The current golden age of television has significantly expanded the representation of women as complex, realistic, contradiction-laden characters who can be strong and confident one moment, weak and sensitive the next. Many TV series, some of them created by women, draw critical acclaim and win prizes, but make do with low ratings. Comedies such as “Insecure,” “Better Things,” “Jane the Virgin” and “SMILF” are perceived, unjustly, as niche series that tell secrets about femininity, sexuality and careers-and-motherhood to a small audience that’s interested in the world of women.
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One of the smart, funny feminist protagonists hardly anyone watches is Rebecca Bunch (played by the comic and YouTube personality Rachel Bloom), a lawyer whose search for happiness is at the heart of the comedy “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” The series, which has about half a million viewers per episode, was somehow saved from cancellation and renewed for a third season, now being broadcast. Those who have stayed with her until now have had the privilege of taking part in a romantic, personal journey studded with wild moments, which generates empathy and is quite captivating.
The series opens with Rebecca employed as a successful lawyer in a New York firm and in line for promotion. She seems to be fulfilling herself in a coveted job with a prestigious image and a pampering salary. She is also a source of satisfaction to her mother (Tova Feldshuh), who, in line with every Jewish-mother cliché, pressured her from an early age and steered her toward medicine or law. But beneath the successful exterior, Rebecca is discontented. She is alone, has nothing but the routine of her uninspiring, demanding job, and suffers from depression.
A chance meeting with Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), who dated her briefly when she was a teenager and was engraved in her memory as the legendary ex, fires her with the desire for a meaningful change. She declines promotion, throws out all her medications and leaves New York for sun-drenched West Covina in California. It happens to be where Josh lives, too. Though insisting that she hasn’t transformed her life for Josh’s sake, Rebecca develops an obsession to entwine her happiness with his, and uses terrible, entertaining manipulationsthat are – yes, also a bit crazy – to win his heart.
Even though the plot focuses on her obsession with Josh (the show’s episodes are also named for him), the crux of the series is not whether Rebecca will capture his heart or not. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” draws its heft from the moments that force Rebecca to cope with inner demons, and takes off thanks to the terrific cast of characters that surround her. (Spoiler alert!) The friendship with Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin), who has problems in her married life; the destructive relationship with Josh’s friend Greg (Santino Fontana); and the discovery by her boss, Darryl (Pete Gardner), that he’s bisexual all receive smart, stark, comic treatment.
Talking about female anatomy
Rebecca’s journey to insights about what truly drives her is punctuated with musical numbers about aspects of women’s lives that have never before been seen on television. Even viewers who don’t necessarily like musical series will find it difficult not to enjoy well-made songs that generate bursts of laughter, about coping with large breasts, sex during menstruation, urinary tract infections or the first time one of the female protagonists saw a penis.
Along the way, Rebecca embraces romantic clichés with one hand and deconstructs them with the other. For example, after her boss asks her on a hot date and, as in every romantic movie, sends her a package containing an evening dress and lingerie, she shows up in a different dress and explains, “I donated that [the dress] to the West Covina Middle School Drama Department because only a 13-year-old girl could fit into it.” As for the bra, it “was like two delicate tissues held together with floss.”
Bloom, who won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Bunch, is fighting not only for the television presence of musical comedies, but also to burst the bounds of the public dialogue about the female body. In the current season, she related, she had to fight to be able to use the word “clitoris” in the plotline about a colleague in the office who discovers that his wife is faking orgasms. “We wanted to talk about female anatomy on TV,” she said on “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” adding, “I had to have many conversations with [the] legal [department] about why it wasn’t graphic or lewd.”
She won the battle: on top of mentioning the C-word, she also explained its importance in female sexuality and shattered myths about the orgasm. As a “public service,” she wrote a song for “men who don’t know how to satisfy women.” Warbles the colleague, “The buzzing from the bathroom has finally been explained. That was no electric toothbrush.”
Inevitably, the fact that “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is a feminist musical comedy that deals with sexuality, romance and mental disorders means that it’s not a series for everyone. Still, it’s definitely worth being discovered by a far broader audience than the small, albeit loyal public it has. Although it arguably tends to have dumb or excessively untenable moments that just kill time, they’re an essential element in a series that celebrates the less glamorous sides of its protagonists, especially those that lead them to embark on paths of self-destruction.
Whether the series is dealing with sensitivity as manifested in the form of borderline personality disorder, or with byproducts of keeping tabs on the ex via social networks, above all the plotline stirs infectious enjoyment. With a nod to the popular mantra, “Dance as though no one sees you,” it’s clear that Bloom, who’s aware that the series has few viewers (she even addresses this issue in the script) has created a comedy that she enjoys writing and starring in as though no one sees her.