Go Ahead and Love Something an Embarrassing Amount: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend in the age of the Male Glance

I’m going to write about a show that I love so much I’ve refrained from writing about it a whole lot. I think that on some level I have been worried about whether I can convey how deep and insightful and fun it is with the kind of clarity and precision that the show itself displays. The time has come, though, in part because nowadays, as the final season airs week by week, nearly everything I read, watch and listen to makes me think of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on some level, particularly the various thinkpieces that have been pouring forth over the last year about the entertainment industry and the issues of representation it faces. I’m consistently amazed at how little credit this show receives from some of my favorite critics and podcasters; my theory is that it’s just flown under most people’s radar for most of its run. I’ve talked about it ad nauseam to my friends and relatives, and I’ve harangued many of the people who take one look at it and give it a hard pass to just try it. If you’re one of the people who has looked at the preview on Netflix and said, “yeah, nah,” let me challenge you way Rachel Bloom challenged Marc Maron when she appeared on his podcast: “dig into that: why?”

I’ll come right out and say it, though I’m not saying anything new: you’re probably overlooking this show because you don’t think a show about a girl trying to get her boyfriend back could be for you. Bloom’s prodding of Maron was in response to his labeling both Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and his own show GLOW “guilty pleasures”: when she presses him to explain what he means by that, he offers that “well, the show’s not really for me, but I enjoy it.” She replies: “I wonder if a little bit of that is because [these are] shows created by and starring women, and men see female content even if it's [operating] on a deep subconscious level as fluffy.” To his credit, Maron cops to it, but just reflect on the fact that he questions and critiques art and its creators for a living, and yet he was still willing to say to a guest on his show that he considered her work a guilty pleasure.

Let’s just say for a moment that the show has nothing going on below the surface, and that what you see in Season 1 is what you get. If nothing else, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a Mike-Schur-worthy joke delivery machine (note that I name-dropped a man whose shows you’ve probably heard of to make you pay attention!) that is a whole lot of fun to watch. Is there a more perfect encapsulation than the below “Having A Few People Over” of how amazing you feel when you’re putting out a dope spread for the cool friends you want to impress?

Come for the silliness, if that’s what you’re coming for, and know that as the show moves through its run, you’re going to see just how carefully Season 1 was setting the table while you were busy laughing at Pete Gardner’s mustache. Like many shows that rely on the chemistry of a comedic ensemble, we see Crazy Ex-Girlfriend really hit its stride in Season 2. Unlike many of those shows, though, we also see Season 2 building on Season 1 in a way that makes it abundantly clear that nothing in Season 1 was thrown away. You know why Parks and Rec changes so much in Season 2? Leslie Knope tested badly - she wasn’t likable enough, either to audiences or to the other characters on the show (observe how much they make fun of her and generally seem to be skeptical of or annoyed by her), so they scrapped the dynamics they had had going in Season 1 and rebuilt, giving us the show we now revere so much. This is not what happened with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: Rebecca Bunch is exactly the Rebecca Bunch we are going to follow, from the first moment of the pilot, and so is every other person in her orbit. Characters whose choices seemed erratic and hard to justify in Season 1 are going to confront the actual emotional problems they have been trying to ignore as the show marches forward, the actual root causes of their behavior. They’re not going to stop being funny, but they’re going to show you that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was never in denial, even for a moment, about the complexities it would be working with.

Season 1 with its table-setting is the season that’s easiest to assess with a glance, because it isn’t showing its hand yet unless you’re really paying attention. It’s a musical about feelings and romance, and there are fun songs that have funny takes on women stuff. The critical consensus on Rotten Tomatoes says it all: “Lively musical numbers and a refreshing, energetic lead, Rachel Bloom, make Crazy Ex-Girlfriend a charming, eccentric commentary on human relationships.” In such a positive take, all the diminutive words you could want for a show that aspires to and is so much more. “However far we’ve come,” writes Lili Loofbourow for VQR, “thanks to shows like InsecureGetting OnCrazy Ex-GirlfriendFleabag, and Catastrophe, we still have not quite learned to see female storytellers as either masterful or intentional.” I’m going to quote from this essay extensively, but it’s worth clicking on and reading from start to finish if you haven’t already. Note how she says that we still have not quite learned to see mastery and intentionality in female storytelling. This won’t change overnight; we have work to do, whether we realize it or not, and the work has to start somewhere.

