TV

Introducing ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’: A New Musical Comedy You’ll Actually Love

It's Kimmy Schmidt meets Glee (but with better jokes).

In a way, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the new TV series created by and starring YouTube performer Rachel Bloom, is a tough sell. In it, Bloom plays Rebecca Bunch: a successful, highly neurotic New York lawyer. On the day Rebecca is made a partner at her top-tier firm she runs into Josh Chan, her erstwhile teenage fling from summer camp. Josh tells Rebecca he’s moving home to suburban West Covina, California (“only two hours from the beach!”) and he seems so happy — and Rebecca is so clearly miserable — that she makes a pretty rash decision: she quits her job, jumps on a plane and follows Josh to West Covina. It’s a weird premise; a bizarre mix of JJ Abrams’ late-‘90s college soap Felicity and beloved ABC drama SeaChange.

And how do we find all this out? Through song. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a TV musical.

STAY WITH US. A Walk Through TV’s Chequered Musical Past

Perhaps the most maligned TV musical in recent years has been NBC’s aptly-named trainwreck Smash which was so horrendous it helped coin the phrase hate-watch.

True.

A frustrating, tonally-inconsistent nightmare, Smash, which starred a constantly scarf-draped Debra Messing, charted the production of Bombshell (a Marilyn Munroe musical) and the battle between its two wannabe Marilyns: Karen (the tepid, nauseating American Idol finalist Katherine McPhee) and Ivy (wonderful Broadway vet Megan Hilty). Vexingly, while the show was a mess, the original music, from Bombshell and the show’s second-season Rent wannabe, Hit List, was fantastic. (Good enough, in fact, that a proto-Bombshell was staged for one night only on Broadway.) In spite of its killer score, Smash bombed out, ending its car-crash run after just two beleaguered seasons.

Then again, at least Smash got two seasons; remember Viva Laughlin, the 2007 Hugh Jackman-vehicle that was cancelled in Australia after just one episode? No, you don’t.

Perhaps the most successful TV musical was Ryan Murphy’s saccharine, sardonic, wackadoo Glee, where high-schoolers used covers of pop songs and show tunes to work through their issues. A grab-bag of genres and ideas, the show had an incredibly short attention span and an enduring trash/treasure sensibility. Glee derailed spectacularly in later seasons (as camp king creator Ryan Murphy was diverted by other projects), but the series had a brilliant first run and remains incredibly beloved in spite of its latter missteps.

In a post-Glee world, it’s no surprise that there is a musical TV show for nearly every kind of music lover. Plot-chewing soap opera Empire, about a hip-hop icon’s record-label empire (named Empire Entertainment, natch), showcases radio-ready hip-hop and R&B hits. Soap opera Nashville features catchy country music. Last year the ABC, in a co-production with Opera Australia, premiered The Divorce, a television opera that felt more like a light-hearted musical. And medieval-set Galavant is packed with self-reflexive show tunes written by Alan Menken, who is best known for his work on all your favourite Disney scores.

Now in its second season in the US, Galavant is a scrappy yet endearing fairy-tale comedy featuring no notable stars (but plenty of well-known guest performers, including Ricky Gervais and Weird Al Yankovic). Galavant owes a great debt to the comedy of Mel Brooks and Monty Python; however, it feels ultimately forgettable, and, compared with Empire, has a low music hit-rate. But Galavant also has a distinctive self-reflexiveness reminiscent of the beloved metacomedy Community, mocking its own musical tropes with a giant, hammy wink.

Through all this, there’s still a big focus on the music too. Featuring a Top 40-ready soundtrack and a screen-shredding performance by the great Taraji P Henson, Empire is a multiplatform success that dominates the music charts as well as the TV ratings; its cast recording debuted at No.1 on the Billboard 200 in March last year. Glee also made it big on the Billboard charts; during its run the cast became the No. 8 digital artist of all time. The original Timbaland-produced songs on Empire are generally excellent, especially those performed by the immensely talented Jussie Smollett and Bryshere Y. Gray, better known as the rapper Yazz the Greatest, who bestowed on us the gratingly catchy ‘Drip Drop’.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which is both a zany one-hour comedy and an accomplished musical, feels like a hybrid of all the best elements from TV musicals past and present. Bloom and her co-creator, screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada) have cherry-picked; blending the best bits of those shows with the bonkers sensibility of Bloom’s YouTube channel. The result is both jaw-dropping and intoxicating.

The Bizarre Brilliance Of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend certainly is unusual; from its contentious name right down to its bubbly, bizarre heroine, there’s a lot more to get your head around, even in the pilot, than just a couple of wacky song-and-dance numbers. When Rebecca arrives in West Covina it’s like a stone dropping in a still pond. Her mother (multi-Tony-award-winner Tovah Feldshuh) is incensed; her new co-workers at the strip mall law firm she hastily joins are suspicious of her gold-star resume; and Josh and his friends (including his stunning yoga instructor girlfriend, Valencia) are intrigued, perplexed and perhaps slightly terrified by bombastic Rebecca’s arrival.

