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Analysis

Crazy Ex Girlfriend through a Sondheim Lens

Full spoilers for all 3 seasons of Crazy Ex Girlfriend.

I don’t make my love for Crazy Ex Girlfriend a secret. It’s essentially media wish-fulfillment for me: a musical dramedy with an loudly jewish female protagonist that seeks to deconstruct tropes and storytelling conventions about how women are typically written, served alongside mental health positivity and an optimistic take on humanity. It’s clever, it’s meaningful, it’s unapologetic, and I cannot express how relieved I am that it’s renewed for a 4th and final season—the season that was always planned as its end-point.

So it’s with great chagrin that I’ve got a bit of a “but” to add here. Because while all this is true, I struggled a little with Season 3. It’s not that I found it any less pointed or intelligent, but I did feel that structurally there were issues. Something seemed like it was missing…just some kind of absent je ne sais quoi that the first two seasons possessed. Then there were also some story beats that suddenly appeared, rather than the usual meticulous seeding and build-up to which I grew accustomed.

This isn’t to say I disliked Season 3, because I found a ton of value in it. But I did feel that there was a little bit of prioritization of themes at the cost of a cohesive story. Paula suddenly being the “office bitch”, Heather impulsively agreeing to be Darryl’s surrogate after criticizing Rebecca for the exact same thing… The best example is probably in the finale, where Rebecca pleads “guilty.” In all these cases it’s clear what the writers are going for; Rebecca is being very literally haunted by her past, since you can’t just skate with no repercussions, even you personally take a step towards healing. She wants to atone for all the messed up stuff she’s done, hence her pleading “responsible” initially.

Except she’s an amazing lawyer who surely understands that she isn’t actually guilty of attempted second-degree murder, which is what the charge was. Sure, it’s important to not plead “insanity,” but “innocent” was a perfectly viable option! Pleading guilty, while thematically satisfying and good in a character arc, pushes the scene out of the realm of believability. Even Paula, who was obviously moved by that, probably would have known that there’s a way to repair their relationship that doesn’t involve admitting to a literal murder charge. And yes, the writers seem to know this wasn’t a rational decision on Rebecca part, but it still stretches characterization further than seems advisable.

I guess I’m lucky that all this was only a mild disappointment, but it’s for that reason that I haven’t really written anything on Season 3 as a whole yet. I think my solution was to wait and see the 4th season, because I do still have incredible faith in showrunners Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna to close out this narrative in a satisfying and meaningful way. I simply contented myself to let a vaguely outlined piece on the structural issues of Season 3 sit in a Google Doc, where I never touched it. The one time I tried, I ended up writing about how Crazy Ex Girlfriend’s command of diegesis is the model modern musicals should take, because it marries our gritty media realism trend to the dreamlike qualities of musical theater.

And now I realize that was my mistake all along: I shouldn’t have been analyzing Crazy Ex Girlfriend through the lens I use for most TV and movies…I need a musical lens. Specifically, I needed to view Season 3 through the eyes of Stephen Sondheim musicals.

Entering the world of the hat

Before you accuse me of it, yes, picking Sondheim specifically is mostly self-serving. But I have also spent a fair amount of time tracking down interviews and podcasts with Rachel Bloom (she never gives the same exact answer twice—it’s kind of incredible), and can confirm her love of the man too. She’s said her ideal Broadway role would be Dot from Sunday in the Park with George or Squeaky Fromme from Assassins, the latter of which happens to be her favorite musical, too. So I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Crazy Ex Girlfriend as an art form may have been influenced to some degree by the works of Stephen Sondheim.

Let’s talk about those works briefly, though. Sondheim’s musicals are diverse in subject matter, takeaways, and central themes. However, that’s not to say there aren’t commonalities, or that his style is malleable. While what he’s ‘known for’ often gets boiled down to lyrical cleverness by critics, a stronger feature of his music is that he writes with actors in mind. Emotional queues are almost embedded into his songs. It doesn’t matter what poor sap is singing “Franklin Shephard, Inc.”…the strength of the phrasing and flow lends itself to the breakdown in a way that is always going to be convincing.

Then, I can’t state this any better than Elaine Stritch and Bernadette Peters, but Sondheim consistently has lyrical depth. His songs are gut-punches usually, but layered gut-punches at that.

His melodies are a bit unconventional, in that you’re unlikely to be able to sing his songs the first go-around. Contrast that to Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber, who can generally write tunes you’re able to pick up by the final verse. Of course there’s exceptions, but if you want an at-home experiment, see how well you follow the melody of this versus this.

