The quietly revolutionary way ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ addresses mental health

Kelly Lawler
Rachel Bloom as Rebecca Bunch on 'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.'

There’s a moment in last week's staggering fourth episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend when Nathaniel (Scott Michael Foster) attempts to explain away recent troubling behavior by the series’ lead, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom).

“She’s zany, but in a cute way!”

It might have been a throwaway line on another series, but on CW's Crazy it doubles as a thesis statement. The musical dramedy employs a sexist stereotype as its title, and over the course of its three seasons, it has upended viewers’ expectations about what that meant, and how a comedy (and a musical comedy at that) can deal with an issue as serious as mental health.

More:CW's 'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend' will be more flawed, less rom-com in third season

That long effort came to a head  in the episode, pointedly titled “Josh’s Ex-Girlfriend is Crazy,” which brought Rebecca’s anxiety and depression into the spotlight.

Her mental-health history (which includes attempted arson and institutionalization) was revealed to her friends in West Covina, the Los Angeles suburb where she fled after failing to find happiness as a high-powered lawyer in New York. Rebecca responds to their offers of help by lashing out at them, alienating herself from the people who love her most. She attempts Swimfan-inspired revenge against her ex, Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), because he didn’t love her enough, and was “normal” when she never could be.

Rebecca eventually hits rock bottom by sleeping with a different ex-boyfriend’s father. And, because this series is musical, she realizes how low she’s gone as Josh Groban walks behind her singing about how “life doesn’t make narrative sense.”

It was a monumental episode, but it’s also a culmination of the series' stellar run. From the very first episode in 2015, Crazy has been making this point: Rebecca’s behavior may be laughably dismissed as “crazy,” but her real issues were always just below the surface.

In the series premiere, she pours bottles of pills down the drain. She sees a therapist on and off and almost has a breakthrough until Josh impulsively proposes to her in Season 2. But in last spring's finale, when the audience first learns of her past, the episode flashes back to her time in an institution, where the other patients whisper that Rebecca is always “singing to herself,” implying that the series’ musical structure might be darker than we realized.

After “Josh’s Ex-Girlfriend is Crazy,” the supporting characters can no longer explain away Rebecca’s destructive behavior. She’s not in a “sexy French depression,” a romanticized view of her symptoms she adopts in a Season 1 song. She’s not “just a girl in love” who “can’t be held responsible for (her) actions” as the Season 2 theme song mused.

Rebecca’s issues aren’t that simple. They can’t be solved with a pill. They can’t be summed up in a single song or episode or even a season. As much as her friends love her, they can’t just make everything better, either.

It’s still rare for pop culture to portray mental health in such a raw and messy way. Some series have gotten it right, such as You’re the Worst’s depiction of chronic depression, or Randall’s battle with anxiety on This is Us.

What these depictions have in common is compassion. Rebecca has always been an anti-hero, and the new season has pushed the limits of the audience’s sympathy for her. But the series has laid enough groundwork for us to still care about what happens to her and to still root for her: not to get a man or get revenge, but to get to know herself.

And if that happens while Josh Groban sings a catchy ditty, that’s just a bonus.