The burst of mediocrity that is the fall TV season is winding down, like a passing meteor shower of gigantic, gooberish rubber cement balls. And just as we are preparing to cast our eyes back to Earth, having nothing to show for our curiosity but a crick in the neck and a DVR full of shows we will never watch, here it comes, streaking across the sky: something shiny, something strange, something possibly wonderful, something … singing?
The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a musical comedy-drama, is exactly the sort of show that #peaktv is supposed to provide. Peak TV is the era of too much television, allegedly anyway. The past is littered with good shows that were canceled too soon. Think of prematurely murdered classics like My So-Called Life, Freaks and Geeks, Wonderfalls, Terriers, Veronica Mars, Firefly, and even Lone Star, a show cut down so swiftly, it didn’t have time to become great (or not). Meanwhile, the present is brimming with good shows that would have been canceled sooner—in the past: Community, The Mindy Project, Parks and Recreation, Cougar Town, Hannibal, Happy Endings, Friday Night Lights, the just renewed Halt and Catch Fire, even Enlightened (three seasons is not nothing!) to name a few, as well as The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which, in a pre-Netflix era, wouldn’t have existed at all.
It is true that good shows still get canceled because they can’t find an audience. That has always happened. It will always happen. Now more people are paying attention, scouring cancellations like they are the Craigslist missed connections board. Charming Talky Screwball Dramedy Where Nothing Much Happens seeking the women on the couch who just flipped right by. Hilarious Family Comedy with Awful Title seeking family that never even turned it on. Sweet but Maybe Dull Gay Not Quite Comedy ready to settle down with couple who dismissed it after reading too many think pieces about it. But the odds are much better than they have ever been that the show you and hundreds of thousands of other people love will get to keep on keeping on for a few seasons, on some platform, even if it is not as many seasons as you would like. (“Forever” is not a realistic number of seasons.)
Peak TV is a glass half-full, glass half-empty situation. From the perspective of networks, all this TV is understandably a cause for pessimism: They can’t reliably attract the attention of people who might otherwise love their shows and, in turn, they can’t charge advertisers as much as if they could. Ratings are down, buzz is stretched thin. From the perspective of audiences, there is so much good stuff that you can’t reasonably watch all of it. This is not a problem. Networks are the ones seeking the connection, and like the guy who can’t get the pretty girl who inadvertently smiled at him on the train to write him back, they are bummed. But the woman flipping by Bunheads, the family ignoring Trophy Wife, the couple who has no time for Looking? They aren’t missing anything. They are already happily ensconced with other TV shows.
From the point of view of audiences, as well as television itself, there’s even better news. Ideas and pilots that never would have been made into full-fledged TV shows in the past, are now being made into full-fledged TV shows. Shows that once would have been deemed too odd or niche or female or diverse are airing. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is exactly such a show. It was developed for Showtime by screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada) and YouTuber Rachel Bloom, who is also its star. Showtime passed.* The show then found its way to The CW, which was looking for something excellent and distinct to pair with its excellent and distinct Jane the Virgin. And thus, a charming, ambitious, utterly singular show about a slightly nuts, but loveable woman who regularly breaks into song has made it onto TV.
Bloom stars as Rebecca Bunch, who we first meet in 2005, at a summer theater program, not letting her boyfriend Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), get a word in edge-wise. Josh breaks up with her shortly afterward, noting not incorrectly that Rebecca is “really dramatic and weird.” This breakup irrevocably alters Rebecca’s life: She quits acting and becomes a lawyer. When the show picks up in the present, she is a very successful associate on the verge of making partner. She is miserable. A chance encounter with Josh causes her to reconsider her whole life: When was the last time she was truly happy? In short order, she quits her job and breaks out into joyous song as she picks up her whole life and moves out to West Covina, California—two hours from the beach, four in traffic—because that’s where Josh is.