You can tell just from interviews that Sondheim is a perfectionist, a horrible overthinker, and permanently never fully satisfied with the end result. If you’ve had the pleasure of reading Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat, he spells it out on the page in a way that bridges aspirational and concerning.

His neuroses are not incredibly dissimilar to Rebecca Bunch as a protagonist. It’s perhaps for that reason that the themes he tends to like exploring are shockingly relevant to the show. I don’t think it’s constructive to give you a laundry list of all of them, but typical features of Sondheim musicals include family strife, ambivalent views on love and relationships, obsession (of self, others, or ways obsessive behavior unfolds), and disillusionment.

Otherwise known as Crazy Ex Girlfriend Season 3.

Reaching through the world of the hat like a window

When I first began thinking about the last season through a Sondheimian lens, it was thanks to a song added to Merrily We Roll Along after its unsuccessful first broadway outing:

So, old friends, now it’s time to start growing up. Taking charge, seeing things as they are. Facing facts, not escaping them; still with dreams, just reshaping them. Growing up.

It often annoys me when stories are described as “coming-of-age” tales for adult characters. For instance, the dialogue surrounding Kylo Ren complete with The Last Jedi writer/director Rian Johnson saying he was transitioning from “adolescence to adulthood” was particularly grating, since it felt a little like robbing him of his agency as a fully grown man who is also a fascist and makes these messed up choices on his own accord.

At the same time, Crazy Ex Girlfriend is very much about Rebecca Bunch coming into her own as an adult—coming to understand her identity specifically by shedding her childish idealization of romance and fairy tales. Hell, she takes responsibility for herself for really the first time at the end of Season 3. But the thing is, as Sondheim eloquently puts it, “Growing up, understanding that growing never ends.”

This is something hammered again and again by the show. We need look no further than Darryl or Paula to see that they’ve more than delivered on definitive adults who still are pushed towards betterment and maturity. Darryl is impulsive and too lead by his feelings, and he learns not to go to the extreme with his ideas while still acting on his wants. Paula meets Rebecca when she’s in a complete rut, discovers the absence in her life due to her lack of risk taking, and pursues her law degree. Rebecca herself is never treated like an adolescent free of agency; any infantilization that occurs is of her own doing (see: the introductory song in Season 2), and ultimately to her detriment.

It’s for this reason I thought about how Crazy Ex Girlfriend perfectly meshes with Merrily We Roll Along, at least in its second act (which happens first chronologically). Rebecca is the Joe, with her idealized dreams that come crashing down. However “Growing Up” reaches a drastically conclusion for her; where Joe allows himself to be swayed/seduced by Gussie that leads him towards an empty path—one where he shirks responsibility and commitment to his friends—Rebecca rejects Nathaniel and prioritizes absolution from Paula instead. The choice offered was nearly the same, yet the choosing leads to wildly different, and more uplifting outcomes (ironically as she’s facing years in prison).

Where this analogy falls apart is that the tragedy of Merrily We Roll Along is in the backwards timeline of the play; we see our main cast get happier, and freer, and full of hope knowing that things end up with the bitter end of their friendship. Crazy Ex Girlfriend is the would-be the opposite experience, where we see our central character in a healthier place, even if it may be a bit more of a serious and adult place. Rebecca was never *happy* to begin with, so much as she’d delude herself. In fact, part of the reason she’s so drawn to Josh is that he’s happy to get to that level with her.

Disillusionment itself, along with the theme of taking responsibility, is something straight out of Assassins. The entire musical serves as a deconstruction and break-down of the American dream through the eyes of history’s presidential assassins (would-be and successful). However in each of their cases, there’s a reason they did it…something blame. They did it to make their friends listen, or because they were told they’d be ambassador to France. Obviously Rebecca is a far more stable person than a murderer, but we do see a similar determination to rationalize her behavior, particularly in Season 1. If she does bad things (like literal stalking) in the name of love, it’s okay, right?

Of course, she’s a good guy whereas the assassins are, you know…assassins, which is why she rejects the mutual conclusion that they come to in “Another National Anthem.” She wasn’t just screwed by the system, or romantic rivals, or even her mental illness. She is fully responsible for what she does, and those actions have influence on others.

It’s actually a collective responsibility, as she’s been aided over the years, mostly by Paula. Rebecca taking the out Nathaniel offered would have impacted Paula most of all, sending the strong message that there’s no need to ever own up to your shit if you can justify it well enough. Nothing is ever anyone’s fault, right? I mean, she was given those beans; they persuaded her to trade away her cow for beans. And without those beans there’d have been no stalk to get up to the giants in the first place!

