Rachel’s work was always filled with Yes, you’re going to laugh, but there’s pain, and what she calls ‘boner killer.’ The male gaze part of it is always shut down…Hollywood studio movies for women, you’re just never allowed to make those characters very unlikable.
As viewers, we have long been trained by Hollywood to believe that happiness (at least on-screen) is represented by two people actually falling in love and living happily ever after. It’s a tried and true formula, seen in show after show.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is not that show.
The CW’s musical comedy blows up that entire formula and charts its own path. The brainchild of screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada, Morning Glory) and the show’s star, Rachel Bloom, the series, now in its third season, is still like nothing else on TV.
The hour-long musical comedy tells the story of Rebecca Bunch (Bloom), ditching her life and fast-track law career in New York to relocate to West Covina, California, after a random encounter with Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), the boy who broke her 16-year-old heart years earlier at summer camp. The first season tracked her pursuit of this former flame, while the second season found them rekindling their romance, in a way, ultimately getting engaged and almost, but not quite, making it to the altar.
Season three finds Rebecca in further uncharted waters after proclaiming at the end of the second season that “Josh Chan must be destroyed.” There have been potentially more appropriate—and even more willing—suitors for Rebecca, such as Josh’s best friend, bartender Greg (Santino Fontana) or even fellow lawyer Nathaniel (Scott Michael Foster). But we know this journey is about her and not them, even if she herself has not realized that yet. (Perhaps someday her ever persistent therapist will actually make some kind of breakthrough.)
Did we mention the musical numbers? Bollywood dancing, power ballads, whole-cast, Broadway-style showstoppers. They’re all here. And they’re all laced with wicked humor. No surprise when you consider Bloom’s early work creating online videos with musical performances and titles such as F*ck Me, Ray Bradbury and Pictures of Your D*ck.
The 13-episode third season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend airs Friday nights on The CW. Co-creators Bloom and McKenna spoke to the Writers Guild of America West website about their protagonist’s journey, the darkness under the sunny, poppy exterior of their show, the universality of failed relationships, and why Rebecca Bunch might just be the Jamie Lannister of musical comedy.
I read a quote where you talked about knowing people, even smart people, who have trouble changing their circumstances. Over the first two seasons, you have a protagonist who doesn’t seem to have changed much or really moved forward.
Rachel Bloom: She hasn’t? You don’t think so?
Aline Brosh McKenna: I think you do see her change. We’re not really as much of a hugging and learning show. As much as she takes one step forward, she’ll often take a couple steps back but she’s definitely moving through a process of trying to figure out why she’s there and what she’s doing there. At times, it more resembles a downward spiral, more than a more traditional arc forward because it is, certainly in the first couple of seasons, a little bit of a descent.
Rachel Bloom: She’s on a journey. She’s in process. Just because she’s still in many ways deluded doesn’t mean that she hasn’t changed or grown, it’s just that she’s not learning revelatory lessons that fundamentally make her suddenly happy. We’re dealing with figuring out what makes her unhappy and why it makes her unhappy. The thing that happened in the season finale of last season that was really important was that, sure, she said Josh Chan must be destroyed, but that was preceded by having her tell her father off and saying “Fuck you” to her dad which she should have said long ago because her dad’s a fucking asshole. There are these incremental changes, like in life. There’s very few times in which you have these big revelations that change your personality all at once.
Aline Brosh McKenna: She’s like your friend from high school that you keep running into—you’ll run into them, and they’ll seem like they’re doing better, and they’re getting their life together and they realize that maybe playing their acoustic guitar in a coffee house is not going to be their future, and then you run into them four months later and they’re back in the coffee house playing their acoustic guitar. People have to relearn—we all have to relearn—the same lessons over and over again, really.
There’s a moment in the second season, where Josh proposes marriage while Rebecca is in the middle of a therapy session and the therapist pleads with her not to accept. This seemed, in a way, like the therapist might be speaking for the audience.
Rachel Bloom: There are a lot of characters on this show who speak the truth of what we believe. Ultimately, if Rebecca fully agreed with them and changed her life, the show would be over. It’s always setting that balance of her progressing and learning—just enough.
It’s surprising that you did not encounter more notes about the Rebecca character, about having her be a little more this way or that way. But you’ve kept her consistent over the first two seasons. Was everyone on board with your vision of her from the beginning?
Rachel Bloom: Shouldn’t Walter White stop making meth? And shouldn’t Jon Hamm [Don Draper] stop fucking around on his wife? It’s similar in that, if you take away the vices, you don’t have a show at a certain point. Now, unlike those shows, we are fundamentally rooting for the inherent happiness and goodness of our character.