As Rebecca stalks Josh around West Covina, trying to ‘casually’ bump into him, she meets Greg (Broadway/Frozen star Santino Fontana): Josh’s acerbic, charming best friend. Greg warms to Rebecca, and spawns probably the only stalker-based love quadrangle on TV. (Although, as Rebecca would insist, “It’s more nuanced than that”.) The show has a lot to say about how love, “the only socially acceptable form of insanity”, can make you crazy. And the singing, Bloom has confirmed, happens in Rebecca’s head; when other characters take the mic they’re merely “infected by Rebecca’s madness”. And, as in the best musicals, the songs in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are absolutely integral to both story and character.

Initially Greg doesn’t have much luck wooing Rebecca and the closest he comes is in a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers-style song, ‘Settle For Me’. “So won’t you settle for me / Come on and settle for me / Say yes or no / Before I choke on all this swallowed pride!“, Fontana warbles while Rebecca twirls in her 1930s gown, more interested in the dress than the serenade.

The song, dripping with self-loathing, uses an old-fashioned sensibility to reinforce that Greg is the daggier, safer option. In comparison, Rebecca sees Josh as a dreamy pop star — or, rather, four, in the song ‘A Boy Band Made Up of Four Joshes’. Rebecca’s mother is introduced in a glorious rapid-fire nag-fest, ‘Where’s The Bathroom?’. Paralegal Paula, who begins the pilot as Rebecca’s nemesis and ends it as her ally, shares with Rebecca a single, sometimes scary mindset. By the end of the first episode they are already singing in harmony.

Rebecca is at her darkest and most daring in the songs. Facing the prospect of a Tinder one-night-stand, she sings a sultry number with the tag “please don’t be a murderer”. In ‘Feeling Kinda Naughty’, an ‘I Kissed A Girl’ redux, Rebecca vents some of her single-white-female angst about Valencia, Josh’s gorgeous girlfriend: “I wanna kill you and wear your skin like a dress / But then also have you see me in the dress / And be like, ‘OMG, you look so cute in my skin!’’. It’s some twisted wish-fulfilment stuff — and no doubt how we would all behave in the musical inside our heads.

Bloom is a brilliant, uncompromising performer — her Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical is well deserved. She uses her body (which is curvy in a way that most television stars aren’t) alternately for slapstick and seduction. She is radiant when the story requires it, but she often looks as genuinely unkempt as you or I would on a quiet night in — shuffling around her local supermarket, braless, with make-up smudged under her eyes. (“Bras are in aisle one,” jokes Greg when he spots her.) She’s a refreshing lead; just like the show, Bloom is unlike anything else on TV.

Tonally, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend can feel a lot like Glee — a bright, sunny disposition with an undercurrent of acidity — but it’s often closer to the nihilistic filth of sitcom Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Rebecca’s boss, Darryl, when trying to explain to Rebecca about his relationship with his ten-year-old daughter, gets caught up in uncomfortable statements like, “I’m very careful where I tickle my daughter / Never inappropriately” and “One day she’ll fall in love and I’ll give her away / Not like I ever had her what a weird thing to say”. The song, called ‘I Love My Daughter (But Not In A Creepy Way)’, is set to a sweet country ballad.

Many of the songs, like those in Galavant, also have a sharp self-reflexivity to them. As Rebecca prepares for a date, she sings ‘The Sexy Getting Ready Song’, a la Beyonce’s ‘Partition’, where she is seen plucking, pruning and stuffing herself into shapewear in an incredibly unsexy manner.

As with Empire and Smash, the series has a strong foundation of musicality. Bloom’s songs, which she writes with Adam Schlesinger and Jerome Kurtenbach, are clever and catchy, packed with metareferences and often performed by credentialed Broadway stars. (Now that Smash is gone, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend could become the new TV home for jobless Broadway performers). But unlike Smash, the music in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is not a crutch for an otherwise lukewarm story. The show is crunchy and irresistible; it’s cringe comedy in the style of Larry David, or the better, earlier days of Ricky Gervais.

It’s too early to tell how successful Crazy Ex-Girlfriend will be; after its first eight episodes debuted to unspectacular ratings in the US, critics have lined up to extoll the show’s virtues. What’s certain is that Bloom’s oddball series is a meeting of minds for television and the musical. It’s a revisionist entry to the genre that both corrects the faults of its predecessors and adds value to the TV musical legacy.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend premieres on Eleven tonight.

Matilda Dixon-Smith is a freelance writer, editor and theatre-maker, and a card-carrying feminist. She also tweets intermittently and with very little skill from @mdixonsmith.