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How Aline Brosh McKenna Reinvented the Romantic Comedy—for TV

The ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ cocreator is also the woman who wrote scripts for ‘The Devil Wears Prada,’ ‘27 Dresses,’ and ‘Morning Glory.’ Here’s what a decade of screenwriting taught her about the future of television.

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

Aline Brosh McKenna is something of a paradox: a multidecade veteran of Hollywood who is nonetheless technically a novice at what she’s currently doing. “Because I had gotten to a certain level as a screenwriter, I think I came into it with a degree of confidence from people,” the showrunner tells me. “Which might’ve been somewhat unearned, because I hadn’t run a pilot in 15 years. And then once we did the pilot, I hadn’t ever run a series.”

“It” is Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW musical dramedy Brosh McKenna cocreated with star Rachel Bloom. Bloom, as a quick YouTube search reveals, came to the show from a background in sketch comedy. Brosh McKenna, on the other hand, had spent the majority of her career in feature screenwriting. Most famously, she adapted Lauren Weisberger’s novel The Devil Wears Prada into the script that would propel Meryl Streep to her 14th Academy Award nomination and provoke a documentary counterstrike from obvious inspiration Anna Wintour. Brosh McKenna’s screenwriting résumé also includes a handful of traditional rom-coms (Three to Tango, Laws of Attraction) and workplace rom-coms (27 Dresses, Morning Glory), along with credits on a few larger studio productions (the Quvenzhané Wallis–led remake of Annie, Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo).

Brosh McKenna’s transition to television wasn’t planned, though the now-familiar shifts in the film industry—the decline of mid-budget, star-powered, non-IP-based concepts; the corresponding slow death of various genres, from the romantic comedy to the erotic thriller; the difficulty of getting a green light for anything between a micro-indie and a blockbuster—made it more or less inevitable. “The ideas dictate where I go,” Brosh McKenna says in an initial interview, “and movies right now—and this is not going to be news to you—they’re not really the home for original ideas, particularly about women, at the moment.”

Katherine Heigl in ‘27 Dresses’
Katherine Heigl in ‘27 Dresses’
20th Century Fox

A couple of weeks later, Brosh McKenna and I are sitting in a coffee shop near her home in Los Angeles, unpacking how that creativity-hostile climate came to be. “I was the last guy off the bus,” she admits. Even after colleagues in the film industry began decamping for television, Brosh McKenna liked the flexibility of movies enough to stick it out instead opting to try the Trojan horse route of attempting to fit her individual voice within a larger franchise. She wrote Annie and a treatment for what eventually became the live-action Cinderella remake where the archetypal pretty princess was recast as a knight. “And then what I realized is, corporations have exigencies that have nothing to do with writing,” she explains. “They kind of needed to make a Cinderella that was recognizably a Cinderella, which I completely understand.”

But Brosh McKenna’s brushes with big-budget compromise inadvertently helped shape the thoroughly uncompromising Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. After linking up with Bloom at a general meeting—Hollywood speak for chatting with a potential collaborator to see if something clicks, usually with nothing to show for it except a bottle of water—Brosh McKenna decided to partner with her on the would-be show whose title and premise she’d had on a back burner for a while. Initially, Crazy Ex, which debuted on the CW in 2015, was a passion project on the side of Brosh McKenna’s film career, an idea so far-fetched there was no reason not to fully commit and never back down. Eventually, that commitment paid off in one of television’s sharpest, most distinctive comedies, which is also a culmination of sorts for Brosh McKenna’s work to date: an application of hard-won experience and capital; a deconstruction of the romantic-comedy tropes Brosh McKenna knows so well; and an ambitious, serialized long-form story of the kind television’s only just begun to accommodate.

“I don’t know that I would have been able to do it earlier in my career. I had no motivation to do it any way other than the way I wanted to do it,” she says. “I could walk away from it because I had another career, and Rachel could walk away from it because she was so young. So we just never did anything to it that we didn’t want to do. There’s not one thing in there that anybody made us do, and I kind of think you can tell.”

