Brow Beat

This Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Song Takes a Sledgehammer to the Fourth Wall, With Delightful Results

Rachel Bloom, as Rebecca Bunch, looks directly into the camera
It’s a (wise) reprise.
Still via YouTube

“Oh, Nathaniel, It’s On!” is the third episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend in a row to have Nathaniel’s name in the title, so let’s talk about West Covina’s most cutthroat lawyer, played by Scott Michael Foster. He joined the cast in the middle of Season 2, upending Rebecca’s professional and personal life, and since then, we’ve gotten to know him pretty well. Sure, Nathaniel still has his arrogant or ruthless moments, but he’s also way more sympathetic now that we’ve seen him poop his pants and ugly-cry his way through a Magic Mike routine. His coworkers agree—which is bad news for Rebecca, who is feuding with Nathaniel after their breakup last week.

In “Oh, Nathaniel, It’s On!” Rebecca needs to convince the rest of the office (and by extension, us, the audience) to be on her side, which she does by appealing to their (and our) initial suspicions of him as a character.

It’s a reprise! And a welcome one. Nathaniel’s introduction to the show was marked with “Who’s the New Guy?”, in which the Whitefeather employees wondered aloud about their new boss in song, asking “Who’s this new character?” and “Will he be here forever or just for two or three episodes?” It was a very meta, and thus very Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, way to introduce a new character into the mix, by outright acknowledging that this is a television show and that its audience has certain expectations when that show brings in a new person.

But in “Who’s the New Guy,” every lyric that chips away at the fourth wall (“Is this some desperate move to help our ratings?) is quickly followed by another that spackles over the crack: “I mean, he’s such a character,” “I mean, Karen’s manic episodes,” “You mean our terrible legal ratings,” etc. The songwriters are like a team of extra-diegetic contractors, in one breath assuring us that our concerns have been noted, in the next winkingly pulling us back into the narrative.

Rebecca’s reprise of the song, “He’s the New Guy,” is extremely similar, except that it’s sung pretty much entirely by Rebecca, who tries to manipulate her colleagues into taking her side by reminding them of their earlier prejudices against Nathaniel. The puns are aplenty in Rebecca’s version—Foster’s promotion to “season regular,” for instance, is explained away as “I mean he eats bran in the spring”—but there are some theater and television terms that don’t have a secondary, everyday meaning, and that’s where “He’s the New Guy” takes things a step further, as Rebecca struggles to find an appropriate explanation for explicitly describing the nature of her song:

He’s an evil sociopath

Who’s tricked you into liking him

Why else do you think that

I’m singing this reprise?

And by singing this reprise I mean …

Whatever, just don’t think about it.

In that brief moment in which Rebecca looks into the camera, we’ve reached a whole new level of meta in a song that’s already incredibly self-aware, because it’s impossible to tell whether we’re supposed to believe Rebecca Bunch is still the one singing or if it’s Rachel Bloom stepping away from the narrative to acknowledge that, hey, songwriting ain’t always easy! It’s the difference between making another crack in the fourth wall and simply razing it to the ground entirely.

Foster gets to sing in this episode too, which only seems fair, considering what a major role he’s playing this season. He’s had a lot more opportunities to stretch his vocal cords lately, which is great, although when it comes to Nathaniel songs I could do with a few more “Fit Hot Guys”es and fewer “I Go to the Zoo”s. The genre for his new duet with Rebecca is perfect, under the circumstances: Nathaniel and Rebecca have broken things off and Nathaniel is seeing someone new, but they’re clearly not over each other. In short, they both have a lot of barely repressed anger, and what better way to release it than with a tango?

The two litigators are literally facing off in court for control of their firm, but psychologically, they’re on a foggy Argentinian street, threatening to tear each other limb from limb “and put your limbs all over my limbs.” Thus they join the grand musical tradition of channeling sexually charged frustration and hurt into the art of the tango (see also: Chicago’s “Cell Block Tango,” Rent’s “Tango: Maureen,” Moulin Rouge’s tango-flavored Roxanne”).

This is one of the best routines so far from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s choreographer, Kathryn Burns, which is saying something, considering she’s thrown together big Bollywood numbers, ballet routines, and Fred-and-Ginger style choreo for the show in the past. The subject matter lets her get creative with the “horizontal tango” portion of the song, and she even found an ingeniously simple solution to the 11-inch height difference between her two dancers by sticking Bloom on a platform.

But as fun and surreal as the song is, we’ve seen it already from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, with Season 2’s “Let’s Have Intercourse,” another song with a very literal title that’s about two people—the same two people, no less—who can’t stand each other but who still share a deep attraction. Sure, this one benefits from Rebecca and Nathaniel’s now much richer history together, but the two songs do have a lot in common, right down to self-contained music videos dominated by gorgeous, frequently funny dance routines in unexpected locales: “Let’s Have Intercourse” teleports its horndogs to a grand ballroom, even though they’re actually stuck in an elevator; “Horny Sexy Tango” moves the action from a court of law to the aforementioned dimly lit street.

All in all, both songs this week are very familiar, though one is obviously a much more overt callback than the other. If this were any other show, that, plus the mounting in-jokes in every episode, might make me worry that it’s starting to run out of ideas. Fortunately, this is Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a very smart, daring show that isn’t afraid to take big risks, so it gets the benefit of the doubt. Plus, it’s hard to blame the writers for repeating themselves when what’s come before is so darn good.

Best Song of the Week: This isn’t “Best Dance of the Week,” so I’ll choose “He’s the New Guy,” though it’s frustrating that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend hasn’t adopted a standard pronunciation of reprise. Re-prize? Re-preez? Make up your minds!

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