Love, Mental Illness, and why you’ve got to face the music: the subversive genius of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

You may have heard of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – it’s a witty, subversive romcom, with some of the most creative musical numbers you’ll ever see. It fast became a critical darling when it first burst onto our television screens, and it’s been held in high regard by many ever since.

Part of that is because Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is also one of the most intelligent depictions of love and mental illness currently on television. Arguably, they’re the show’s two main themes; it’s all right there in the title, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”. Of course, as anyone who’s seen the show would attest, it’s a lot more nuanced than that…

Rebecca has been chasing love since the show’s very first episode, moving to West Covina in the hopes of reuniting with her childhood sweetheart – someone she hadn’t seen in nearly a decade. As star and co-creator Rachel Bloom has noted in interviews, the type of person who does that “is not a happy person. This is a profoundly disturbed person”. Part of Rebecca’s character arc in the first season of the show was linked to her denial; a refusal to engage with her mental illness, and the disruption it was causing to her life.

And yet while our eponymous character shies away from her issues, the show itself never has; it’s always been confident and open in its depiction of Rebecca’s mental health issues. Indeed, it’s built into the very fabric of the show itself, with the various musical numbers of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend acting as a representation of Rebecca’s dissociative episodes, and often explicitly dealing with the programme’s darker themes. This “juxtaposition of extreme lightness and extreme darkness”, Rachel Bloom put it, informs the way Crazy Ex-Girlfriend depicts anxiety and depression, and is perhaps why the show can tackle these issues so directly – there’s always a veneer of whimsy, even when the addressing serious subject matter. There’s something quite significant about the fact that a mainstream television programme is confronting these themes at all, let alone quite so regularly and openly.

In many ways, the first season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was leading up to one indescribable instant – the big Disney moment, promising a happily ever after for all involved. It’s the classic archetype of love left unexamined; the imagery and iconography, without paying heed to any of the complications that are simply a fact of life. It is, in essence, exactly what Rebecca had been aiming for the entire season.

But that begged the question: what next?

Moving forward from season one, a huge aspect of the show has been about consequences, and dealing with the impact of one’s actions. The characters have had to, if you will, face the music.

We’ve seen Rebecca, gradually, begin to come closer and closer towards an acknowledgement of her mental health issues; one particularly notable therapy session with Dr. Akopian felt almost like a breakthrough, and one of the first moments of real progress for Rebecca. It’s overted at the last minute, though, and left to hang over the next season – a signal that the realisation is there, and confirmation of what many had already realised: the only way Rebecca will begin to progress is if she focuses on addressing her own issues first, rather than on pursuing an idealised romance.

It’s not just Rebecca, of course; a particularly impressive arc early on in the season saw Greg (Santino Fontana) joining a support group to deal with his alcoholism, and eventually moving away from West Covina to start a new life of his own. In that sense, Greg forms an interesting parallel to Rebecca herself; up until now, he’d been the love interest who represented Rebececca beginning to move forward, taking a step away from the denial of her issues represented by a relationship with Josh. And yet here Greg steps away from a relationship with Rebecca, pointing out that an idealised vision of love won’t help Rebecca deal with her issues – meaning Greg shifts from being a foil to an example, perhaps foreshadowing the series’ eventual end.

Similarly, Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III) had his own unhealthy behaviours pointed out; his reliance on serial monogamy, and how he too – much like Rebecca – would simply run to the nearest relationship whenever things got difficult. This is likely set to unfold further over the next year, given the second season ended with Josh further entrenched in this behaviour than ever by electing to join the priesthood.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was renewed for a third season earlier this year; the show’s creators, Aline Brosh McKenna and Rachel Bloom, have indicated that they planned a four-year trajectory for the programme. We’re only halfway through Rebecca’s journey at this point; no doubt the show will have more to say on the topic of love and mental illness over the next few years.

And, no doubt, the show will say it in its own inventive, inimitable – and nuanced – style.


The Top 5 Songs of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s first season

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