The title Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a bit of a red flag. Previous attempts to reclaim rude terms about women in the titles of TV shows have not gone swimmingly (see the aforementioned Cougar Town and Trophy Wife). But Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is not just how Josh Chan might see Rebecca (if he ever sees her; she can’t get a hold of him for the rest of the pilot) but how Rebecca occasionally sees herself. The lyrics to the opening song find Rebecca narrating her move while persuading and unpersuading herself that what she is doing is insane. She knows moving across the country for a guy who barely knows she exists (and who, to judge from all the talking she let him do, she barely knows) is crazy, and so reassures herself that’s not exactly what she’s doing. “I didn’t move here for Josh,” she sings, “I did it for a change. Moving here for Josh, that would be strange.” Meanwhile, she’s tossing her pills in the sink, visiting strip clubs, and acknowledging that she might be having a nervous breakdown. She’s too smart, too curious to quite convince herself that what she’s doing is wise.
This description makes Rebecca sound like a very contemporary unlikable protagonist. In fact, she is a classic likable protagonist. TV heroines, from Lucy Ricardo to Rachel Green, have been flawed and particular. (Lucy screws everything up every episode; Rachel is, in the not-inaccurate but harsh judgment of her true love Ross, a little “ditzy.”) The new move of contemporary comedies featuring so-called “unlikable” female protagonists like Hannah Horvath, Mindy Lahiri, and Amy Jellicoe is not so much to make these women more difficult than female characters in the past—though it is a little of that—but to deliver them to audiences without a neutering shellac of familiar charm. These shows want you to react to their protagonists in a new way, and to mine that fresh dynamic for a more uncomfortable, original kind of comedy. Rebecca in almost every way checks the “unlikable” female protagonist box. She’s nuts, needy, presumptuous, and she doesn’t listen when other people talk. And yet the show encourages you to love her and all her flaws, not to recoil at them.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, like any good musical, celebrates huge, outsized emotions, including joy. Bloom has deep, deep wells of antic charisma and she puts them to use, not only on the audience, but on the show’s other characters. Over the course of the pilot, she wins over Greg (Santino Fontana), a friend of Josh’s who Rebecca awkwardly mistreats and makes out with, but who is intrigued by Rebecca anyway, and Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin), a paralegal she first mistakes for her assistant. Paula doesn’t buy Rebecca’s story: Why would anyone who went to Harvard and Yale leave New York City and half a million dollars for a job in West Covina? But once Paula finds out that Rebecca did it for love, she commits to being Rebecca’s new best friend, a relationship the two cement by breaking, together, into song: They share a euphoric, hopeful kind of nuttiness.
I have no idea how the writers of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are going to make three episodes, let alone the potential 22 a network show is expected to offer. Each episode contains two or three musical numbers, complete with dance routines. The second song in the pilot is a riff on a sultry pop song, and is called the “Sexy Getting Ready Song.” In it, Rebecca narrates all the primping—waxing, tweezing, painting— she is doing to get ready, while dancing in her Spanx with scantily clad models. The song has a rap breakdown, in which the rapper stops mid flow, looks around at Rebecca’s grooming implements and says, “this is some nasty ass patriarchal bullshit.”
Just as much attention has been paid to the very funny dialogue as it has to the musical numbers. Rebecca has a high-wire conversation with her new boss Darryl (Pete Gardner) in which he asks her to be his divorce lawyer, because his wife already has “one of those real smart Jewish guys.” When Rebecca says she’s also Jewish, Darryl, with the best of intentions remarks, “Her Jew went to CSU Long Beach! My Jew went to Yale!” Darryl, like everyone else on this show, is also a little crazy. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend will, obviously, not be to everyone’s taste. It is, after all, a musical. But that’s what we can only hope this TV moment is really about: excellent shows for every taste. If this is peak TV, let’s stay on the mountaintop.
Correction, Oct. 9, 2015: This article originally misidentified Aline Brosh McKenna
as Aline McKenna Brosh. (Return.)