There are some spoilers for the first few episodes of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend below, but that shouldn't stop you from reading this then catching up on it.
The funniest new show on TV has the worst name and even worse ratings, and it's also a musical. It's called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, its creator and star is basically unknown, it's on the CW, and at last count it's the least-watched of the 18 shows to debut on broadcast TV this season.
You'd be forgiven for not knowing exactly what Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is, or for being actively disinterested in its existence. Its main ad, which is probably the ad that you have seen on billboards or signs as you wait for the subway, features star Rachel Bloom slack-jawed, clutching a balloon the same shade of pink as her dress. She's standing against a white background, while the words "NEVER. LET. GO" leer ominously next to her. It's the sort of poster that both manages to communicate zero information to someone while simultaneously screaming, "DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, WATCH THIS SHOW." It's the sort of ad that inadvertently positions Crazy Ex-Girlfriend as the exact opposite of what it actually is and has probably caused countless people to dismiss it offhand.
And that's a shame, really, because Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is wonderful. It combines the ribald humour and zero-fucks-given attitude of Broad City with Seinfeld's obsession with social minutiae, while jacking up the pacing to 30 Rock–levels of freneticism. That it accomplishes this while occasionally breaking out into song is a minor miracle.
The premise of the show is this: Rachel Bloom plays Rebecca Bunch, the sort of sleep-hating, high-functioning TV New Yorker whose stresses and miseries have compounded to the point that it's only a matter of time before she blows a gasket, or at least makes a monumental life decision without really thinking it through. That rash decision comes in the form of a chance meeting with Josh, a dude she dated at camp when she was 16, who offhandedly mentions he's moving to West Covina, California. At the end of her rope and looking for a change, Rebecca says "fuck it" and goes there too.
All of this stuff happens within the first few minutes of the pilot, and ultimately serves as setup to showcase Bloom's considerable talents as the sort of musical comedian you don't see too much of these days. Bloom was a staff writer on the generally funny, always incredibly bizarre Adult Swim show Robot Chicken, and has also garnered acclaim for making elaborate, extremely funny music videos with titles like "Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury" (which is about wanting to fuck the famed science-fiction author Ray Bradbury) and "Pictures of Your Dick" (which is about getting revenge on an ex through posting pictures of his dick online). Her taste in collaborators is impeccable as well – Bloom penned the first two episodes with Aline Brosh McKenna, who wrote The Devil Wears Prada, and the show's songs are in part co-written by Bloom and Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne.
So clearly, the people behind Crazy Ex-Girlfriend know what they're doing. Tonally, the show can be looked at as a parody of Glee – often, the songs function to address the subtext of a scene, as characters hash out their underlying issues with the same full throats and unrelenting positivity that the plucky kids at William McKinley High might have covered "Don't Stop Believing."
Consider a scene in the second episode, in which Rebecca's out at a club with Josh, Josh's friend, and Josh's girlfriend Valencia. Still crushing on Josh, Rebecca has decided to befriend Valencia in the hopes of undermining her relationship, only she's in too deep and has turned her hatred into that terrible sort of frenemyship, where your hatred turns to an unhealthy obsession. If you've never experienced that specific emotion, well, the show lays it out in a number called "Feelin' Kinda Naughty," which features the lyric "I wanna kill you and wear your skin like a dress / But also have you see me in the dress and be like 'OMG, you look so cute in my skin!'," sung with the fervour of one of the numbers from Wicked. It's jarring, just like it's jarring when Crenshaw Crip Nipsey Hussle shows up to refer to curling irons and Spanx as "nasty-ass patriarchal bullshit" on "The Sexy Getting Ready Song" from the first episode.
On last night's episode, Rebecca decided to throw a party so that she could hang out with Josh, which led to the revelation that her dad left her mom while she was having a party, that her best friend/coworker Paula has a son who suffers from like seven different developmental disorders, and that, as a child, one of Rebecca's friends was simply known as "Girl with Mustache." All of this – the dark stuff and the overtly farcical – is treated with the same breeziness. This is a musical, so no one is trying to hold a mirror up to reality here – the show sublimates between whimsy and grimness in a way that isn't quite like anything else on TV.
Another, more nuanced bit of evidence that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a brilliant show comes in its treatment of West Covina, a city that despite being 19 miles east of my home in Los Angeles I didn't know existed until Crazy Ex-Girlfriend told me that it did. It is a city so unremarkable that its Wikipedia page – which one would presume was written, or at least minded, by someone who deeply cares about it and wants others to care deeply about it too – can only boast that it's a "center for malls, shops, movie theaters, restaurants, and diversity." Rebecca, who hails from a small town, serves to mock the sort of high achievers who view New York as the only city in the universe. She's intense, because New York and her Ivy League education have made her that way. It's a fish-out-of-water situation, if the fish got out of the water to evolve into a nuclear-powered shark, then jumped back in the water. The efficiency and speed that allowed Rebecca to barely survive in New York give her ample time to obsess over the smallest, most minuscule details of her life in California's 62nd most-populous city.
Problem is, the show's humour feels too specialised to survive in a network environment, and its marketing may have doomed what chance it had to catch on with the sort of pop-culture obsessed crowd who might have warmed to it. Let's hope that when its run is inevitably cut short, Netflix will pick it up.
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