Women on television have a likeability problem. Specifically: they are too likeable.
The great dramas of recent years (The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad) have all centered around male antiheroes–flawed (or even criminal) men who flout societal norms to the mingled horror and delight of audiences. Throw a rock and you’ll hit a tortured male protagonist making morally dubious choices. But in the past few years, women have slowly begun to slouch into TV’s antihero boy’s club. There’s How To Get Away With Murder’s Annalise Keating (Viola Davis), Difficult People’s Julie Kessler (Julie Klausner), and even Jessica Jones gets an honorary membership for hard drinking and sarcasm. But television has yet to give an antiheroine as delightful as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), who connives her way into our hearts in singing, dancing, glorious technicolor.
For the unfamiliar, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend tells the story of Rebecca, a driven and successful New York lawyer. She abruptly moves to the West Coast, supposedly to pursue a new job, but actually in hopes of reconnecting with an old boyfriend. Upon arriving, she discovers that her ex has a girlfriend. But she is undeterred, and spends the rest of the season chasing down her happy ending and mowing over anyone who gets in her way.
Oh, and did I mention it’s a musical?
What makes Rebecca such a great antihero are the ways in which she is recognizable to any woman weaned on romantic comedies. Rebecca is Bridget Jones if she plunged off the edge of reason. She’s a Disney princess who can’t accept that she’s not living in a cartoon. Just as Don Draper and Walter White are trying to live out fantasies of masculinity, Rebecca has been sold on the promise of a fairy tale romance to which she genuinely believes she entitled. Of course, the big joke is that the object of her obsession, Josh Chan, is essentially a handsome but blank canvas onto which she has painted her dreams, and if she could only free herself from the fantasy, she would see that they have nothing in common.
The premise of a deluded woman chasing after romance could veer easily into either cloying or depressing territory, but the show keeps it fun by never allowing you to pity Rebecca. For one thing, she’s too smart; despite her duplicitousness, she is a capable professional when at work. For another, she truly believes–with a kind of white-knuckled desperation–that she is a good person, and all her bad actions (which include breaking into her therapist’s office, breaking into Josh’s apartment, and lying all the time to everyone) are committed in the name of love. Her deftly-handled struggles with mental illness are never conflated with her character flaws (and for those concerned about the title, the show itself points out many times how offensive the word “crazy” is). She’s also not completely oblivious to her trail of destruction, and occasionally experiences intense self-loathing (which gets put to music in “I’m The Villain In My Own Story”).
It’s fun to watch Rebecca be a bad person partly because she’s surrounded by so many good people, from her best friend/henchwoman Donna, to her boss, Daryl (who is the single best, if one of the very very few, bisexual man on television). It’s a little like Jane The Virgin told from Petra’s point of view.
Despite Rachel Bloom’s surprise Emmy win last year, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which returned for its second season on October 21, remains tragically ignored by viewers (as evidenced by its move from a choice Monday night time slot to the Friday night graveyard). Partly to blame is its concept–which invites viewers both to see the world through Rebecca’s rose-colored glasses and simultaneously point out the cracks in her worldview. But if audiences can recognize Jane The Virgin as a subversive, smart, feminist comedy disguised as a telenovela/Target commercial, then they can learn to love a subversive, smart, feminist comedy disguised as musical fever dream. If nothing else, the show proves the crucial point that we don’t have to like a female protagonist in order to love her.