Aline Brosh McKenna: Because we had always pitched the show in that way, that she was going to be an anti-heroine and that it wasn’t going to be a “learning and smiling” show, where her personality improves drastically every episode, we were never asked to do that. She does have a progression. It just might not always be a forward one. This season there’s a bit of a spiral, for sure.
You’ve mentioned Walter White and Don Draper. It seems like many male protagonists on TV now are some form of anti-hero. Female protagonists in the same vein seem not quite as prevalent; one who routinely risks audience sympathy and empathy.
Aline Brosh McKenna: We came on one or two years after Girls and Lena [Dunham] kind of led the way for younger women. Veep also has an element of that. In Veep, they don’t try and buy anything back for her, ever. In Girls, there was that complexity. Broad City, somewhat.
Weirdly, the shows that we patterned ourselves on were dramas because they had a lot of narrative propulsion. It was always going to be a forward moving story, in four acts, that had a lot of propulsion, partly because my background is in movies. Rachel also wanted to do that, right from the beginning. There were a lot of great female comedic heroines, but storywise, we took a lot of inspiration, for me, from The Sopranos, The Wire, stuff like that, where you’re telling a long-form story with a lot of forward momentum in the narrative.
Before season two, you said you had a four-season run in mind. Is that still the plan?
Aline Brosh McKenna: We roughly had end points for all four chapters. There’s a destination point for all four of them, and there’s a lot of wiggle in terms of how we get there. We certainly didn’t have every single beat worked out, but we definitely had broad strokes, and we definitely had destination end points for all four chapters. It was a lot like pitching a movie, like end of act 1, end of act 2, low point, act 3. We had all that structure built in, partly because it’s a rather slender premise. We wanted to show people the way in which we could turn the prism and generate that motion and that story propulsion.
The show was originally conceived as a half-hour. Did your approach change to make it an hour? What was the decision behind that?
Rachel Bloom: CW doesn’t do half-hours.
Aline Brosh McKenna: In terms of tone, our half-hour was a cable half-hour. It had that darkness to it, and it was 35 minutes long. Our show now is between 39 and 42 minutes long, so it wasn’t a huge expansion in terms of time, but they really let us preserve our tone which is part of the upside if someone picks up your pilot that’s already been shot, as opposed to a script where you can kind of go back and forth about the tone. When we developed for the CW, we had a pilot that everyone had been excited about and signed off on, so we always had a tonal touch point. Even though it does have dark elements, it has a sort of sunny, hopeful gist to it, and that really works well on the CW in a way that it might not ever have worked as well on Showtime.
That’s true. It’s an interesting dynamic. It’s a shiny package, but there’s darkness and depth underneath that exterior.
Aline Brosh McKenna: I had been writing romantic comedies where the leads always have to be sweet and all that. And Rachel’s work was always filled with Yes, you’re going to laugh, but there’s pain, and what she calls “boner killer.” The male gaze part of it is always shut down. What really attracted to me to her work was there was a little bit of a sob in the voice always and she has no vanity and is willing to be unlikable, and I really jumped at that. Hollywood studio movies for women, you’re just never allowed to make those characters very unlikable. Or even a little unlikable.
Rebecca can frustrate the audience with her decisions, but you don’t really give up on her. You do care about her.
Aline Brosh McKenna: A lot of that is built into the writing. You’re thinking, Oh, shit, don’t do that! But you understand why she’s doing it. That’s part of it. And part of it is honestly Rachel, as a performer. You just root for her so much, she can do awful things and you can root for her. We try to put that on the page, but we also know we have Rachel to kind of bring that home.
Rachel Bloom: The characters that I feel drawn to in TV and film are all complex and all shoot themselves in the foot. I find that those are the most compelling characters to watch. I don’t really like characters that are just good all the time and goody two-shoes. There’s no story there. It’s like, Why am I even watching this? There’s a lot of TV that’s out there now that features characters who you like despite the fact that they do horrible things. I mean, Jamie Lannister, in Game of Thrones, being such a prime example. He tried to kill a child and fucks his sister, and yet everyone roots for him. It’s like, okay.
You’ve said that the scripts come before the songs and musical numbers. Is that still how it works?
Aline Brosh McKenna: We break the stories first and the songs come out of that. We try to do them in tandem as much as possible, so that we don’t write episodes and stick songs backwards into them. It works best when we can do them together. Time being what it is, sometimes the songs get written when the episode’s a little further down the line.
There’s an episode early in the third season, where a somewhat minor supporting character [Rebecca’s law office co-worker Tim] takes center stage with his own song for the first time. How do you figure out that process of distributing songs among characters?
