Watching the final episode of CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend yesterday evening, I felt an overwhelming surge of emotion and affection for the show, its characters, and its ground-breaking approach to complex issues. The finale did exactly what a good finale should, the Eleven O'Clock number the perfect emotional turning point to herald the end of the series. The finale gave the stories of key characters satisfying conclusions and, fittingly, the end marked a beginning for Rebecca Bunch, whose story is central to the series. It didn’t throw any last-minute curve-balls and it felt narratively consistent with Rebecca’s journey in the final season.
I decided to return to the first episode after finishing the last, and it heightened my sense that the series did a terrific job coming full circle. It gave us an ending that offered substantial character growth and enough open endings to afford fans the freedom to imagine what might come next, without feeling incomplete. The series follows New York City lawyer Rebecca Bunch—played by series co-creator Rachel Bloom—as she embarks on a quest for true happiness, something she believes can be found in that crazy little thing called love. If you're after the too long; don't read version, the first season’s catchy and cartoonish Theme provides a handy overview as well as offering an early example of the show’s meta strategies and tongue-in-cheek willingness to poke fun at itself and its characters.
From the opening scenes Rebecca’s mental and emotional tumult is clear. As a teenager she makes a flippant joke about telling her father she wanted to commit suicide, which foreshadows some of the third season's darkest moments, as well as giving an early indication of Rebecca's deeply complex relationship with both her mother and father. There's more foreshadowing of Rebecca's most painful moments when the viewer first encounters her as an adult, with a half-drunk bottle of wine on the bedside table next to bottles of meds. She lies in bed and listlessly clicks through tabs on her computer, including her online dating profile and articles about sleep deprivation and people who died during sex, as an advertisement on the television asks when she was last truly happy.
Establishing the quest for happiness is a key feature of the first episode, and it is made clear to the viewer that Rebecca’s current life is making her miserable. The first indication that the series is going to push genre expectations beyond the realm of romantic comedy comes when Rebecca spirals, having just discovered she’s about to be offered partnership at her fancy New York City law firm. She flees the office and prays for guidance. Opening a bottle of medication which spills on the floor, she slides down the wall and struggles to control her panic as she repeats “this is what happiness feels like.” These early references to Rebecca’s struggles with mental health deftly set up what goes on to become a terrifically nuanced exploration of the subject that take Rebecca to dark and desperate places but also helps her heal.
A chance meeting with childhood sweetheart Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) casts him as the romantic lead and he becomes pivotal to Rebecca’s search for happiness. She leaves New York for Josh’s hometown West Covina, California, one of the better known songs of the series, but not one of its strongest. Rebecca’s story unfolds through song and dance and the series produces some early moments of humour with assured, witty confidence. It soon becomes clear however, that the series plans to disrupt narrative expectations and stray outside of familiar territory. It consistently interrogates and subverts storytelling cliché, most notably the tropes of romantic comedy, which is a reason why the first episode's opening number is so pitch perfect, beyond its stage-setting qualities. Ostensibly a tribute to West Covina, the SoCal location is the (not so) glossy veneer Rebecca hides behind, refusing to confront the true motivations behind her move or West Covina's possible failings as she sings “Josh just happens to live here.” Much like the interest in West Covina is artificially constructed by Rebecca to distract from her true interest, Josh, the centering of romantic potential and scenes like the 'sunbeam moment' in the first episode are lifted directly from romantic comedy convention, but just like West Covina, they are too are a veneer. Romance is not this story’s true motivation.
Donna Lynne Champlin who plays Rebecca’s partner in crime and best friend Paula is vocally one of the strongest cast members as demonstrated in Sondheim pastiche After Everything I’ve Done For You (That You Didn’t Ask For) and Rebecca's other besties Heather Davis (Vella Lovell) and Valencia Perez (Gabrielle Ruiz) also have some entertaining solos. As Josh Chan, Rodriguez has a few of the less memorable numbers, but he really shines in the Gene Kelly tribute I've Got My Head In The Clouds which showcases his terrific dancing capabilities and plays to his vocal strengths. Sarcastic bartender and erstwhile object of Rebecca's affections Greg Serrano, played by Santino Fontana, channels his disaffect through different musical genres. I struggled with the switch to Skyler Astin in the fourth season after Fontana left the show in the second. Astin plays the role well enough, but actor switches always jar with me and make it harder for me to connect with the character, particularly one as important to the fourth season as Greg. My disconnect probably hasn’t been helped by the fact some of my favourite songs of the series are Fontana’s, from the glorious Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers inspired Settle For Me to the superb It Was A Shit Show exploring the toxicity of Greg and Rebecca’s relationship with all the warmth, affection and humour that made them seem like such a good match initially—“darling let’s not tiptoe, this thing we had was not just bad, it was a shit show.” Fontana also had some fun solo numbers from the parody of Billy Joel’s 'Piano Man' What’ll It Be (Hey, West Covina) to the grungy I Could If I Wanted To which perfectly captured the character’s sense of lethargy and nihilism typically associated with that genre.