Creators Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh-McKenna, having already sustained long careers in entertainment, are fully aware of how much work they have to do to get your attention and keep it. They know that the biggest reason your eyeballs have not been on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the biggest reason your ears have not heard things about it on your favorite TV-critic podcasts (I’m looking at you, The Watch - I love you, but I’m looking squarely at you) is that it is a show about a woman. “Faced with a woman’s story,” writes Loofbourow, “we’re overtaken with the swift taxonomic impulse an amateur astronomer feels on spotting Sirius—there it is! he says, and looks to the next star.” This is the male glance, dismissive and fleeting. It is convinced of its own power to assess something critically based on one thumbnail image. It is also so ingrained we don’t even know we’re doing it. “The male glance is the opposite of the male gaze,” Loofbourow continues. “Rather than linger lovingly on the parts it wants most to penetrate, it looks, assumes, and moves on. It is, above all else, quick. Under its influence, we rejoice in our distant diagnostic speed.”

Besides being on the CW, a network whose shows rarely break into our culturally-agreed-upon pantheon of essential TV, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a musical, which for some people is right out. When we watched the pilot episode, I felt both my husband and me shift uncomfortably on the couch as the first song began; we didn’t know we’d be watching a musical. We are not really musical people. Can we handle this, or will the musical numbers just take us out of it every time? Then, towards the end of the episode, we get “The Sexy Getting Ready Song.”

This song blew me away when I watched it in 2016, and it blows me away now. I remember laughing out loud in gleeful amazement at all its obvious jokes, which are no less funny for being obvious. The blood that splatters on the bathroom wall when Rebecca Bunch (Bloom) waxes her pubic hair. The guy who enters to deliver a graphic rap interlude (“Hey, look, hop on my dick/With that tight little dress) and finds himself in disbelief at the “patriarchal bullshit” that is the (literal) carnage of Rebecca getting ready for her date. “You know what? I gotta go apologize to some bitches. I'm forever changed after what I've just seen.” You and me both, dude. The humor is perfectly broad as well as painfully precise, which is why it’s such a joy to watch.

I also think this is where the show tips its hand, just for a second, and shows us where it’s really going in its later seasons: the emotional damage it’s going to reckon with, the destructive tendencies its main character will confront. As Rebecca calls in reinforcements to yank up her Spanx (“'Cause, boy, I know you like/An hourglass silhouette”), we get one of her regularly perfect moments of physical comedy, just the right balance of ridiculous and all too real. And what thirty-year-old woman, by the way, has ever been willing to let her stomach hang out on screen while she pulls up a pair of Spanx? What female protagonist has ever shown us her muffin top? Cut to the briefest, tiniest moment of Rebecca looking at herself in the mirror sideways, almost approving of her Spanxed-in waistline, and then crumpling.

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It lasts less than a second, and then we’re on to the next perfect joke (“Let’s see how the guys get ready.” Cut to Greg Serrano, played by Santino Fontana, asleep in front of the TV.), but it’s hard to overstate how crucial it is that we see this. Rebecca in this shot is, just for a moment, letting herself look at what she’s doing and feel the weight of it. And the show isn’t going to let the viewer feel smug about having seen her like this. She’s intentionally showing herself to us like this, and she’s letting us see both the colossal effort and the wish that the effort were not actually there.

