'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend': TV Review

The CW
Star and co-creator Rachel Bloom is a talent to watch.

The CW's musical-comedy sings when it sings, but the rest still needs work.

The CW was wise to premiere Crazy Ex-Girlfriend at the tail end of one of the most dismal fall-TV launch seasons in recent memory.

Coming in the wake of movie-to-TV adaptations nobody wanted, needlessly twisty thrillers nobody understands and even a few time-period-boosted successes nobody's excited about, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is something fresh, unfamiliar and original. It's a big swing in a fall of small swings and correspondingly small hits, and there's little doubt that both the creative forces behind the show and The CW are displaying a welcome audacity here.

But let's not go, um, crazy.

By all means, hail Crazy Ex-Girlfriend relative to everything premiering around it and celebrate its upside. Download and memorize its songs and, most importantly, celebrate co-creator and star Rachel Bloom as the kind of unspoiled voice the industry should be cultivating. But don't forget to also hope for improvement because Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a mess, albeit a charming and admirable mess.

Originally developed by Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna as a Showtime half-hour, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has been extended and padded into an hourlong musical romantic dramedy for The CW.

Remember how it seemed a little cute and a little nuts that Felicity Porter ditched Stanford to go to University of New York because of a strange combination of love for Ben Covington and a love of what Ben Covington might represent? Crazy Ex-Girlfriend posits that a comparable situation a decade later would play a little differently.

Bloom plays Rebecca Bunch who, dumped on the last day of summer camp in 2005 by Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III), pours herself monomaniacally into academic pursuits. Ten years later, goaded by her demanding mother, Rebecca is an upwardly mobile New York City attorney on the partnership track. But is she happy? Apparently not, seeing as how a suggestive butter advertisement and a chance meeting with Josh inspire her to drop everything and move to West Covina, Calif., only two hours from the ocean (four in traffic). Hint: This is a bad idea, or at least a strange idea, since spontaneously moving to West Covina is already of questionable merit, but doing so for a guy you haven't seen in a decade is even more flimsy.

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Fortunately, as the title readily acknowledges, this is either a crazy thing for Rebecca to do or a thing that easily could be viewed as crazy. But is it truly crazy? After one episode, I can't exactly tell.

Is Crazy Ex-Girlfriend one of those ironic titles think Trophy Wife or Cougar Town that showrunners and networks can't get enough of, but viewers reject aggressively because they sound annoying, and nobody sits down in front of their TV and says, "This sounds annoying, but I bet it's ironic, and that's what I'm in the mood for tonight!"? Rebecca rationalizes to herself that she isn't just making the move for Josh and that this is more about her happiness and her need for change. Is this level of self-awareness also proof of sanity?

Or is Crazy Ex-Girlfriend a semiliteral title? Probably not because you don't want to run afoul of mental-illness-awareness advocates, but you can't dispute that Rebecca is getting messages from billboards, and she's breaking out in song, both in the privacy of her own home and in city streets. That could be evidence of whimsy or a disconnect from reality or both.

It's best to assume that Bloom and McKenna know "crazy ex-girlfriend" is a marginalized archetype, and they're reclaiming the pejorative.

Reclamation is achieved largely because Bloom's weary perkiness makes her immediately appealing. In the nonmusical moments, which are all too much of the show, Bloom has to convince you that she's a tightly wound bundle of happiness potential just waiting to burst. And when she does, as fans of viral favorites like "If Disney Cartoons Were Historically Accurate" and "F Me, Ray Bradbury" can attest, she's like a frazzled, soaring animated princess.

Marc Webb, who also elevated the pilot for CBS' Limitless, directed the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend opener, and he has a way with deliriously daffy production numbers that blur cartoonishness into the real world. If you're going to have your heroine singing about West Covina, why not integrate a chorus of crooning billboards, a flash mob and a giant pretzel to swing upon like the moon in an old vaudeville act? And if you're going to do a tribute to date-night preparation, why not include a girl group and introduce an uncomfortable rapper for the breakdown? Remember the spontaneous romantic happy dance in (500) Days of Summer? If Webb can bring musical magic to downtown L.A., you know he's gifted at adding melody to the mundane.

The full-scale musical numbers in the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend pilot are probably the two best moments from any new network show premiering this fall, but there are only two of them, plus a reprise and some complementary humming. And The CW already has released a video for "Sexy Getting Ready Song." That leaves a lot of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend going unsung, and those are parts that, at best, feel rough.

Some of that roughness is probably intentional. In setting up a counterpoint for the musical moments, Webb treats New York City as a city drained of happiness and then West Covina as a nightmarish hive of sports bars, housing developments and strip malls. Getting the room to breathe in Rebecca's fantasy scenes is a relief, but too much of the pilot is spent in suffocating urbanity and lifeless suburban sprawl, and too much of it is spent with actors who don't seem entirely comfortable because of a combination of TV inexperience and loosely sketched characters.

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If you're not a fan of streaming musical videos, it's possible that you won't recognize a single actor in the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend pilot. This offers a sense of discovery and also the pleasure of seeing a CW pilot that wasn't cast directly from a modeling portfolio (or from other CW shows), but it means you aren't inclined to a benefit of the doubt based on prior roles. Santino Fontana plays Greg, the bartender obviously meant as the Noel to Josh's Ben, but he's introduced only as a perfunctory additional corner to a love triangle, not as an interesting person, and Fontana and Bloom have no immediate chemistry. Knowing that Fontana is a Tony-nominated Broadway veteran might let you know that when he gets to sing, it'll be exciting, but he doesn't get to sing in the pilot, and he's not exciting. Rodriguez introduces Josh with only a vacant-eyed smile to recommend him, and even if he's just the facilitator for this crazy choice Rebecca's making, the character is so weak that the decision comes across as crazier than it necessarily should.

As Rebecca's West Covina boss, Darryl, Pete Gardner is introduced in a hail of Native American and Jew jokes that again make you question our heroine's decision even more than is ideal. Only Donna Lynne Champlin, as the paralegal who initially becomes Rebecca's West Covina adversary, gets enough pilot shadings to be interesting, but she keeps making leaps of judgment that suggest crucial scenes are missing. Even Bloom is plagued by abrupt character transitions and shifts in performance tone between sketch-style broadness and attempted naturalism, but at least you can tell she knows the character she's playing.

TV shows always need room to grow, which is especially true of the most ambitious pilots. In Jane the Virgin, The CW has given Crazy Ex-Girlfriend a compatible companion, but also a challenging side-by-side comparison. It may not have been a smash, but Jane had one of the smoothest and most consistent first seasons of any network show in years. I have high hopes for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, but it's not there yet.

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