The Golden Age of Television Drama is dead. Long live the Golden Age of Television Comedy.
But seriously folks, for all intents and purposes, the era we once knew as the Golden Age of Television is over. The epoch of dark, morally complex television with cinema-grade filmmaking driven by a series of often closely-examined masculine antiheroes ended with the series finale of Mad Men after attracting so much attention and love and reexamination of television as an artistic medium.
That hasn’t, however, brought us into a new darkness. Instead, we’ve continued the Golden Age with a genre shift. It’s now comedy that pushes the medium, keeping its moral complexity and smart filmmaking, but expanding not only its focus but also its aim. Rather than examining men who are holding back their darkness and giving in, the Golden Age of Comedy is about people who’ve let themselves give into their darkness and how they get out of it to find happiness.
After all, a tragedy ends in death and a comedy ends in a wedding.
With all that in mind, I want therefore to argue that as Breaking Bad was the standard-bearer for the Golden Age of Drama, so should the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend be the standard-bearer for the Golden Age of Comedy. After all, it’s the most honest heir to the throne of exemplification of the times, besides the fact that I think it stands alongside Bojack Horseman, You’re The Worst, and Review as the exemplars of this Age.
I also want to talk about it, because to be frank, not enough people are watching it. With it popping up on Netflix, it may be time to start.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is the story of Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), a Harvard-educated lawyer who was…actually, you know what, the show explains it pretty well…
Oh yeah, the show is a musical. That’s kind of the special part. It’s loaded to the brim with original musical numbers that take place within the main character’s fantasy sequences. I’ll be dropping a few of my favorites throughout.
The show is the brainchild of star Rachel Bloom and writer Aline Brosh McKenna. Bloom first came to prominence as a YouTube musical comedian, most notably with “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury.”
A video that made the old genius himself chuckle in delight.
The show that would become Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was pitched to Showtime, but when Showtime dropped, the CW picked it up and had it retooled to fit in with their network lineup.
Which seems as good a time as any to drop in a quick line about the turnaround of the CW network. What we used to know as The WB (and UPN) was…the least favored of the networks. Low-budget shows of pretty people dramas tended to dominate, minus a few diversions into genre programming that also featured pretty people having drama.
Yet, within the past few years, The CW has made its bread on really smart, mid-budget genre programming. Based on the model of Supernatural and The Vampire Diaries, CW fleshed things out with Arrow, The Flash, iZombie, and now the fantastic twin guns of Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Both shows which firmly situate themselves in genres (telenovela and musical), but have a certain anarchic and meta tendency about the way they approach them.
Anyway, back into Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. As stated earlier, this is the brainchild of Rachel Bloom, who owns the show in a way that…is actually fairly common. At least in the Comedy Golden Age, shows are marked by auterism. The head creative voice is often the star of the show who’s usually also its creator and one of its key writers. Think Louie, Master of None, and now this one. If the main character isn’t directly the star and creator (Louie), they’re usually a thinly-veiled version (the main character’s name in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is Rebecca Bunch).
What marks Crazy Ex-Girlfriend in a particular way is the marked subjectivity of the lead’s persona. We essentially spend the show watching it filtered through Rebecca’s ideas, getting the majority of the inner life from the musical sequences occurring in Rebecca’s head. It’s an inordinate amount of power for any character to hold, and it’s Bloom’s skill that holds it together.
Bloom is PHENOMENAL in this show, dancing with the lines that are drawn for her character better than anyone since Cranston or Hamm. Rebecca is a fundamentally kind of broken person, incredibly likeable but incredibly hindered by her anxiety and depression which manifest themselves in a series of self-destructive behaviors.
Bloom knows the fundamentally difficult task she’s given herself, making the most of essentially manipulating the audience alongside the show itself. She’s enormously likeable and fun, letting her self-destruction and manipulation lay just under the surface and letting it emerge only when it needs to. She plays both sides enormously well and is the kind of person you root for with the ever-present feeling in the back of your brain that you might be enabling her.
Much of the show’s strength rests in its supporting cast as well. Some of them start out extraordinary, like Santino Fontana’s Greg or Donna Lynne Champlin’s Paula. Others grow on you like Vincent Rodriguez III’s Josh or Pete Gardner’s Darryl. But they’re all given room and arcs to grow, and they bounce off of each other in ways that never cease to be entertaining with a series of enormously confident performances.
Weirdly for its subject matter, confidence seems to be the key word I can apply to this show. It’s so assured of what it can do, and it shows in the filmmaking. Where it needs to be, it’s simple shot-reverse conversation. Where it needs something a little, it displays remarkably fluent control of different styles of music video and musical filmmaking. Elaborate but never difficult to follow and always with a strong grounding in the character moment.
Moreover, the musical conceit gives the show a remarkable forward momentum. Not just because you love these sequences and look forward to them, but because they get through conversations that would usually be dialogue heavy and bog the show down, especially given that they’re more common concepts.
Look at the two above. The first is a conversation about whether or not to just “settle for someone”and the other is a pretty standard “way back when” rivalry. The songs give these tropes a certain pop in their telling, and keeps the show moving to the material that’s more unique for the show.
Namely, that being the deft manipulation of the audience and the specific question over whether or not Rebecca Bunch deserves to be happy. That isn’t to say we don’t want her to. Because we really do. It’s hard not to want that.
But the show is absolutely upfront about the ways she’s difficult, and it’s getting to the fundamental question endemic to the Golden Age of Comedy, which is how are broken people made whole and happy again? It’s the question of Bojack Horseman and You’re the Worst and this show.
What makes Crazy Ex-Girlfriend the standard bearer is how powerfully it wields that question. No other show that is so critical and has such a difficult main character is also so subjective. It plays with the audience perception almost episode-by-episode, subtly weaving in until it’s time to confront our sympathies as well as the show’s narrative around the characters.
Like one of my favorite films of all time (another musical!) The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, it’s darkness wrapped in a candy-coating. It’s a relentlessly fun and enjoyable show, if crushingly awkward, but it asks how far we can let someone go, and really does play around with what we as an audience should be or could be willing to identify.
Does someone have to be a good person for us to like them? And does a character have to be a good person to deserve happiness?
It’s a difficult question, but I don’t think there’s a show on TV right now that better addresses it or is more fun to watch while you’re grappling with it. It’s struggling in the ratings, so watch it on Netflix and give it a look when it returns this fall to the CW.