Though it’s her first experience as a showrunner, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend isn’t Brosh McKenna’s first stint in TV. After graduating from Harvard, the New Jersey native spent much of the early ’90s writing comedy pilots with The Ben Stiller Show’s Jeff Kahn. None were produced as series in their own right, but one, which she describes as “Friends with no money,” was reworked into the last episode of Margaret Cho’s short-lived All-American Girl—a backdoor pilot for an attempted pivot from family comedy to friends-in-the-city comedy that never came to be. It was Brosh McKenna’s first produced script.

Nine pilot scripts later, however—six were rejected outright, and three were shot but never ordered to series—and Brosh McKenna was burned out by TV’s relentless turnover. “Every season your beloved pilot becomes garbage, never to be seen again, and I never got used to that,” she says. “The TV pilot season of like, just, documents going in the garbage was very hard.” In movies, scripts could spend years in development, as 27 Dresses did, before finally making the leap to production; in network television, every pilot season starts with a fresh slate. There were creative frustrations, too: “It was a different time in TV. Things in the comedy world were very repetitive. There wasn’t a lot of narrative progression,” she points out. Before streaming services made watching every episode of a series in chronological order the norm, individual TV episodes had to stand on their own, lest viewers skip a week or catch the show in syndication.

The model of the self-sustained sitcom episode still thrives in The Big Bang Theory and Black-ish, but now they’re supplemented by seasons-long stories in both comedy (You’re the Worst, Catastrophe) and drama (Breaking Bad, which Brosh McKenna cites as explicit inspiration for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). “I originally wrote for television when comedies were more about spitting out copies of themselves. Which I love! I love shows like that, but it’s not something I’m great at,” says Brosh McKenna.

So she kept writing movies, where she could use the references she loved—particularly screwball comedies of the ’30s and ’40s like The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, Midnight, and The Lady Eve—as a model for her own feature scripts. “When I was growing up in the ’80s in New Jersey, being a smart, ambitious girl was not considered cute,” Brosh McKenna says. “I think [my interest] started with the fantasy that you could be Rosalind Russell and be a newspaperman and command the respect of Cary Grant and kind of fight it out with him while you’re fighting it out for a story. That made a huge impression on me: There was a world where boys, because I was young, and then men, would respect and admire you for your accomplishments. Which does exist—maybe not in suburban New Jersey, but it was out there.”

Even though she came up in the supposed heyday of rom-coms, Brosh McKenna’s interests somewhat deviated from the de rigueur model of the ’90s. Screwballs “are really two-handers, and the rom-coms of the ’90s are really single-handers,” she says. “It’s like a big female lead and some other handsome British gentleman or whatever.” With all due respect to handsome British gentlemen, Brosh McKenna was as interested in everything in the heroine’s life surrounding the romance as the central romance itself. “I don’t think anybody defines themselves by their romantic relationship except in that brief period of time when you’re really trying to find the person. After that, that really isn’t the end sentence of your autobiography,” she argues. “But romantic comedies tend to posit the end of the love story is the end of the answer.”

Brosh McKenna dubbed her ideal happy ending “and-a-man”: “It would be like, trying to see if her life would work out … and a man, because there’s also a trope of leaving women in movies alone, just alone. I always wanted to show how those things can come together; they can inform each other. Figuring out your spiritual, personal journey can affect your romantic life and vice versa. But that’s not the endgame, because if we know anything of life, it’s not that you have that kiss and then everything’s perfect.”

While we’re on the topic: The Devil Wears Prada is not a romantic comedy. Brosh McKenna is adamant about this distinction, though she understands the impulse to miscategorize. A more accurate term would be “competence porn,” which is exactly what it feels like to watch Miranda Priestly stroll down a hallway and make a dozen decisions that will consume her underlings’ entire days. “The prize in that movie is not her love relationship,” she insists. “The real love story is, she ends up with that newspaper, having understood the world better and having understood her naiveté better.”

More than 10 years on, The Devil Wears Prada has already gone through several waves of interpretation. For some, Miranda Priestly is the Boss From Hell personified; for others, she’s an avatar of high-level success. The truth, Brosh McKenna says, is somewhere down the middle. Anne Hathaway’s Andy Sachs is “somebody who’s discovering that what she really wants to do is write those pieces about the janitors’ union that she has in the beginning, while also realizing that Miranda’s excellence and her high standards is something she’s learned from the job.”

Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’
Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’
20th Century Fox

Brosh McKenna herself has some added perspective on the movie now that she, too, is in charge of nearly 200 people each day. Despite her interest in workplace stories, a TV show is the closest Brosh McKenna’s come to a conventional office. Feature screenwriting is largely done in solitude and on one’s own schedule, a lifestyle that suited Brosh McKenna as a mother of two: “It’s not really less work, but you can determine, ‘OK, I’m gonna work now, the baby’s asleep.’” Coordinating scripts is different from assembling a magazine, but Brosh McKenna feels a certain kinship with Miranda now that she’s at a more analogous point in her career. “I love the idea that she’s so monastically devoted to this thing, but it’s the best thing. In some respects, it’s interesting, because I wrote it before I was a boss,” she explains. “But striving for perfection, you can easily end up having it fill all the gaps in your life because that’s the kind of job, like being a showrunner, that you’re never done, you’re never finished, you could always be doing something else. So Miranda maybe needs some work-life balance and probably some sleep-hygiene training.”

But while Brosh McKenna was pleasantly surprised at how little pushback she got against Prada’s mostly man-less happy ending—dashing as Simon Baker might be, he and Andy aren’t the endgame—she started to chafe at some of studio filmmaking’s restrictions, some age-old and some new. “I often had a lot of issues in development where I wanted to have a nontraditional ending to a romantic comedy,” she says. “Like on 27 Dresses, I just did not want her to end up with anybody. I wanted her to end up becoming a more realized person. And so it was a years-long back-and-forth with the producer who was like, ‘You’re insane.’” (At the end of the movie, Katherine Heigl’s inveterate bridesmaid eventually ties the knot with James Marsden.)

Combined with the overall climate in Hollywood for original concepts, rom-coms included, Brosh McKenna started to see the writing on the wall. Morning Glory, a TV producer-comedy starring Rachel McAdams and Harrison Ford in the vein of Broadcast News, squeaked through with the help of producer J.J. Abrams: “After I wrote the script, there were some regime shifts at Paramount, and it became clear that it was going to be really hard to make a movie like this anywhere, so J.J. really got that movie made with his gathering muscle [from Star Trek], and by giving the script to Harrison. That was the last one through the door for me, in terms of ‘Don’t let the door hit you on the way out,’ and in terms of being a studio movie that was a character-driven, woman-in-the-workplace story.” To tell those kinds of stories going forward, Brosh McKenna would have to make the leap back into the dramatically transformed world of television.

When Brosh McKenna told her agent about the series she and Bloom were developing, he instantly recognized its inspiration: “The first thing he said to me then was, ‘You are finally going to get to do what you wanted to do in all those rom-com movies.’” Those changes include, though are not limited to, eschewing a happy ending, skewering rom-com conventions, and being unafraid to alienate the audience—starting with the theme song.

“There’s so much of girls tripping down stairs, saving kittens from windows and stuff in rom-coms to make them likable and protect them,” Brosh McKenna sighs. “Working on Crazy Ex was the opposite of that.” The story of a high-achieving lawyer named Rebecca Bunch (Bloom) who drops everything and moves to suburban Southern California in pursuit of her summer camp ex-boyfriend, Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), through behavior that objectively qualifies as stalking, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is hardly concerned with likability; the most recent episode opens with a scene where Rebecca viciously tears into her closest friends out of misdirected self-loathing.

Rachel Bloom and part of the cast of ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’
Rachel Bloom and part of the cast of ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’
The CW

Contrary to what the obsessed Rebecca might believe, love isn’t the primary concern, either. “The relationship that we ’ship is Rebecca and her own mental health, really,” Brosh McKenna says. “That’s really what the show is about. We use love in our culture as like it’s gonna save you, it’s gonna make everything OK if you just find the right person. And that’s not true. Wherever you go, there you are, and that first blush of intense infatuation, which makes you feel like everything’s gonna be OK—once that wears off, you’re left with yourself.” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend may look like a romantic comedy and sometimes act like one, but in reality, it’s a methodical takedown of the entire genre’s implicit thesis.

