A few months ago Netflix released the results of a fascinating study. By analyzing viewing patterns across 25 of their most popular TV series – both originals and acquired – they were able to determine which episode gets viewers “hooked.” If we’ve gotten as far as that one, Netflix says, 70 percent of us go on to complete the season.
In not a single case was that episode the pilot.
Knowing that the nerds at Netflix are Big Brother’ing what we watch is kind of creepy, but I have no doubt they’re right about this. The ability to binge has radically altered the way I sample new shows and my willingness to give them time to grow on me. And, ironically, I proved Netflix’s point this weekend, but I did it on Hulu.
Snowed in with more TV time on my hands than normal, I decided to give the CW sitcom Crazy Ex-Girlfriend a try. I’m not a huge fan of contemporary network comedies, but this series about a neurotic New Yorker (Rachel Bloom) who relocates to SoCal in pursuit of a long lost love from summer camp has an unusual hook: it’s a musical.
Twice per sixty-minute show, Bloom and/or members of the supporting cast break into song and dance numbers that both parody and pay homage to the tropes of musical theater and film. The songs are often hilariously suggestive, which shouldn’t be surprising, considering that Bloom first went viral with Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury, a 2010 YouTube video in which she declares her love for “the greatest sci-fi writer in history.”
But the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend musical number that hooked me was anything but suggestive.
In episode four, Bloom’s Rebecca Bunch, an overachieving attorney in the midst of a quarter-life crisis, goes on a date – not with former camp crush Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III), but with his self-deprecating best friend Greg (Santino Fontana). Greg, who has discovered Rebecca’s secret obsession with his easygoing buddy, woos her with a charming musical number that temporarily wins her over.
“Settle for me,” he serenades, as the low-rent sports bar in which he works morphs into a 1930s supper club and his t-shirt and jeans transform into evening clothes. Soon he’s twirling Rebecca around an Art Deco dance floor like Fred Astaire did with Ginger Rogers eighty years ago. And, just in case you didn’t get the Fred & Ginger connection, “Settle For Me” is in black-and-white.
It’s like they made it especially for me.
Because Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a comedy, the lyrics (by Bloom and Adam Schlesinger) are over-the-top funny. But, as in Astaire & Rogers films like TOP HAT (1935) and SWING TIME (1936), dance doubles for courtship and song conveys feelings otherwise unsaid. Just like a real musical.
Although the songs in the series– all co-written by Bloom– routinely make me laugh out loud, the casting of vocal talents like Fontana, a Tony nominee for Cinderella on Broadway and the voice of Prince Hans in FROZEN (2013), demonstrates that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend takes its music very seriously. Every member of the cast has musical theater creds, including Tony Award winner Tovah Feldshuh as Rebecca’s manipulative mother.
Which leads me to another thing I like about the show: its multiculturalism. Josh is Filipino-American, and his family’s ethnic heritage (and devout Catholicism) plays a key role in the Thanksgiving episode. Josh’s evil girlfriend Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz) is Mexican, as is Rebecca’s co-worker Mrs. Hernandez (Gina Gallego). Her hipster next-door neighbor Heather is played by Vella Lovell, an actress of Indian descent. And Rebecca’s Judaism is integral to her character, and her mother’s. It’s not every sitcom that ends a Christmas episode with the star promising to come home for Passover.
There are plenty of other standout moments in the first eight episodes of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, including a Busby Berkley-esque showstopper with Rebecca swinging on a pretzel, an ode to Jean-Luc Godard’s BREATHLESS (1960) called “Sexy French Depression,” and a Saved By the Bell-style number called “I Have Friends” – a duet between Rebecca and her tween self. And unexpurgated versions of a few of the songs are posted on Bloom’s YouTube channel.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend hasn’t exactly been killing it in the ratings, with episodes averaging fewer than a million viewers. But Bloom’s Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a TV Musical or Comedy has brought new eyes to the show, including mine. The series returns tonight from a two-month hiatus with an episode directed by Kenny Ortega, the director of HOCUS POCUS (1993) and NEWSIES (1992) and choreographer of DIRTY DANCING (1987) and XANADU (1980). All episodes are now available on Hulu and CW’s website and app, but the first four are due to expire shortly. I recommend an immediate binge.
Update 12/12/16 – All episodes from season 1 are now streaming at Netflix. Season 2 is available to watch on-demand through your cable provider or streaming at The CW’s website or on the app. The app can be accessed on your TV via Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, or Google Chromecast. Episodes are also available via iTunes and Amazon for $2.99 per show or $19.99 per season. New episodes air on the CW Fridays at 8 p.m.