There aren’t enough female anti-heroes on television. Television shows that explore anti-heroic characters always, such is the way of life it seems, aim to explore complex behaviours through the prism of a male character
That’s not to take anything away from The Sopranos, Mad Men and especially Breaking Bad; they are regarded as classic slices of television for good reasons (and of those three shows, Breaking Bad had a perfect run that never faltered, unlike the other two where the wheels came off at some point towards the end).
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend filters its point of view of anti-heroic behaviour through a lead female character and then tends to subvert your expectations at every turn because by the time we get to the end of its perfect four season run, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend reveals itself to have really been about something else the entire time.
Essentially a musical comedy, filled with zany humour and creative musical numbers, the series tells the story of Rebecca Bunch, a star making performance from Rachel Bloom who co-created the series with showrunner Aline Brosh McKenna, meaning that the story here is one told very much by women. This being a CW show means that both Bloom and McKenna aren’t going to be regarded as television auteurs in the manner of say a Weiner or a Chase, but they really should because there is a level of ingenuity to proceedings here that made Crazy Ex-Girlfriend a constant work of genius over its four year run.
Originally conceived as a project for Showtime, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend ended up airing on The CW, and gained an international audience by being distributed by Netflix. Of course, The CW and Showtime are polar opposites in terms of their programming; Showtime being a premium cable channel that has given audience dark subject matter filled with violence (Dexter, another anti-hero show) and explicit sexual content (Californication), while The CW is the home of superhero shows such as Arrow, as well as being the home of teen dramas such as One Tree Hill.
Yet, sometimes the more restrictive nature of a network television platform allowed Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to be more creative in terms of innuendo and sexual frankness.
We follow Rebecca as she, on a whim after meeting an ex-boyfriend, ditches her top law firm job in New York and relocates to California, specifically West Covina, taking a job at a smaller firm and infiltrating every aspect of her ex’s life to dramatic effect, while the subconscious thoughts of both her and the rest of the cast are reflected through brilliantly written and composed songs, many of which were produced by the late, great Adam Schlesinger.
The genius of the series lies not just simply in the musical numbers, but also in how the series explores story telling tropes in an increasingly clever manner; romantic comedies, anti-hero narratives, stalker thrillers and stigmas regarding mental illness all get explored to an incredible degree.
Instead of doubling down on Rebecca’s behaviour as the series goes on, when her behaviour reaches a dramatic peak and a point of no return in the superb ‘Swimchan’, a brilliant pastiche of films such as Swimfan and Fatal Attraction, the series switches gears into something more profound, all without sacrificing the anarchic tone that it had established.
Suffice to say there will be no spoilers here, but McKenna and her writers turn the series into something more profound in the second half of its run, becoming something that actually explores not only Rebecca but questions the entire nature of a character like her (it would make for a wonderful double bill with Bojack Horseman, even if it never goes just as far into the realm of dark as that show).
It’s backed by a wonderful supporting cast who all make their own mark and each get their own musical numbers, all of which border on the genius and hilarious, while the series having to recast one key actor in the latter stages of the show is actually commented on by the characters themselves.
It builds to a satisfying finale that subverts your expectations, but gives you what you want without ever realising that it was what you wanted the whole time. It leaves something important unsaid, or unsung in this case. It’s a lovely way to end the series, but it also gets to the heart of the unpredictable nature of the series.
Every time you have a lock on where the narrative is going, its veers left, makes you question how much you sympathise for the lead character, before giving you a legitimate reason for not only sympathising for her, but also, to an extent, justifying elements of her behaviour.
It ends up leaving you realising just how different an approach to the anti-hero show a female writer can bring. Most male led shows simply want to get into the gutter and enjoy those increasingly dark antics, but Crazy Ex-Girlfriend dares to have you question how much you want to be sympathetic to her even if with the fun musical numbers, and then gives you a valid reason for it, culminating in a genuinely upsetting scene in season three that gives the show a whole new direction to devote itself to.
Airing on The CW might have been the biggest benefit to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; in an era of the Arrowverse which has given the network a considerable large commercial success, Rebecca’s story was never the biggest ratings success, but it was critically acclaimed and won itself a devoted cult following and because of that, the series got to run for four complete seasons with a beginning, middle and end.
Word of warning should you ever watch it; those theme songs will be stuck in your head for a long time.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is available on Netflix in the UK and the US.