Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Third Season Broke New Ground

Too bad its strides were outnumbered by its stumbles.

Scott Michael Foster and Rachel Bloom in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
Scott Michael Foster and Rachel Bloom in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
The CW

The third season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, like the two before it, inspired a spate of think pieces—and understandably so. The CW musical-comedy series, which wraps up (perhaps, given its perennially low ratings, for good) Friday, went dark and diagnostic this season, taking its antiheroine, Rebecca, through a suicide attempt, a rocky recovery, and a new psychiatric diagnosis. It’s made for periodically bracing television—but also a season that’s felt more admirable than enjoyable. Not all the think piece–able material worked as dramatic fiction, while plenty of the remainder illustrated the show’s now-glaring weaknesses.

It’s a truism in TV criticism that many series peak in Season 3: The cast has had time to gel, the writers know how to write to the performers’ strengths, and the characters have developed enough of a history to satisfyingly challenge their preordained types. But the creative team behind Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has in large part thrown its actor-singers into new challenges—to the show’s detriment. Longtime scene partnerships have been rent in twain. Attempts at musical novelty have sunk like stones. Creative misfires abound, from Rachel Bloom’s acting faltering in more dramatic scenes to the season’s utterly forgettable crop of new songs. The less said about Vincent Rodriguez III’s British accent, the better.

Naturally, I blame Josh Chan. Or rather, the fault seems to stem from the writers’ decision to have Rebecca move on from Josh, the teenage crush she moved to West Covina, California, to pursue. It was an inevitable development, but the storylines have felt repetitive and unmoored since, especially when it came to the sudden bloat of wacky secondary characters and the will-they-or-won’t-they pairing of Rebecca and Nathaniel. The attempt to fashion compelling scenes from therapy workbooks and abrupt revelations about their childhoods was an ambitious gambit, but one that ultimately added to the season’s stale sitcomminess.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, I’d argue, has three fantastic characters in Rebecca, Paula, and Josh—but eight series regulars, as of this year. With Josh exiled from Rebecca’s life after their aborted wedding in the Season 2 finale, the series has visibly struggled to make its ballooning cast relevant. That strained exertion led to the season’s worst storyline by far: Rebecca donating an egg to Darryl, the fertilized version of which got implanted in Heather’s uterus, because volunteering one’s unused womb is just a thing women straight out of college do sometimes! The plot was rushed by an eight-month jump, leaving no time for the show’s protagonist to consider what it might mean for her to become a biological mother, let alone to the child of her former boss and current employee.

There are a lot of other character developments I could use to exemplify this season’s inflation, in which Crazy Ex-Girlfriend seemed to compensate for the waning quality of its characters by increasing their quantity. Valencia’s bisexuality was introduced with zero explanation, the trio of quirky irritants at Whitefeather & Associates never stopped grating, and Rebecca’s girl gang came off as a paean to female friendship that never explained why Rebecca, Paula, Valencia, and Heather would be friends. But the character most mangled by the writers was Josh, who’s barely afforded a moment of rage in the season finale upon learning that Rebecca and Nathaniel had plotted to have his father deported(!) and his grandfather murdered(!!) as payback for leaving Bunch at the altar. That Rebecca also convinced a blogger to publish a series of lies about him, alienating him from his friends, seemed to have been totally forgotten. Instead, the affable bro thanks Rebecca for making him want more from life. Josh Chan, consider yourself destroyed. As a character.

Josh was replaced by Nathaniel as Rebecca’s love interest this season, despite the fact that the high-powered WASP represents everything she fled Manhattan to get away from. Like Josh and the unhinged, obsessive Trent, neurotic Nathaniel was a great male foil to Rebecca, with his own daddy issues and bubble of privilege. Yes, he went to the zoo, but unlike Josh, Nathaniel never became a character who resonated beyond his co-dependent relationship with Rebecca. We never really learned why he became so devoted to her, which made the approximately 267 times that he and Rebecca broke up and got back together over 13 episodes feel more like whiplash than a romance. It doesn’t help that Nathaniel got stuck with the season’s musical nadirs, the above ode to menageries as medication and (ugh) “Fit Hot Guys Have Problems Too.”

Some of the obstacles between Rebecca and Nathaniel getting together felt natural, like Nathaniel being put off by Rebecca during her downward spiral or Rebecca ending their secret affair after meeting his girlfriend and feeling guilty about being the other woman. But some of the other gaps in their courtship felt more like illustrations of a checklist in a clinical textbook: Is the patient ready for physical intimacy? Is the patient prepared for emotionally volatile situations? I have no doubt that these are very real quandaries that psychiatric patients face. It’s important, I’m sure, that viewers struggling with mental illness have a series that they can recognize themselves in.

But many of the post–suicide-attempt chapters have felt like Very Special Episodes, with Rebecca explaining to Valencia why she can’t promise that she won’t kill herself again, or why posting inspirational posts on social media isn’t helpful to the recovering. The therapy scenes between Rebecca and the authoritative Dr. Shin have the overeager air of those hoary conversations between a sitcom protagonist and a wise elder. The attempts to mimic therapeutic breakthroughs, too, have simply felt like bad writing, as when Nathaniel suddenly realizes that his mother tried to kill herself when he was a kid or when Rebecca reveals out of nowhere that she’s afraid that her newly diagnosed borderline personality disorder dooms her to a premature death. This being a show based in musical theater, I’m used to characters blurting out how they feel. Still, spontaneously unearthed childhood traumas and unthinkably horrifying existential fears presented at such precipitous rates feel like the flashbacks at the end of a bad movie that explain everything yet gratify no one.

That Crazy Ex-Girlfriend takes its responsibility to portray recovery so fastidiously is noble. But as this season exemplifies, that honorableness doesn’t always translate to narrative satisfaction, especially when coupled with other storytelling deficits. I’m glad the show has given us so much to talk about. I just wish it gave me also a few songs—or a supporting character whose arc made sense—while being so damn smart and considerate.