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How ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ Flips the Romance Script

If you haven’t already done so, but frankly even if you have, now’s probably a good time to binge-watch Rachel Bloom’s genius musical TV show, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” (Which, last I checked, you can’t watch from Canada.)

It’s fashionable to say that a show about romantic love is actually about something else. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, however, is not a show about “something else.” But its love stories are all a bit subversive. Not necessarily in the identity-categories sense (although not necessarily not in that sense, either). More like, they subvert narratives. They flip the script. Which are fancy ways of saying, they offer up the unexpected.

That the show is a musical frees the story from the usual realism constraints. Once we’re in a land where people randomly break into song, we’re primed to be less judgmental of the show’s premise: The “crazy ex-girlfriend” the title refers to is Rebecca Bunch, a twenty-something Jewish lawyer who runs into Josh Chan, a former summer camp beau, on the street in New York. He had dumped her when they were teens, but is a bit flirty with her when he sees her a decade later… so she decides to quit her high-powered job and move to the inland town of West Covina, California, to be near him.

The premise is neither realistic nor — if it were to happen in real life — all that endearing. It would be sort of… frightening! But in the context of the show, Rebecca’s love for Josh is an exaggerated version of the male role in every romantic comedy, and there’s something delightful about that role reversal. She’s the pursuer, he’s the pursued. She’s the Ivy-educated lawyer who falls for a gorgeous, working-class childhood sweetheart. She eats tacos and sleeps around; he’s a workout fanatic, and for much of the show, he has a serious, live-in girlfriend. She’s the neurotic, he the airhead. And, of course, it flips the Jewish-communal script to portray a Jewish-American woman in love with an Asian-American man.

The beautiful woman who has a man or several wrapped around her finger, despite not sleeping with or dating them, is a classic trope. The beautiful man who does the same? He exists in life, but isn’t often seen on television. (Only an obscure Britcom example comes to mind.) The unfamiliarity of this set-up – to the viewer, but just as importantly, to Rebecca herself – is what allows us to misinterpret Josh’s motivations for so long.

For the first several episodes, my thinking was, Josh is an oblivious idiot, and that’s what makes the show’s outlandish conceit possible: Everyone else – the audience, the other characters – understands that Rebecca is creepily in love with Josh. But Josh is too dense or just too chill to imagine such a possibility. And so the central tension of the show is, when will he realize what’s going on, and when he does, what will be the fallout?

The show drops clues that Josh knows Rebecca’s infatuated with him, and that he’s chosen to look the other way. And why wouldn’t he be pleased that there’s this smart, attractive woman who has decided he’s perfect, and who asks nothing in return?

Josh doesn’t lead Rebecca on, exactly, in the sense of making her think they might date, but he nurtures her crush. He chooses – consciously or not – to keep her in a permanent state of confusion about her chances with him. When Josh praises Rebecca for really getting him and believing in him (implicitly: unlike his stuck-up girlfriend), it at first seems like a sign that he and Rebecca are meant to be… but then starts to look like him just enjoying a woman being infatuated with him, as versus being his real-life partner and thus seeing him as a flawed human being.

He exploits her crush, asking her (at work! in the middle of her workday!) to help him with a job application to work at a video-game store. And he gets jealous when she dates someone else, not because he (Josh) wants to leave his own girlfriend for her, but because he wants to have it all. And by “all” I mean, he wants the girlfriend and the cheerleader.

Eventually Josh’s priest calls him out on this. Well spotted, Father Brah! At that point in the series, I still thought Josh might be secretly in love with Rebecca. And then it hit me: No, that’s not what’s going on.

Josh’s agency, as it were, is only hinted at in Season One. Season Two shows us what happens when Rebecca finally snags Josh, and what happens is, he remains out-of-reach. The script flips back into a more familiar one: She’s the clingy one who wants a relationship (and, holy crap, that last episode, a kid!), while he wants to keep things casual. He moves in with her and becomes a mooching, aggressively unaffectionate friend-with-benefits. Which… shouldn’t be surprising, when you consider that the imbalance of interest between these two has been the driving force of the entire show. And yet it comes as a devastating shock to Rebecca and to the viewer when the much-hoped-for outcome – Josh and Rebecca, together!!! – proves so bleak. Nothing is bleaker than a grown woman pretending to like video games to impress a man. Except maybe the current state of U.S. politics, but this was an extended effort not to think about that.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy edits the Sisterhood, and can be reached at bovy@forward.com. Her book, The Perils of “Privilege”, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in March 2017.

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