Saturday, November 26, 2016

Second Chance at Life: Season Two of CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Rachel Bloom as Rebecca Bunch in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

One of the fundamental things that distinguish television series from other forms of art, such as novels, movies, and plays, is the fact that their creators divide up their narratives and present them to us in episodic sequence. This extra time gives them greater freedom to present more elaborate plot and characterization, but it also makes the form much more open-ended, which can be both a blessing and a curse. I’ve written before about how shows that start off strong can find themselves slumping in their second season, while long-running, beloved programs like The Good Wife sometimes barely manage to limp over the finish line, despite having a long track record of excellent earlier seasons.

At times, it seems like the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend runs the risk of falling into the former trap as it enters its second year of life. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend began as the textbook example of a cult hit: it fused comedy and drama with original musical numbers, garnering a devoted but very small audience, as well as critical acclaim (including from Mark Clamen here at Critics at Large). After the first season wrapped up and the CW decided, against all odds, to renew the show, it began to gain more attention (although that hasn’t necessarily shown up in the ratings for its second season). It’s not hard to see why its fans are so devoted: the first season’s enthusiasm is infectious, and at times it stands out as some of the funniest and most inventive television in recent years.

The first season followed the title character, Rebecca Bunch (played by the immensely talented Rachel Bloom, who also co-created the show), as she fled her life as a high-powered New York lawyer to follow ex-boyfriend Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) to the undistinguished strip malls of West Covina, California. It was obvious from the beginning that Rebecca’s pursuit of Josh was misguided, a redirection of her deep-seated frustrations and thwarted sense of personal fulfillment into a seemingly quixotic quest. What made the unraveling of that narrative thread so compelling was the way in which the show subtly (and, in moments like the musical number “I’m the Villain in My Own Story,” not so subtly) shifted our focus to suggest that Rebecca wasn’t quite the plucky, lovable heroine that we thought she was. The first season ended on an almost-perfect note of ambiguity that could well have served as the show’s finale (as its creators likely expected it would be).

However, the choices that Bloom and co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna made in light of the show’s precarious existence also laid the groundwork for some potential problems when it was unexpectedly saved for another season. The most obvious was the mid-season departure of Santino Fontana, the Broadway veteran who was one of the most accomplished performers in the cast and whose portrayal of Greg Serrano, Josh’s self-loathing but charismatic friend who complicates Rachel’s original plan when he begins pursuing her, was one of the most consistently solid elements of the show. Bloom, McKenna, and the other writers admittedly appeared to have run out of road for Greg, and reversing the show’s dynamic to have Rachel chase him instead of Josh might have felt less inspired than what they have ultimately chosen to do.

Vincent Rodriguez III with Rachel Bloom. (Photo by Greg Gayne)

I hesitate to call the other complication introduced by the renewal of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend a problem, because in some respects it offers the tantalizing prospect of a TV show tackling relatively neglected subject matter, namely the dynamics of friendships between women. One of the running themes of the first season was the damage wrought by Rebecca’s inability to define herself as anything other than a woman who was in love with either Josh or Greg, depending on the circumstances. Now, with a new season before them, the show’s creators are actually trying to delve into how Rebecca’s relationships with other women define her. Recent episodes have seen the emergence of a widening gulf between Rebecca and her older confidante, Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin). At the same time, the writers have contrived to bring the underdeveloped Heather (Vella Lovell), Rebecca’s neighbor, into a more central role. They’ve also rethought Rebecca’s relationship with her former nemesis Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz), Josh’s longtime girlfriend.

I’m still waiting to see how this new (or at least more pronounced) thematic element plays out. In many respects, Season 2 of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend feels like, if not quite a different show entirely, more of a sequel rather than a continuation of the previous one. In addition to refocusing on female friendships, it features an entirely new title sequence, replacing the animated recounting of Rebecca’s origin story from last season with a more traditional-looking Busby Berkeley-esque musical number. Speaking of musical numbers, they’re still frequently fantastic, especially one called “The Math of Love Triangles” in episode 3 that might be the apotheosis of the show’s ability to play wittily off a variety of specific musical genres and tropes. (In this case, Bloom goes full-on Marilyn Monroe, toying with the conventions of some that actress’s classic musical numbers.) Fontana also gets a fantastic send-off in the hilarious and very crude “We Tapped That Ass,” which uses the song’s title as a cue to give him and Rodriguez (who’s a much more accomplished dancer) the chance to tap-dance all over the show’s set. If some of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s strongest elements remain intact, there are still a few potential warning signs for what lies ahead. The show’s always been self-conscious to a fault, and at times its songs threatened to collapse because of the writers’ seemingly constant need to acknowledge what they were doing with a particular number while in the midst of actually doing it. That tendency’s still there, although it’s noticeably reduced.

More troubling is the show’s difficulty in pulling Rebecca out of a cycle in which she behaves selfishly towards those around her. I’m hardly a proponent of the idea that characters must be likeable in order for us to invest in them, and indeed one of the great pleasures of the first season was seeing that Rebecca was hardly the sort of uncomplicated lead character for whom one could root without reservations. However, her lack of consideration for others (for instance, she’s even more blatantly uninterested in Paula’s mounting problems, and at one point she effectively kidnaps Valencia in order to force her to reconcile their past differences) is starting to veer into the sort of territory occupied by characters like Hannah Horvath, the often loathsome main character played by Lena Dunham on HBO’s Girls. Television veteran Ken Levine made the point a few years ago in a series of blog posts about both Girls and the later seasons of Mad Men that, while television has made the wise decision in recent decades to move away from championing characters who are unambiguously good, there is now a tendency among some writers to push their characters into behavior that’s so ugly and difficult to sympathize with that it almost seems as though we’re being dared not to like them. It’s hard to see what that accomplishes other than alienating an audience, and I hope it’s not where Rebecca’s headed on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. To take it there would be to introduce a distinctly off-key note into what’s otherwise been a remarkably well-orchestrated show thus far.

– Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for HowlRound and WBUR's Cognoscentipage. He also tweets about theatre history at@theaterhistory.

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