I wasn’t the least bit interested in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend when I first happened upon it on the CW. If the title didn’t completely turn me off, I didn’t understand the premise. How could an entire series be built around a woman basically stalking her ex and then randomly singing about it? It just seemed weird and sexist, like the title. But as the first-season theme song goes, “It’s a little more nuanced than that.”
The show was co-created by Aline Brosh McKenna and Rachel Bloom. Mckenna also acts as show runner, executive producer and head writer while Bloom writes the songs on the show— with Adam Schlesinger and Jack Dolgen— and stars as attorney Rebecca Bunch. They are so precise with their depictions that you can tell they both care deeply about the subject of mental health and how women are depicted on-screen.
Low-key, Rachel Bloom is who I think people wanted Lena Dunham to be and who Lena Dunham thinks she is. No shade.
Because of the creators, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is the most realistic depiction of mental illness I have ever seen on a scripted show. Hands down. It’s handled with such care and truth and rare empathetic honesty.
The main character is neither victim nor villain. She’s just a person who is struggling and is both oblivious to and in denial about her odd behavior. The focus on the surface is her obsession with her ex, but as the series goes on, she’s suffering from depression, anxiety and fixation.
It’s not about her ex, it’s about how she is clinging to something stable, and craving a specific sort of happiness. To her, the last time she felt loved and safe and happy and optimistic about her future was when they were dating, even if it was a brief period, so she believes that the key to returning to that space for her lies in him.
The manner in which she goes about ultimately getting and then losing him are played up for TV, but beyond the surface is a humanity that I wasn’t expecting.
As the seasons go on, you see evidence of her mental state, and are even made privy to a history of mental health breakdowns. But it’s not treated as a joke or a caricature. It’s also not randomly thrown in like the Andre character on Empire who “catches bipolar” like others catch a cold or a football.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rebecca Bunch makes sense based on what we have seen of her and what we know about disordered thinking. As a comedy, it has its moments. Its supporting cast fits the “zany comedy” thing, I suppose as a way to lighten the heavy themes, but it’s not about them, either.
In the second-season finale, Rebecca’s rapid breakdown is triggered by her “ex”-turned-fiance standing her up at the altar. It’s a common sitcom device, but the episodes leading up to it show her manic and obsessive symptoms.
After the manic turn, when she does some not-so-great things, she eventually crashes into a depression. This depression leads to suicidal ideation. Her mother finds her Googling “Painless ways to kill yourself.” I gasped when I saw this because I never thought a show would go this far. But then it went even further, showing her foggy and dazed and answering, “I don’t know,” when she’s asked if she’s OK.
And the very last scene is of her swallowing anxiety pill after anxiety pill, washing it all down with a glass of wine. I was near tears watching. I knew she would most likely live, but the depiction of despair and desperation with no neat or easy conclusion was fantastic. She simply stated, “I didn’t want to die. I just wanted the pain to stop.”
I thought that it couldn’t get any better or more realistic than that, but the show follows her into the hospital and then into an eventually more accurate diagnosis. Her “anxiety and depression” weren’t being treated correctly because she had been misdiagnosed; her borderline personality disorder was actually made worse by her previous treatment.
The scene when the doctor read out a list of the symptoms that led to her diagnosis was accurate and revealed so much about the behaviors she’d exhibited in previous episodes; much like in real life, when having an “answer” both helps things make more sense and completely throws your sense of self out of wack.
Rebecca struggles with the idea that a “personality disorder” meant she was inherently flawed. Anyone who has been diagnosed with a mental health disorder knows the stages, which include denial, deflection and then begrudging acceptance.
I have never seen that much care and deliberateness placed on a main character’s mental health journey on television.
She eventually begins to accept the diagnosis but still can’t help acting out. Her diagnosis is not the “end,” it’s just the beginning of the work it takes to live a healthy life. And it’s clear that it is a journey; she slips in and out of checking her behavior and, in the most recent episode, finds herself falling into old habits because she hasn’t yet learned how to reprogram her reactions and is encouraged to do so by attending therapy post-hospitalization.
I’ve always maintained that medication is like moving from an old house to a better one, but therapy is how you learn to navigate your new neighborhood, knowing to turn left for the bank, where previously, you would have made a right. I loved seeing therapy and medication as steps toward wellness and not the cure-all.
Something else that really got me was the reaction of the people around her following her suicide attempt and following treatment. Her friends ranged from being overprotective to seemingly distant and also struggling with how to make sense of what happened.
It drove home the truth of how mental illness affects more than just the person. While most of her friends struggled with their worry and fear, she had one friend who was co-dependent and happy to coddle and conspire with her denial.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend snuck in its mental health agenda in ways that are at once subversive and undeniably clear and relatable. I’m glad I gave the show a chance, despite its title. Still not sure how it’s a comedy, because I can’t say I laughed often. I just know that whatever it is—musical, drama, comedy, puppet show—I’m grateful for such a thoughtful and human look into the world of mental illness.