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Can ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ Shake Off ‘Arrested Development’ Syndrome?

The song-heavy CW comedy is better than ever, but its ratings are tanking. Will it go the way of ‘AD’ and ‘Freaks and Geeks’?

(CW)
(CW)

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has a case of Arrested Development Syndrome: it’s the rare ultra-ambitious show to make a go of it on network, following the likes of fallen short-run predecessors like Wonderfalls, Firefly, and My So-Called Life. But while Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has never been better, audiences have never been less interested. We’ve heard this story before — and we know how it probably ends.

Now just over halfway through its 13-episode second season, the CW’s anti-romantic comedy aired its last episode before a winter hiatus last Friday. On Monday, star and cocreator Rachel Bloom earned her second Golden Globe nomination for her performance as indefatigable neurotic Rebecca Bunch. (Bloom won a Golden Globe and a Critics’ Choice award for the role in January.)

Meanwhile, her show is the least-watched of the fall on any of the five major networks. (The Netflix bump has thus far eluded it.) It’s an unwanted distinction that’s endlessly frustrating, if understandable: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is among the most formally inventive and thematically challenging shows on broadcast television … and that’s exactly what makes it such an awkward fit for broadcast. Recently, shows like The Americans and Mr. Robot have proven that high concept can work as weeknight TV — provided it’s at the upper reaches of the channel guide, where viewers are already conditioned to look for buzzworthy programming. But Crazy Ex doesn’t boast the prestige bona fides (dark colors, heavy vibes, big-get actors) of those shows — and the CW, a dependable source of superhero serials and paranormal procedurals, is not the obvious place to find them. TV has changed dramatically since the heyday of Arrested Development, though not yet so much that it’s guaranteed to stave off its Syndrome.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was originally developed by Bloom and her collaborator Aline Brosh McKenna for Showtime, and it shows. Its sensibility starts with the title, intentionally off-putting, and trickles down. The main romantic pairing is patently unhealthy for all parties involved. When Rebecca locks onto old flame Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III) after running into him on the street, she drops everything to move across the country and break up his long-term relationship, a grand gesture we see for the desperate self-destruct option it is. And we’re not rooting for romantic resolution, but for one woman’s self-actualization and ability to form healthy relationships. The format is musical and filled with old-fashioned (or just unfashionable) references to Marilyn Monroe and Fred Astaire, plus an extra twist of deconstruction to rankle fans of Hairspray Live: a biting satire of the inherent contradictions of pop feminism doesn’t quite rouse the spirit like “Good Morning Baltimore.” Anyone who’s not prepared for what Bloom describes as a “dark, musical, feminist take on a romantic comedy” will immediately AbeSimpsonHat.gif at the door. It’s designed for niche appeal, and that niche is something like “pop-culture-literate Jewish women who get jokes about Scarsdale.”

And yet it’s shown on a mass platform. While Crazy Ex-Girlfriend carries itself with the fearlessness of a cable series — one that can afford to prioritize long-term vision over a short-term need for eyeballs — it’s not a cable series, and that leaves its future at risk.

(CW)
(CW)

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s viewership, including the weeklong grace period of reruns and online streams, hovers somewhere in the neighborhood of three-quarters of a million. For context, that’s actually better than some of its more frequently cited peers: Girls’ most recent season, its most critically lauded since its first, averaged just over half a million over its 10-episode run, a not-particularly-steep drop from its initial audience of just under a million; Broad City’s most recent run brought in about the same. Except cable shows like Girls and Broad City can afford to surf the critical wave in a way Crazy Ex can’t. They’re often on channels (HBO, Showtime) that depend on subscribers over advertisers, a metric that allows mega-hits like Game of Thrones to shoulder a disproportionate amount of the burden and micro-hits to carry their weight by simply burnishing the brand. Other times, they’re on niche networks (Comedy Central, USA) for which the hit threshold is significantly lower. Terriers proves that not all great cable shows get a fighting shot, yet the batting average is undoubtedly improved.

But when you put Crazy Ex-Girlfriend in conversation with shows operating under the same business model — as in, ads sold based on the number of people guaranteed to see them, which typically falls in the multiple millions — things look dimmer. Jane the Virgin, Crazy’s partner in eyebrow-raising branding, regularly crosses the seven-figure threshold. When Godzillas like Empire and This Is Us set the network ceiling in the tens of millions, the floor is relatively high too, industry-wide atrophy notwithstanding. And television’s sub-basement level is called cancellation.

In its first season, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was packaged on Monday nights with Jane. In its second, it was shifted to the Friday night death slot — a time of week most people spend at happy hour, not in front of their television sets. The move was a de facto concession that the show wasn’t likely to translate a prime spot like Mondays at 8 into any more converts. That would be a death sentence for a typical show, but it’s more of a pragmatic nod to reality for this one. Better to let Crazy find its fans through word of mouth and make money off Netflix in the meantime, keeping it on the air while putting Mondays to more effective use.

In spite of network convention and its own impenetrably un-self-aware protagonist, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend moves relentlessly forward. The first season did everything in its power to show the forces impelling Rebecca toward Josh were a dangerous distraction from more serious underlying issues. But the problem with subverting romance — especially the pop-culture-conditioned idea that it excuses unhealthy behavior — is that the show also had to participate in it. By the time the credits rolled, Bloom and McKenna had set up a full-blown love triangle between Rebecca, Josh, and the passive, cynical Greg (Santino Fontana). But then Crazy Ex-Girlfriend hastily broke up both potential pairings early in Season 2. Now, the main conflict isn’t love-related at all; it’s between Rebecca and her best friend Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin), an older paralegal who enabled Rebecca in her obsessive chase before focusing on her own goal of going to law school. It’s excruciatingly uncomfortable in a way that’s obviously counter to the feel-good repetition we expect from most broadcast. Less acknowledged are the ways the show is equally distinct from prestige cable, from its peppy enthusiasm to its relatively mundane stakes. It’s too hip for network and too earnest for premium cable, which says nothing but good things about its originality — and not-so-good things about audiences knowing what the hell to do with it.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s continued commitment to parsing its characters’ complexes is admirable; so is the CW’s decision to lean into the show by renewing it for a second season — and doing so in a form that brings Crazy Ex-Girlfriend slightly closer to its cable contemporaries. Season 2 weighs in at 13 episodes rather than Season 1’s 18, another decision that might spell trouble in an earlier era (reduced order!), but now signals a willingness to adapt to new modes of making TV (NBC’s The Good Place, too, is on an ultra-serialized, abbreviated run). Not insignificantly, it also makes the punishing workload of creating two to three original songs per episode slightly more bearable.

The streets are littered with promising, experimental network television shows snuffed out before their time; Freaks and Geeks, Pushing Daisies, and Arrested Development will forever stand for the cruel realities of free-market entertainment. The CW seems to be making a genuine effort to make Crazy Ex-Girlfriend work in this brave new economy, in which prestige counts for more than it used to; with numbers this anemic and a show this specific and strange, though, that still might not be enough. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is an ongoing experiment in whether trailblazing, self-consciously weird TV is ready to survive on the so-called Big Five, or whether it’s destined to become yet another entry in the “ahead of its time” canon. Heading into the back half of the season, the experiment’s due for its biggest stress test yet.