Remember Glee? At one point, the insanely popular teen show was beloved by all. The show tanked quickly, but the idea of a musical series remains inherently appealing – for fans of musicals, cinema or theatre has always been the place to go, with TV still largely free of people breaking into spontaneous song.
Fans of this most joyous genre will, therefore, flock to the utterly wonderful Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. It leaves trite nonsense like Glee in its wake, as it is a much sharper, wittier show and even has its own original compositions, instead of auto-tuned covers. Familiar sitcom tropes, such as the impassive millennial (e.g. Aubrey Plaza in Parks and Rec) and the dumb-but-sweet guy (Andy Dwyer, Joey of Friends, arguably Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Jake Peralta), are immediately elevated by self-aware and hilarious numbers. A clumsy set-up becomes a wonderfully comic premise, thanks to hilarious song writing in every single episode.
The show’s set-up is not a strong one. Nor, for that matter, is the title. Uptight, unhappy lawyer Rebecca Bunch moves from a well-paid job in New York to the non-entity of West Covina in California on a whim, because someone she dated 10 years ago at camp lives there. She then proceeds to make at least one terrible decision per episode in her pursuit of erstwhile heartthrob Josh. Where Crazy Ex-Girlfriend succeeds is in the way it cleverly deconstructs its own premise and even questions that terrible title.
At the centre of it all is Rebecca, played by Rachel Bloom, one of the show’s creators. Rebecca pushes her craziness to new levels with each instalment and her often horrifying decisions are what make the story interesting – she imagines herself to be in some kind of Hollywood romantic narrative, but she’s a protagonist that you are never sure you should be rooting for. She’s become so consumed in the idea of her life having a narrative that she will go to any lengths to make it happen. Plot developments that, in other hands, would become kooky steps on a journey to ultimate happiness instead become offences for which she should probably be arrested.
Admittedly, the will-they-won’t-they dynamic at the centre of the narrative becomes strained after a while. Certain character traits – her denial, her obliviousness – border on unrealistic. Cleverly, the show addresses these issues and maintains momentum and credibility; it’s so sharply written that even the archetypal mean character, Valencia, is made to be sympathetic, just before the show crosses into cruelty. In this sense, as well as in the snappy, suck-it-Deadpool-meta sense, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is refreshingly self-aware.
Really, however, the chief appeal of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend lies in the songs, which are the funniest on TV since Flight of the Conchords. Save a throwaway line late on in the series, there’s no real explanation of why the show is a musical. It doesn’t matter, though: the songs are properly laugh-out-loud, sing-along brilliant. Not only is each number a dead-on parody of its genre, from Les Mis marching song to 80s rock, but each is filled with sly wordplay and daft jokes. One of the best is Face Your Fears, which includes advice such as “if you’re in a burning building and smoke is everywhere, keep calm, take a deep breath and stay right there (face your feeears)”. Yet the soundtrack also features a love song called Settle For Me and a rap battle, where two white people acknowledge their non-racist credentials. It’s the kind of music that immediately makes you a friend when you find another fan.
The somewhat repetitive nature of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend makes it somewhat exasperating as a binge-watch, as the protagonist becomes increasingly frustrating. Big challenges await the show and the writers need to ensure that a second season won’t stretch the concept even further. Yet each episode taken in its own right is a perfectly formed miniature musical that incisively deconstructs romantic storytelling tropes while remaining relentlessly, intelligently funny throughout.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.