling faster than the middle school's music program was cut!)") and "Sexy Getting Ready Song" which Rebecca sings in anticipation of meeting Josh again, with its hilariously unflinching depiction of painful exfoliation, tweezers, and Spanx ("I'm primpin' and pluckin' / I'm brushin' and rubbin' / First I make everything shiny and smooth / 'Cause I want my body / To be so soft for you.").

Here's an nerdy confession: the first thing I do when I see a musical is try to figure out the rules of its game. Sure it's nice that you can dance to it, but aren't the ontological questions far more urgent?: Are the characters really singing? Maybe the other characters hear the words, but not the melody? Is it a completely internal experience for the singer, and from the outside is nothing is happening? Or, like in Enchanted, is the character's ability to create musical and dance sequences in public places part of their magic? Musicals are a special sub-genre of fantasy, and I ask similar question whenever I encounter fantasy elements, whether in novels, film, or television. I can even date this inclination of mine to a specific moment: this first time I saw Woody Allen's Alice at the tender age of 19. Allen's script features unapologetic magical realism, but what makes Alice still one of my favourite of his less celebrated films is that you can read Alice's new-found power of invisibility as purely a representation of her emerging sense of self-understanding – and conclude that, within the frame of the film, Alice isn't ever really invisible – and the plot stills makes perfect sense. Perhaps even more sense.

I'm not yet entirely sure of the rules of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's musical conceit. (Galavant made it rather clear that the singing was always internal to the scene; the story took place in a universe where everyone accepted the fact that, every once in a while, people broke into song – often in self-consciously forced ways, as in Yankovic's appearance as a monk in a monastery where adherents take a "vow of singing.") So far one thing is clear though: the music swells when Rebecca begins to break from reality. On these terms, I am already thoroughly charmed. In the first episode, the bursts of song mark the first stages of painful de-thawing of that younger, but no less broken, version of herself. For now, those moments are signalled as largely delusional and self-deceiving, but I expect that tone will shift as Rebecca better integrates the long-repressed aspects of herself with the reality she is living. And so it is no surprise when Rebecca finally meets an ally in her hope/insanity – Paula (Broadway star Donna Lynne Champlin), an older paralegal at her new California law office who sees a lifeline for herself in Rebecca's romanticism – we also get Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's first duet. Is this capacity for song an indicator of a kind of desperation? Probably…. at least that. But the songs are also songs: a sudden burst of poetry amidst a heavy world of prose. We've already met Greg (Santino Fontana), the one who likely to suffer the most in the short term for Rebecca's delusions, but he also has the most to gain from her disruptive arrival in West Covina – and I suspect the first time he sings, there will be nothing sad about it.

The second episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend airs this Monday, October 19, on The CW. (If you missed it, the first episode is currently available for free streaming on the network's website.)

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.           

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