I’ve been waiting for a musical like this.
Networks have been trying to crack the musical television genre since the explosion of “Glee” in 2009. Musical fans like myself toiled through the maddening inconsistency of “Glee” and the awful soapiness of “Smash.” We’ve also chuckled a bit at “Galavant,” which doesn’t have the comedic strength to back up its music.
However, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” establishes itself with its pilot as the strongest entry into the musical genre in recent memory. It may be too early to make a proclamation like that because of the degree of difficulty of what it’s trying to do. It could fall at any moment, but the show’s insane plot and high-energy musical numbers make for an entertaining hour.
“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” follows Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom, “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury”), a New York lawyer who leaves a partnership offer at a top law firm to follow her summer-camp ex-boyfriend, Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III, “Hostages”) to West Covina, Calif., after running into him on the street.
Much of the success of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” comes from Bloom’s performance, as her charisma and pure commitment to the role are matched by few others in this season’s crop of new pilots. The show asks a lot of her in the premiere, as she has to turn a character who could easily be grating into the heart and soul of the story. She grounds her character by finding humanity in Rebecca’s craziness. There are multiple moments in the pilot where she is alone on screen without speaking, and it’s in those scenes where Bloom allows us to bond with Rebecca.
Bloom also carries the musical numbers which, through her charm, become even stronger. As a musical performer, Bloom carries each song with the skill of a Broadway star. Her voice isn’t overpowering like a Patti LuPone or Ethel Merman, but she makes up for it with her dance skills and charisma. The camera centers on the main characters, which hurts the “West Covina, California” song slightly. The grand scope of the song doesn’t hit nearly as soon as it should because the director, Marc Webb (“Amazing Spider Man”), relegates them to the top of the frame for too long. However, the numbers have a sense of whimsy and enthusiasm, which make them engaging to watch.
Going forward, the most difficult element for “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” will be matching the tone of the pilot, without becoming too unhinged. From the first scene, the premiere establishes the show’s comic style by putting the viewer in the mind of the main character. It uses sound cues (including the repeated “I’m in love” riff from “South Pacific”) and lighting to show how Rebecca is pushed toward Josh. The show makes the narrative jumps from Rebecca moving to West Covina plausible by establishing the show’s insanity. The dialogue cues involving West Covina (“Two hours from the beach, four hours in traffic”) also help set the series’ playful nature. The writers should keep an eye for how its lead-out, “Jane the Virgin,” keeps up the telenovela aspects of its story while developing grounded characters who consistently grow.
“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” has a difficult road ahead. It will be hard for the show to keep its pieces from falling apart over a full season. However, if it can do that, it’ll be a complete television musical, which is something I’ve been hoping would exist for years.