On paper, a show called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend should not just fail spectacularly but also be extremely problematic in its depictions of women and issues of mental health. As it turns out, the show is one of the most incisive depictions of mental health and sexuality on television, dealing with the exhausting nature of what it means to consciously work on the self, how we grapple with the slippery slope of mental health (with or without an official diagnosis), how any single day can contain giant strides and plummeting backslides, how we construct grand narratives about love all the time, and how difficult it can be to breakdown these stories we tell ourselves. It also just happens to be a show that communicates many of its most profound ideas through (often comic) songs. The show’s incisiveness and originality comes shining through right from its episode-opening theme songs, which change dramatically every season as we navigate the complicated journey of Rebecca Bunch. In this piece I’ll look through each of these four songs to get a sense of how the show plays around and deconstructs different tropes around love, and the narrative form itself.
The Season 1 theme song begins by laying out its premise, with Rebecca moving to a new city across the US to possibly re-kindle a summer romance with her high school boyfriend Josh Chan.
“I was –
Working hard at a New York job
Making dough but it made me blue
One day I was crying a lot
And so I decided to move to
West Covina, California
Brand-new pals and new career
It happens to be where Josh lives
But that’s not why I’m here!”
In most other stories, Rebecca’s gambit here would be one of those big romantic moments, setting off a “meant-to-be” narrative. Not here. Instead, the back-up cast jumps in at this point:
“She’s the crazy ex-girlfriend!”
The rest of the song is a back and forth between Rebecca and the back-up singers who are also in some ways the more self-aware voices in her head. The cross-country move that she’s made to explore a love that may be a figment of her imagination is definitely not sensible, and so the song continues:
What? no, I’m not
She’s the crazy ex-girlfriend!
That’s a sexist term
She’s the crazy ex-girlfriend!
Can you guys just stop singing for a second?
She’s so broken inside
The situation’s a lot more nuanced than that
And just by giving us these two sides of the dynamic, the show inserts a wedge of nuance into the narrative. Yes, there is something sexist about the way in which the “crazy ex” title tends to get deployed on women, but it doesn’t mean Rebecca should be let off the hook. And yes, she is somewhat broken inside, needing narratives of love to complete her. But there is more happening here, and the second season theme song picks up another element of the “crazy in love” idea and runs with.
I’m just a girl in love
I can’t be held responsible for my actions
Ooh she’s an ingénue!
I have no underlying issues to address
I’m certifiably cute and adorably obsessed!
They say love makes you crazy
Therefore you can’t call her crazy
‘Cause when you call her crazy
You’re just calling her in love!
When the first season ends, Rebecca actually gets to be with the man she’s ostensibly “not” moved to West Covina for. A range of manipulative actions she’s engaged in get validated, since she’s now got the man of her dreams, and so this must have been worth it after all. The second season theme song here highlights that undercurrent about doing crazy things for love: if love is a kind of temporary insanity, then how can we be held responsible for the things we do for love? There’s a kind of ownership of the descriptor of crazy here, but in the most disturbing manner possible. And as the season comes to a close, Rebecca finds herself spurned by Josh Chan, the man she did everything for. When Season 3 begins, we really start deconstructing the idea of crazy. Four versions of Rebecca greet us in this song, each representing a different musical genre/vision of being the crazy lover:
Crazy is when I go off the rails
This is what you’ve done to me
No, crazy is how your lovin’ makes me feel
This is what I always wanna be
I like it when a girl gets crazy in bed
Don’t mess with a bitch who’s crazy in the head
You do (you don’t!) wanna be crazy
And you don’t (you do!) wanna be “crazy”
All the Rebeccas;
To clarify: yes, no on the crazy
We hope this helps!
Season 3 is the darkest season of the show, giving us a vision of Rebecca on a complete downward spiral. She has played the narrative of chasing the man she loves, then the narrative of actually exploring the idea of being a lover in such a relationship, and now as she is rejected she must move to another narrative: that of the woman scorned. But her persona as a vengeful lover can only take her so far, and as she exhausts herself, a spiral of depression begins. That particular spiral ends in her making a suicide attempt which is followed by getting help just in the nick of time. With this plot point, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend transforms once again as a show, into something even richer and more complicated. Rebecca’s pursuit for love is finally placed in a context for a larger search for the self, a search which we are told is not going to lead to any easy answers. Season 4, which is the final season of the show, reflects this changed emphasis in its theme song:
(the camera looks a woman who is obviously not our Rebecca Bunch)
She’s the coolest girl in the world
Wait, wrong Rebecca
(cut to a visibly annoyed Rebecca Bunch)
It’s this one over here
(the next few moments are individual shots of Rebecca from different points in the series)
She’s spunky, she’s sweet, a generous friend
Oh, but there she looks kinda mean
Okay, she’s snarky, sarcastic, and a… what?
You know, we’re not really seeing a common theme
She’s too hard to summarise
So let’s go back to Other Rebecca
If there’s a final thesis statement for the show and what it wants to tell us about love, it’s here in these words. Any narrative that we construct, any single word that we use to describe a person, a relationship, an individual is bound to be incomplete. Life doesn’t make narrative sense, and people are consistently flipping through and between different identities. Popular culture gives us a series of different narrative choices which subconsciously become the threads on which we premise our lives, but if there’s one thing this incredibly ambitious show has been reiterating for a while now, it’s that we have to actively fight those narratives. After all, no singular, well-crafted piece of popular culture can adequately express the messiness of what it is to live and love.