Except like in Into the Woods, placing the blame and passing the buck gets rejected. No one is alone in the sense that responsibility is never individualistic. Rebecca owning up to her past is the first step in healing the circle around her. “Fight for their mistakes, everybody makes…one another’s terrible mistakes.”

In some ways, that’s the note I expected Crazy Ex Girlfriend to end on. Yet there’s a Season 4, and more story to be told. If Into the Woods is the direction, then I suppose it ends with a group number to the same effect. Yet we have other Sondheim options into which we can delve.

I should quickly point out that while A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is parodic in a way Crazy Ex Girlfriend is, the comparison for that particular musical ends there. And Rebecca had her Sweeney Todd revenge story as a Scary Scary Sexy Lady, so we can probably rule those out. And unless she becomes the Mayor of West Covina or spends the entirety of Season 4 bemoaning the loss of spoken Yiddish among jewish populations in the US, I’m quite certain we can rule out Anyone Can Whistle and Pacific Overtures too.

What does that leave us with? Well, there’s Follies, where Sondheim holds neurotic self-indulgence under a lens. There’s also a love trapezoid of doom, which was carefully picked apart in Season 2. Oh and the musical numbers within the show are pastiches. The influence this had on Crazy Ex Girlfriend almost slams you over the head, particularly when it boils down to two couples discovering unpleasant truths about their pasts and presents. The collapse of innocence isn’t something that’s going to be hand-waved by this show, though I have to imagine the ending may be slightly more uplifting. There is a self-consciousness to the show that mirrors the attitude of Sunday in the Park with George, but given how wildly different the demons are that Sondheim was working out to the type of bubbly, expressive character Rebecca is, it’s hard to draw many parallels. And I have to assume time-travel is off the table.

Which leaves us with the two incredibly relationship-focused musicals: A Little Night Music and Company. Where the former is concerned, the ending isn’t incredibly. In fact, the musical itself isn’t incredibly deep, though the score certainly is. Sondheim originally didn’t even want to write it after reading Hugh Wheeler’s book he was to use (a friend talked him into it since he was given free rein on the music). Basically, a bunch of people realize who they’re actually in love with and commit to each other in the end.

This…could happen. But I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t find it odd. It’s not that I don’t understand shipping Rebecca and Josh or Nathaniel, but it would just seem so uncharacteristically cliched if the end spot was “ho hum we’re all happy now because love.” Rebecca is certainly deserving of love, and her very visceral fear of intimacy is distressing; I’m hoping she comes to a healthy place with that. And that could necessitate her ending up with someone. But the tone of that would, I’m guessing, be worlds different from say, the tone of Henrik and Anne running off.

However, it’s Company that I believe offers the best solution. This is a concept musical of Sondheim’s that loosely follows a commitment-phobic man in his 30s struggling to understand relationships. Bobby learns a lot from his married friends, and ultimately comes to a place where he realizes he’s open to love and all the messiness it entails…as much of a pain as it is. He goes from bemoaning convincing a woman to stay longer than just a night, to being okay with a very safe and deluded idea of marriage, to being willing to have emotionally vulnerability in a relationship.

Rebecca Bunch is almost the exact opposite of Bobby. She comes in willing to crowd someone with love (and wanting to be crowded herself) to the point where she romanticizes her not-so-bright former crush and West Covina, California. It’s her obsession in the way it’s Bobby’s phobia. Yet I think there’s a way for those two character arcs to converge. In fact, Bobby’s “Marry Me a Little” ambivalent fantasy is not dissimilar to the idealized outcomes Rebecca imagined in a marriage with Josh.

“And then, in a wonderful way Everything in the past will just fall away My daddy will love me And my mommy will love me And Josh will love me and then I’ll never have problems again.”

In both cases, neither of them had the concept of a sustainable relationship really understood…just what they’d get out of it. Then they both kept growing.

Rebecca obviously doesn’t need a “Being Alive” moment in that she’s never needed convincing to open herself to love. But she does need to open herself to vulnerability. If she finds someone, it’s someone she has to recognize is as frightened as she is of being alive, and that’s okay. Because it’s not about love curing everything, but about healthy relationships that allow you to grow individually.

“Somebody make me come through, I’ll always be there.”

This is the spot that Rebecca seems destined to reach. She’s a good person, right? Well there’s nothing more to that point than taking healthy approaches towards relationships, romantic and platonic alike. She deserves both and shouldn’t fear either, but instead must learn to trust in herself to be okay getting there.

Which is exactly what Season 3 set up.


Images courtesy of The CW

Author

  • Kylie

    Kylie is a Managing Editor at The Fandomentals on a mission to slay all the tropes. She has a penchant for complex familial dynamics and is easily pleased when authors include in-depth business details.

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