Together with Josh and Greg, who by the fourth season are vying for Rebecca’s attentions, the addition of Scott Michael Foster to the cast as mercenary corporate lawyer Nathaniel Plimpton III, introduced another possible suitor for Rebecca. Nathaniel enters the third season cocky, rich and ostensibly without any moral code. Although fans of the show were divided about his character, Nathaniel’s songs are some of my favourites of later seasons and his character arc led to a quick but satisfying shift in perspective that made him a far more empathetic and likeable addition. Foster really showcased his talents in the hilarious parody of Ed Sheeran’s ‘Thinking Out Loud’, Let’s Have Intercourse. In the song Nathaniel is as offensive as you would expect from his character, crooning “unfortunately I want to have sex with you” and suggesting “let’s super quickly have intercourse”, highlighting the often dubious lyrics written by male solo artists that are marketed as romantic declarations despite distinctly uncomplimentary undertones. Foster and Bloom have several numbers together which emphasise the sexual tension between Nathaniel and Rebecca, such as the Horny Angry Tango and the sexually charged, Chicago inspired Strip Away My Conscience, one of the most notable examples of the boundary pushing innuendo that became synonymous with the series. Foster’s hilarious I Go To The Zoo, a parody of Drake’s 'Hotline Bling' with its pop of colour and silhouettes of girls dancing was ridiculously catchy, and although a certain suspension of disbelief is required, Nathaniel, White Josh and Josh Chan performing Fit Hot Guys Have Problems Too as go-go dancers in a gay bar is a humorous 'Hot Problems' parody that deconstructs the male gaze while encouraging men to get in touch with their feels (shirtless).
The series has consistently worked to debunk stigma around mental health and encourages people not to struggle alone, or feel ashamed about taking medication. Through fan-favourite A Diagnosis, the series combines its typical blend of seriousness and wit, exploring how receiving a diagnosis can help people with mental health issues feel less alone, offering connections to people who also experience similar feelings. Michael Hyatt puts in a terrific turn as Rebecca’s therapist Dr Akopian and is a constantly supportive, if weary, confidant, as Rebecca’s journey to manage her struggles with mental health encounters numerous bumps along the way. This narrative disruption that results from Rebecca's tumult is a preoccupation of the series, as exemplified in The End of The Movie, the song that accompanies Rebecca’s breakdown. The number tells us that “life is a gradual series of revelations that occur over a series of time, it’s not some carefully crafted story it’s a mess and we’re all going to die.” Through a random cameo from American singer-songwriter Josh Groban, the song repeats what Rebecca has told us from the outset. Life doesn’t work like a movie, it doesn't make any more narrative sense than Groban's sudden appearance. In charting a life-like experience the series takes similarly unexpected twists and turns as Rebecca's story unfolds.
The finale was an ending befitting of Rebecca’s journey. The show has consistently reminded us we’re not alone through musical numbers like the brilliant No One Else Is Singing My Song, and simultaneously teaches us it’s okay, and sometimes necessary, to be on our own instead of expecting another person to make us whole. Through sharing her musical theatre inspired daydreaming with best friend Paula, Rebecca finally starts to understand what truly fulfils her. The series was never about finding romantic love. It was always a heart-warming, poignant and often dark journey of identity and self-discovery. It is fitting that the series doesn’t try to shoe-horn one of the many romantic possibilities into Rebecca’s happily ever after, but leaves several options open. The series which begins in pursuit of ‘the one’ ultimately concludes there’s no such thing, simply different paths that might be taken. It encourages women to be brave enough to leave toxic relationships behind and celebrates characters with strengths, flaws and heart, characters that make mistakes but are allowed the space to learn from them.
I’ll miss you, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Thank you for the music.