I once put on a pair of Spanx. I was going to a wedding, there were going to be family pictures, and I was 7 months postpartum and still unable to fit comfortably into most of my closet. A kind friend took a look at what I was working with, and she then sent me all her varieties of Spanx to try on, insisting that they were all I needed to photograph well in my various dresses. I remember yanking them on, with a silly amount of difficulty, and then looking in the mirror at my all of a sudden trim waist. It was both disorienting and sad, not to mention excruciatingly uncomfortable, and I remember thinking, “is this really what it takes?” I couldn’t shake the overwhelming sense that I was being dishonest, misrepresenting myself in some fundamental way, and I sent the Spanx back to my friend the day after the wedding. The photos did turn out nicely, though.

Yes, the song is telling us, it is ridiculous how much effort a beautiful woman has to expend in order to project flawlessness. It is also ridiculous how much we romanticize this process of “sexy getting ready” even as we scorn the women who allow the labor to show. The process itself, paradoxically, must erase itself in order to be respected and considered successful. Loofbourow again: “Women, in our poor preprogrammed imaginings, are just a slightly uglier surface than the one we see—and the only intentionality we readily attribute to them is the work of masking.” If you type “no makeup” into Google, the first search term it supplies is “no makeup look” which is, you guessed it, a look achieved with makeup (and note how many products you’re encouraged to buy in its pursuit!). “I woke up like dis” and what have you. Makeup that is evident is makeup that betrays our efforts to look other than we are, allowing the male glance to yet again conclude that it has seen all it needs to. “We whoop with joy,” writes Loofbourow, “when we spot the performance, and conclude—because it deigns to perform and because the performance is visible—that the consciousness behind it is petty, superficial, and cognitively incapable of witnessing the pathos of its own condition.” If someone can spot that you’re wearing Spanx, or that you’re wearing makeup, the instinct is to be embarrassed that you’ve been caught in an act of unflattering vanity. What the moment I’m referring to in “Sexy Getting Ready Song” affirms is that the Rebecca Bunch who is doing the masking is the one we are interested in, not the hourglass figure she is projecting. The real Rebecca is looking at that figure in the mirror, thinking about it, having emotions about it. The sexy getting ready is not a simple joy, a vain pleasure, but rather a complicated and intentional act of both storytelling and identity-forming.

A spiritual cousin to this song came along last year in another pilot episode of a show determined to pull back the curtain on women’s efforts to curate their appearances for the sake of the men whose approval they need. Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), Season 1, Episode 1 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, gets into bed with her husband, her hair perfectly arranged on the pillow next to his, the very image of easy flawlessness. Cut to Midge Maisel, waking up at midnight for her beauty regimen. Curlers, mask, hair wrap. Cut to Midge Maisel, waking up before he stirs, just in time to remove the curlers and the mask and apply foundation, so that when he rolls over and finds his beautiful wife in bed, she is everything he ever thought he deserved in life. The work is cyclical, endless, and exhausting, and yet we quickly learn that Midge Maisel is anything but superficial; she is, rather, a master of her own image-crafting. She has an amazing amount of control over her image, a strikingly clear sense of herself from a third-person perspective. The male gaze is her world, the male glance perhaps even more so, and we’re going to see her figure out how to make it work for her.

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Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, as serious and thoughtful and crushing as it is, keeps me coming back to rewatch its music videos again and again because they are so damn funny. Not unlike my beloved The Good Place and Parks and Recreation, the show displays a lot of deep, genuine love between its characters. We question their choices (those of us who are attorneys may even yell at the TV every time Rebecca commits a felony) but we love them, too, and we want them to be okay. We don’t always want them to get what they want, because sometimes what they want is fucked up, but we want them to find the emotional honesty they need to find a better path. I know, I said it was funny. It is funny, because you know what, being human is funny. Everything is embarrassing, in the words of a protagonist of another show that makes me feel seen almost as much as this one does. We don’t have to pretend that living in a human body doesn’t take an ungodly amount of effort sometimes.

It was hard, but I professed my love to this show without any spoilers. It’s in its final season. Please, please, please give it a try. Especially if the Arctic winter is getting you down, remember that it’s California somewhere. “What would Christmas be without historically low mountain snow causing staggering drought? But hey, this eggnog fro-yo’s super tight!”

Super tight.