by Maureen Ryan
The news that the CW’s fare is going to live on Netflix — and that full seasons will arrive on the streaming platform even earlier than they have in the past — is good news for TV fans. These days,very few networks marry episodic storytelling to the kind of long-term arcs that encourage binge viewing as well as the CW, and it’s generally so on target that even its missteps have potential. “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow,” for example, is not on Netflix yet, but I’ll still check it out when it returns for its second season, because if the inconsistent and patchy superhero show pulls itself together, it could well turn into a weekly addiction.
But weekly viewing is so last century. What if you want to go nuts on entire seasons of TV right now? Restricting my recommendations to only ongoing CW scripted fare, there’s a lot to choose from. You could try the first five seasons of “Supernatural,” the first season of “The Flash” and the second season of “Arrow,” both seasons of the great “Jane the Virgin” and the first season of “iZombie.” Of course there are other shows and other seasons to sample, but that’s a representative and potentially addictive starting array.
One reason CW fare is worth checking out is because it uses recognizable formats to take tonal and thematic risks, and no show epitomizes that more than “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” which debuted last fall and is now on Netflix.
I spent part of a recent vacation catching up with the hourlong comedy, and even though I’m a few episodes from the end of the season, I can highly recommend immersing yourself in its lovably eccentric and emotionally compelling worldview. Not only has the show progressed intelligently beyond its pilot in a number of interesting ways, it’s used music and light comedy to lend pathos to its sensitive depictions of unhappiness, dissatisfaction and mental illness.
TV is rarely deeply interested in depicting complicated friendships between women, especially if those friendships delve into strange and transgressive areas, but there are signs that may be changing a bit. “Crazy Ex’s” lead character, disaffected lawyer Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), uprooted her entire life to move to the bland suburban town of West Covina, California, where she quickly met Paula Proctor (Donna Lynne Champlin), a co-worker who distracts herself from her troubled marriage by encouraging Rebecca’s worst ideas and impulses. In that sense, the relationship between the two women recalls that of Quinn and Rachel on “UnReal,” which also explores the ways in which an older woman encourages her depressed younger friend to find some sort of relief by doing things that allow her to feel proactive but probably aren’t good for her.
“UnReal” uses the distorted lens of reality TV to examine the Quinn-Rachel dynamic, but both shows are about using an elaborate project of some kind to pull the focus off difficult realities. Rachel knows she’s doing unethical and disturbing things in order to garner ratings for “Everlasting,” and on some level, Rebecca knows that pursuing her ex, Josh, isn’t the answer to her many problems. Therapy, a whole lot of therapy, would be a good start for both women.
But throughout most of the first season of “Crazy Ex,” Paula encourages Rebecca’s short-term thinking, in part because she treats her co-worker’s life like a TV show — something to live through vicariously, because Paula is unhappy and bored. Quinn isn’t bored — far from it. She’s fighting to keep her top-dog status within the vicious “Everlasting” pecking order, and to be honest, the last couple of episodes have depicted that process in a way that feels ramshackle and unsatisfying (critic Joshua Alston dissects why that’s so in this perceptive piece).
Hopefully “UnReal” will get back on track in the second half of its current season, but either way, I’ll continue to watch episodes of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” whenever I can. Like “You’re the Worst,” “Mr. Robot,” “BoJack Horseman” and frequently “UnReal,” “Crazy Ex” depicts the most difficult aspects of depression in ways that are insightful and sensitive — and Rebecca is hardly the only person on the screen who is struggling.
Donna Lynne Champlin is delightfully perfect as Paula; she wrings every bit of comedy out of her frustrations with her job and her family. Her zealous desire to see Rebecca end up with Josh is funny, but it’s also kind of sad, and Paula is aware of that, but she is desperate to see something mildly interesting happen in or near West Covina.
If Paula is a fantastic variation on the rom-com best friend, Santino Fontana’s character, Greg, supplies another key part of the formula: He’s the alternative man in the lead woman’s life who is a better fit for her than the guy she’s pursuing. The only problem is, Greg also looks like he’s ensnared in a clinical depression; he tends bar and resents Josh’s sunny outlook, but can’t seem to get his own life together and pursue his own goals consistently. He occasionally gets angry that Rebecca relies on him too much for emotional support without giving much back in return, but that complaint is partly a smokescreen to cover up his own unhappiness. Fontana is fantastic at depicting Greg’s half-hearted attempts to do better for himself, and making those attempts seem both lightly amusing and slightly tragic.
The songs are supposed to be the calling card for “Crazy Ex,” and they’re fine, but at this point, I’m really watching to see how much more sad and yet understandable they make Rebecca’s dilemmas. It did seem deeply misguided to move across the country for the flimsiest of reasons, and Rebecca’s new life is difficult, but at least it’s more eventful and less consistently miserable than her old life in New York. If it’s a distraction, it’s working, at least part of the time.
As is the case with so many CW shows, “Crazy Ex’s” secret weapon is its terrific range of supporting characters. Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) is the greatest bro on TV — sensitive, caring, optimistic and sweet. There’s also White Josh (David Hull), who, like Josh, is not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, but both men present an idea of empathic, compassionate bro-ness that is actually wonderfully subversive. All things considered, I am deeply invested in the idea of a relationship between White Josh and Rebecca’s boss, the daffy but helpful Darryl Whitefeather (Pete Gardner); do not tell me if that potential romance is doomed, because I’ll be crushed.
Like its CW soulmate, “Jane the Virgin,” “Crazy Ex” doesn’t mind going to operatic and theatrical places, but there are a few bits of soapiness that go too far. For example, Josh’s girlfriend Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz) is a little too one-dimensional for my tastes, but there are so many other sad, strange and funny things going on that that marginal flaw hardly impedes my overall enjoyment of the show.
Speaking of audience proxies, the best character on “Crazy Ex” might well be Heather Davis (Vella Lovell), the bored student who lives in Rebecca’s apartment complex. In her measured, highly amusing monotone, she passes entirely rational judgments on these hot-mess characters and their self-destructive actions. She’s not mentally ill or unhappy, just bored sometimes, and these people’s antics help her pass the time. It’s as if she’s binge-watching the silly adventures of Rebecca and her crew, or compiling material for a research paper on how people try very hard to avoid dealing with what’s really wrong with their lives.
I’m not making any predictions about the rest of the season, except to say, I bet Heather gets an A on her final paper.