Aline Brosh McKenna: It depends. They all come out of the story. That episode is about frustration. So thematically in writing about that and writing about frustration, we wanted to write about the orgasm gap and in terms of thinking who was in our show who might need to learn that lesson, we had that character there from the first two seasons. He’s the guy who most likely would need to learn that lesson. We try to spread the songs around as much as possible. Rachel is really not vain about that at all. Rachel is just as happy to write a song for someone else or come up with an idea for a song for someone else. Rachel, [Fountains of Wayne’s] Adam [Schlesinger], and Jack [Dolgen], are happy to write for any of the characters. Jack was Rachel’s partner before, and he’s in the writers’ room and he’s a supervising producer. Adam also produces all the music, with his partner, Steven Gold.
Have you had any changes in the writers’ room since the show started?
Aline Brosh McKenna: We have exactly the same writing staff. Every single person is the same, except we promoted our writers’ assistant from the first season. Other than that, it’s all the same people.
Do you still write and rewrite together in the room?
Aline Brosh McKenna: Rachel and I try to break as many stories as we can before the season starts. Then we do a traditional breaking, outlining, with the whole room and everyone goes off to draft and when the drafts come back, instead of rewriting them myself, I rewrite them in the room, so it’s like how you do a half-hour comedy. I put the script up on the screen, and I rewrite it with the room. So they’re calling out suggestions and jokes and stuff. The person whose episode it is, kind of leads the discussion, is the focal point for the discussion, with me because ultimately they’re going to be on set, and they’re responsible for it. So any big moves that we’re making in the rewrite, I’m always running them by the writer of the episode, to make sure they fully understand what the episode is, so when they’re on set, they’re the expert on it.
Did your staff bring their own personal horror stories about relationships and friendships?
Aline Brosh McKenna: Oh yeah. Like somebody was asking us what our [favorite] show is, the show that we all talk about, and really what we talk about the most is our lives, our past lives, our current lives. We talk a lot about that and things have come from everybody’s experience. It’s a lively discussion in there. And you know because we started with a pilot, and Rachel and I had written two episodes before we started, we had a finished pilot and two scripts to read, so there was a very strong template. What was good about that was everybody wanted to write for the show, they knew they had something they could contribute. So we have people who know a lot about musical theater, people who know nothing about musical theater, we have people from half-hour rooms, people from hour rooms, people who had worked on musical shows before, people who hadn’t. What they all had in common was they loved the pilot.
Rachel and I come in every year with 15 pages of story ideas. Then there’s a lot of discussion. I had never put together a writers’ room before and somehow I ended up with this extraordinary group of funny, smart people.
It feels personal. And it is relatable. There is a part of her that is stuck being that 16-year-old at summer camp. I imagine a lot of people have that part of themselves.
Aline Brosh McKenna: That’s a huge part of who she is. Because he breaks up with her and her mother says you’re never going to do this again, you’re going to go do mock trial camp and some part of her is just frozen at that point. From that point, she just kind of does what her moth-er tells her to do. That’s why when she meets Josh on the street, it’s kind of like ripping the top off a volcano.
At a certain point, the audience probably wanted to see her with Greg, instead of Josh, but that doesn’t seem like the show you’re trying to do, either.
Aline Brosh McKenna: The show is not a traditional romcom in that sense. The show doesn’t really want her to end up with anybody. The show is showing how those dictates of how having to have a romantic love and having to have a boyfriend affect her, but the show is definitely not saying she should be with this guy or this guy.
Is that based on your experience writing feature romantic comedies? Did that inform your approach to perhaps deconstruct elements of the genre or tear it apart?
Aline Brosh McKenna: That’s exactly what it was and that’s what I was excited about. That was the opportunity that I saw. In movies, you’re really not allowed to do that. It’s something I’d been trying to do in various ways, and in the movie space, it just wasn’t anything people were really excited about. But because of all the anti-heroes on television, it was very much up for grabs on TV.
You’ve mentioned Breaking Bad, Sopranos, Mad Men, Girls. How did you frame this show when you originally pitched it? What were your reference points?
Aline Brosh McKenna: Honestly, life was our biggest reference point. We were really talking about how people actually get stuck in this quandary. The first thing we would say is, “Every-one’s either been one or had one.” The idea that I first pitched to Rachel, and the title, was something I had been using as a long time for when you’re acting too desperate or clingy about any-thing—work, friends, whatever. I would say, “Not to be too crazy ex-girlfriend about this...” It was a type of behavior and everybody instantly recognized that, mostly as something they had done. Every room we walked into, someone had a story, either the way in which they had been a crazy ex or the way someone had been a crazy ex towards them. It was really a very relatable phenomenon that had only been documented in a kind of other-y way, where you’re looking at this person from the outside, and you’re making fun of them. What we wanted was to look at the person from the inside out, get behind her eyes, and see what it feels like in a real way to be that person.