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Crazy Ex-Girlfriend succeeds where most TV musicals fail thanks to this one trick

(The CW)
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
The CW
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which returns for its second season tonight, may not be killing it in the ratings. But it's a bona fide critical success, earning raves from the New York Times and the A.V. Club. It’s had an astonishingly consistent debut, with barely a missed step in its first 18 episodes.

Such a strong first season is a rarity in the world of the TV musical. But where other TV musicals have started strong, with exciting, compelling premieres, and then faltered almost immediately, Crazy Ex just keeps on being delightful week after week.

Most TV musicals falter in their first seasons

After a well-received pilot, the late Fox series Glee delivered such an inconsistent first season that Todd VanDerWerff created the Theory of the Three Glees in a desperate attempt to make sense of it. It would be another season or so before cultural consensus came to the conclusion that Glee was an unsalvageable wreck of a show, but the signs were already there throughout the back half of season one.

NBC's backstage Broadway drama Smash similarly squandered nearly all of the good will it had accumulated after its much-admired pilot (are you sensing a theme here?) by the end of season one, to the point that Emily Nussbaum’s column on "hate-watching Smash" was one of the kinder reactions.

The only TV musical that approaches Crazy Ex-Girlfriend for consistency was the now-canceled ABC medieval comedy Galavant, which, bless its candy-coated heart, is not anyone’s idea of groundbreaking or prestige TV. (Full disclosure: I adore Galavant.) Instead, it was content to deliver episode after episode of pleasantly mediocre fairy-tale-themed jokes, and if it never once delivered anything unusual or surprising to your TV screen, it also never once gave anyone an episode as awful as Glee’s "Rocky Horror Glee Show." (It's just what it sounds like.)

But Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is significantly more ambitious than Galavant was. With songs like "You Stupid Bitch" and "The Sexy Getting Ready Song," it’s not just producing consistently watchable TV. It’s producing consistently smart, funny, thoughtful TV — and it’s doing that within the confines of a TV genre with — at best — a very mixed track record.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend succeeds through character-driven songs

What puts Crazy Ex-Girlfriend ahead of its peers is one very simple thing: Its songs are overwhelmingly character-driven. (They're also, of course, original to the show, and original songs are easier to tailor to specific characters than the covers used by Glee — but Smash and Galavant have original songs, too, and their songs are overwhelmingly less informed by character than the songs of Crazy Ex.)

An old adage about musical theater is that the characters sing when they feel too deeply to talk, and dance when they feel too deeply to sing. At their best, songs in a musical use their heightened emotional heft to increase empathy for their characters. The songs give the audience a chance to live in a character’s head and understand how and why they think and feel the way they do.

Songs like Sweeney Todd’s "Epiphany," Fun Home’s "Ring of Keys," and Hamilton’s "Wait for It" work so well in part because every word and note tells the audience more about the character singing. "Epiphany" tells us why the title character feels compelled to kill. "Ring of Keys" shows us the show's protagonist recognizing herself in another person for the first time. "Wait for It" gives us Aaron Burr’s philosophy of life and shows us why he is so tied to Alexander Hamilton.

Character-driven songs are doubly necessary for musicals on serialized TV, which spends more accumulated time with its characters than nearly any other medium. Thus, a show tends to burn out most quickly when it allows itself to be driven by plot, and is at its best when it uses story to develop character studies, like Breaking Bad’s five-season study of the psychology and interior life of Walter White, or Parks and Recreation's deeply felt exploration of Leslie Knope.

Not coincidentally, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's showrunners have described their protagonist Rebecca Bunch (played by co-creator and showrunner Rachel Bloom) as "a bubbly Walter White." Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a kind of Breaking Bad: The Musical, a character study through song.

"West Covina," the first song we hear on the show, depicts Rebecca's dreams and capacity for self-delusion. "I'm a Good Person" shows us her desire to wallow in congratulatory self-righteousness. And "You Stupid Bitch" shows us her desire to wallow in congratulatory self-loathing.

High-concept premise aside, Crazy Ex has learned the lessons of those Broadway shows I listed earlier: It is fundamentally a character-driven show with character-driven songs. That’s what makes it so compelling.

It's also clearly a conscious choice on the part of the creative team. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly about her songwriting process, Bloom talked about writing "I Love My Daughter," the song in which Rebecca’s boss, Darryl, waxes poetic about how much he loves his daughter (but not in a creepy way):

If it didn’t come from an established character, a way to heighten the joke of the song could be that even as he’s saying, "I love my daughter but not in a creepy way," it’s clearer and clearer that he does love his daughter in a creepy way. Right? That’s one way to go with the joke of the song. But that’s not who Darryl is! Darryl’s a good-hearted person who just loves his daughter and very much wants to say it the right way. So the way that we escalate the joke in this is Darryl getting caught up in his own thinking. …The joke ended up going a different way than it would have had it just been a comedy song, and it was more unexpected and less easy. I think that Darryl’s character, because he’s such a sweet wonderful person, really informed the joke-heightening of the song in a wonderful unexpected way.

Other musical TV shows are so inconsistent because they have song-driven characters

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend refuses to sacrifice a character for a joke or a character for a song. Character always drives song.

In contrast, Glee and Galavant and Smash use songs to drive character. Glee’s Rachel Berry is whoever she needs to be in any given episode to cover whatever new pop song the series has managed to license. Her personality depends on whether she’s singing "Don’t Rain on My Parade" or "Endless Love." She has no coherent identity from week to week.

Galavant's songs are designed more to subvert classic fantasy tropes and parody pop music conventions than anything else, and it keeps its characters shallow enough to fit into whatever sendup it thinks might be funny from episode to episode. (A gay bar, but it's medieval! Medieval monks, but one of the monks is Weird Al!)

And Smash's songs had so little relation to what the characters were thinking and feeling that the show once staged a fully fledged Bollywood fantasy sequence with no justification beyond, "the characters are in an Indian restaurant."

Because of this tendency, most of these shows' most-admired musical moments are character-establishing songs from their pilots. Those are the songs that are the closest these series come to the classic musical theater "I want" song, the song at the top of the show where the protagonist explains what they want and why they want it. (Think of Ariel wanting to be "Part of Your World," or Elphaba longing to meet the Wizard and become "The Wizard and I" — or Rebecca wanting to move to "West Covina.")

Done correctly, the "I want" song can be both powerful and relatable.That’s why it's so moving when the Glee kids sing about trying to hold onto their dreams in "Don’t Stop Believin'." It's why it’s electrifying when Smash's Karen and Ivy, auditioning for the same role, trade verses of "Let Me Be Your Star." And it’s why (beyond sheer earworminess) Galavants theme song and reprises are so effective. All three songs set up a coherent, compelling motive for our hero, subvert said motive, and let the characters point the way forward.

What makes Crazy Ex-Girlfriend extraordinary is that all of its songs are this good. Imagine a Glee where every musical number sticks its landing as well as "Don’t Stop Believin'." By letting characters drive story and song, rather than the other way around, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend stays at a level of quality its peers were only able to achieve at their very best.