Because a series has so much more room to explore than a feature, Bloom and Brosh McKenna also have the leeway to dig into the rom-com’s parts as well as its overarching theme of puppy love as a panacea. Rebecca herself is a series-long subversion of the titular stereotype; every supporting player, meanwhile, represents a deepening of their own. “That was the thing that was peeling me off from my movie career,” Brosh McKenna says. “Creating a character like [Rebecca’s best friend] Paula, but also not just having her be sort of a Rosie O’Donnell sidekick—actually figuring out what that was about, and what that meant, and who she was, and inhabiting that character.” Part mother-daughter and part mentor-mentee, Rebecca and Paula’s relationship, Brosh McKenna says, is based on her and Bloom’s own, minus all the enabling.

That process extends to Rebecca’s various love interests, whose supporting role in her development is a neat inversion of pop culture’s typical hierarchy that nonetheless treats them as real, vulnerable people. “All the romantic interests that are men in the show, we really figure out why they have these tropes,” Brosh McKenna notes. “Why Josh is this perpetual high school hero, and why [Josh’s friend] Greg is the nice guy—the slightly loser-ish, nice guy, that’s a big trope—and then [Rebecca’s new boss] Nathaniel is more of the jerky, rich asshole trope. It really allowed me to pick those things apart like wishbones, and it’s just not a thing that fits in well with what was happening in the early 2000s with romantic comedies.”

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has expanded Brosh McKenna’s professional horizons in ways beyond pivoting to TV, or even making the meta-rom-com she’d always wanted to make. For one thing, the show has now produced more than 100 original, satirical musical numbers, a logistical and creative challenge that Brosh McKenna has acclimated to over time—though, she claims, “That’s not dissimilar from the blue speech in Prada. It’s like a thing where you can stop and have someone do a comedic aria of some type. I always try and have something like that in every movie that I’ve done, where somebody kind of helps you understand why the movie’s on the planet. And songs are really kind of efficient, super fun way of doing that.” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s best numbers, from “Put Yourself First” to “Let’s Generalize About Men,” are astonishingly concise expressions of knotty, subtle concepts that, thanks to the musical format, don’t have to be couched in fiction.

There’s also the not-insignificant matter of running female-created, female-starring, female-staffed show about our cultural conceptions of womanhood in a male-dominated industry. Seven of the 10 members of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend writers’ room are women; so is its line producer and many of its department heads. When I inevitably broach the subject of being a woman in Hollywood, however, Brosh McKenna gets reflective and understandably turns to the news. “I think that all of the bullshit that I experienced being a woman happened earlier in my career,” she acknowledges. “I had learned to walk past it, and that’s just what I did,” like the time she walked into a one-on-one meeting with a man who, without asking her permission, wordlessly took a Polaroid of her and pinned it on the wall. “That’s what I would tell young writers to do, in fact. I would always say to women when they were starting that people are going to say crazy stuff to you. They’re going to talk about your body. And I feel kind of weirdly bad and complicit about that now, but like, I didn’t know how to speak up about it myself.”

That’s partly why, now that she’s in a position of power, Brosh McKenna has been so protective of both Bloom and their show. Brosh McKenna refused to work with networks that wanted to make significant changes to the concept, and once Crazy Ex-Girlfriend landed at the CW after producing a pilot at Showtime, she insisted Bloom be given the title of executive producer so she wouldn’t be subject to others’ authority on a show she created. (Brosh McKenna is currently developing multiple series with Crazy Ex writers under an overall deal at CBS Studios where she makes the same demand.) Though Bloom and Brosh McKenna technically had the same level of experience with showrunning going into Crazy Ex-Girlfriend—which is to say, none—Brosh McKenna casts herself as something of a seasoned tour guide to Bloom’s relative newcomer. “My access to her was direct, as direct as a friend from high school,” she marvels. “And I had spent so many years being kind of a mandarin, being really familiar with the back-calls and how to get your work through through all those byzantine things, including people patting your ass.” The show is a partnership between two complementary creative halves: One a fresh voice announcing itself to the world, and the other a mature voice whose insights the industry has finally caught up to.

“The core of our connection is two writers,” Brosh McKenna says of the duo’s fateful first meeting. “I had this Crazy Ex-Girlfriend idea, [and] it just hit me in the middle of it. It’s kind of like when you have those ideas you carry them around in your pocket and you wait for the right moment. I was talking to her, and I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is how to do that! “Pictures of Your Dick” is that!’” The rest is cringe-y, shrewd, catchy, uncomfortable, occasionally obscene history.