Review: ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ finishes strong through reprises
The CW Network’s show, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” has been my favorite TV show since I binged the first three seasons of it last term, which is also when I learned that the next season to my newfound favorite would be its last. My experiences with last seasons for personal favorites in television have not been great, so I was nervous and disappointed about the end to a TV gem that I had just discovered. Luckily, the fourth season of the show was yet another strong addition of a chapter in the protagonist’s journey of self-acceptance and learning to navigate personal relationships, while also fulfilling its role as a final season well by tying the story together in a satisfying conclusion.
To give some context to this critically-acclaimed, yet tragically unpopular show, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” follows the life of Rebecca Bunch: a Jewish lawyer (portrayed by Rachel Bloom, who also wrote the show), after she moves from her high-profile position at a law firm in New York City to West Covina, CA, an underwhelming suburb of Los Angeles. Rebecca’s decision to move across the country came on a whim after running into her high school summer fling Josh Chan on the streets of Manhattan, where he told her he was moving back to his hometown West Covina. After falling in love with him after a brief conversation, she threw away her “perfect” life and packed her bags to follow Josh in hopes of winning his affection. Sound crazy? Hence the title.
This surreal start to the show leads to Rebecca pulling wild stunts to try to get Josh’s attention, but they serve a greater purpose than cheap laughs. Rebecca’s antics foreshadow her diagnosis of borderline personality disorder in season three episode six, appropriately titled “Josh is Irrelevant,” to signify that all of the impulsive, manipulative and downright creepy scheming Rebecca did was never about Josh at all, but rather due to her unmanaged personality disorder. The remainder of the show takes a turn here and becomes focused on Rebecca learning to accept and manage her mental illness and its consequences.
This is where one of the strongest points of the show comes in, something that isn’t lost in the final season: its accurate portrayal of living with mental illness. Rebecca’s struggle with her personality disorder isn’t a gratuitous sob story, nor is it an oversimplification of mental illness in which — thanks to a diagnosis, therapy and/or medication — everything becomes okay. Rebecca’s journey with BPD is unpredictable. She starts out with improvement as she regularly attends multiple types of therapy, but as she feels like she has more control over her illness she starts to feel less inclined to sustain the hard work she put into self-care. Once she begins to “slack off” on her treatment, things crash and burn again. She lashes out at her boyfriend, gets drunk, attempts to have sex with not one but two ex-boyfriends and then ends up sleeping on a bench.
This storyline has two points of realism that many media sources fail to demonstrate. One: a diagnosis, a therapist and even medication doesn’t solve everything in a neat linear progression. Two: managing mental illness is hard work. After her diagnosis, Rebecca had to put both her career and her romantic relationships on hold to make time for multiple therapy sessions a week and workbooks for BPD. It’s natural that as her condition improved and she returned to a more active lifestyle, it became harder for her to devote her entire life to working on her mental illness. The show teaches viewers that it’s not “lazy” or “stupid” for someone to struggle with getting help and improving, assuming that they can even afford to take so much time and money to do so.
On top of this sustained excellence, the fourth season is a strong ending as well. The writers paced the story perfectly throughout the entire show, developing all of the major characters at a believable pace in a believable direction. This strong foundation led to all conflicts — even little, forgettable subplots — being resolved neatly, giving a sense of finality to the audience. For once, even I, a huge cynic, wasn’t doubtful about the happily ever after — and the creators of the show pulled it off by utilizing the “reprise.”
In musical theater, a reprise is a song that uses previous musical themes or elements, often in a setting that mirrors or resolves an earlier plot line. In the fourth season of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” many of the characters’ relationships (whether with themselves or with others) seemed to express that they have reached a conclusion in their character development or resolution in their relationship through a reprise.
Using reprises is genius because it is essentially a correction to an older version of the song. It’s a musical device that shows evolution. A reprise makes it clear to the audience that a conflict has been resolved because first, the familiar theme reminds the audience of what the conflict was, and second, the noticeable change in the song makes its resolution unambiguous, making the “happily ever after” feel secure and satisfying, with no lingering questions. These reprises that tie up loose ends in the show are sprinkled throughout the fourth season, and they are essential for avoiding the pitfall many final seasons go through: either making too abrupt an ending or an ending that feels way too dragged out and overdeveloped, like the final season of “The Office” — a show that I believe should have just ended when Michael Scott left. The corrective reprises conclude one plot line at a time, letting the audience down gradually and gently, making it clear that though it’s been a good run, it’s time for it to end. It’s a lot like an effective cool-down after a workout.
Furthermore, a reprise allows the ending to be a simple happy ending, a non-cerebral feel-good show — nothing like “Inception,” for example — without feeling anticlimactic and short-changing the audience. One might argue that the basic “And everything worked out!” ending that “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” goes for is un-nuanced, unsophisticated and derivative, but it works because it is delivered through the reprise — maintaining its entertainment value and avoiding feeling like a cliché through the unique musical production. Many of the choices that the show makes would have felt like a lazy, tacky, childish ending lacking the grace of subtext if it had been communicated simply through dialogue.
Take Rebecca’s rivalry with Audra Levine (played by Rachel Grate), for example. Rebecca’s relationship with Audra represents Rebecca’s conflict with her former self, a competitive and successful but miserable workaholic created through maternal pressure rather than self-motivation. Both women were pitted against each other by their mothers since they were children, and both end up becoming successful lawyers at illustrious firms in New York, prolonging their rivalry. Rebecca, however, moves on from that life to seek happiness, while Audra continues to be the perfect daughter by excelling at her law firm, marrying rich and having children. The tension between the two persist throughout the show because, though Rebecca has physically moved on from New York, she is haunted by her past because she has doubts about her choice to leave — at one point she almost moves back — and feels inferior to Audra, who represents what she could have been had she stayed in New York. On top of that, her mother constantly shames her for her new life. This sour relationship is made evident with a song in season one titled “JAP Battle” (JAP means Jewish American Princess), in which Audra and Rebecca insult each other through competitive rap.
However, in season four, Rebecca stands up to her mother and demands that she either accept her new life or plan on not being a part of it, to which her mother ultimately acquiesces, signifying that Rebecca accepts and loves both her past and present self, as well as ending her mother’s torment. Soon after, her relationship with Audra is repaired following a brief encounter with Audra at her lowest, when the two realize they have a lot in common and actually secretly admire each other. The result? “JAP Battle (Reprise),” a rap battle in which Audra and Rebecca compete to compliment one another. It’s hard to understand just how heartwarming and satisfying this conclusion to Audra and Rebecca’s antagonism to one another is without listing all of the lyrics for both the original and the reprise, but you can see that it would have been predictable or too on the nose if it were in dialogue. Can you imagine two sassy, interesting characters suddenly becoming robotic and saying, “I actually really like you and think you’re cool! Let’s be friends!” without it feeling abruptly juvenile?
All in all, the fourth season of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” has smoothly executed a shameless, feel-good ending without accidentally watering-down its nuance and wit with clichés through reprises that provide originality as well as a platform to make a definitive resolution to conflicts. Combined with all of the progressive messaging, the fantastic acting, dialogue and production value, I can confidently say that though I’m disappointed the show had to end, I’m happy it ended now, when all of the characters are undoubtedly happy too.