by Elliot B. Gertel
Rachel Bloom plays Rebecca Bunch, a high-earning but socially awkward New York attorney who decides to give up her practice and settle in West Covina, California in order to pursue her early teen crush from summer camp, Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), a Filipino-American jock interested in surfing, sci-fi, and siren girlfriends. Lest we suspect something a bit elitist in Rebecca’s assumption that she can win Josh at whim, through dedicated deviousness aimed at both him and his family, the show reassures us constantly (even in its opening song) that Rebecca is wacky and that all of her flaws are part of her charm since all the humor is self-deprecating.
Rebecca quickly becomes the star of a second-rate West Covina law firm, whose (somewhat) good-ol’-boy chief honcho is vulnerable due to a pending divorce. The perky and meddlesome office manager, Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin) soon becomes, after brief initial antagonism, the Sancho Panza to Rebecca’s quixotic quest.
Rachel Bloom is attractive, charming, and talented. In January she won the Golden Globe Award for best actress because of this series. There is an I Love Lucy aspect to the program — but whereas Lucy felt compelled to scheme in order to find a place beside her husband in show biz alongside their family life, Rebecca’s inner song and dance, as it were, are totally dedicated to her stalking of an old crush. Even her brilliance as Harvard-trained attorney is in service of her obsession.
The characters are likable, with the intentional exception of one: Rebecca’s mother, written to the over-the-top hilt as 1960s and 1970s-style stereotypes of “the Jewish mothers” and played that way by Tovah Feldshuh. The debut episode, written by co-creators Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna, begins with Mom’s nagging the teenage Rebecca as follows: “Is that a hickey on your neck, Rebecca? If anything happens, we go right to the abortionist. Nothing is going to ruin your future and your career.” Mom remains consistent in her advocacy of careerism over everything else (including civility) — and Rebecca has obviously imbibed that “ethic.”
Interestingly, Rebecca does invoke “spirituality” when she finds her success meaningless. “Dear God, I don’t pray to you because I believe in science. Give me guidance. Amen.” Was there a bat mitzvah ceremony somewhere in her background? If so, whatever spiritual life lines she might have built are totally dismantled by her mother’s cruel comments, such as Mom’s referring to “your suicide attempt in law school” which “inconvenienced everyone” — all this on the cell phone while Rebecca is emptying her pill box. In another episode, we witness Mom telling Rebecca as a little girl, “You’re selfish and dramatic and weird. You drove your father out of the house. You’re terrible.”
No wonder that Rebecca has ambivalence about being Jewish — although somehow her Jewishness is also a staple of her resiliency. When, in the pilot, her new boss complains that his wife has procured “a powerful pit bull lawyer — one of those real smart Jewish guys,” Rebecca responds, “I’m Jewish. But it’s all right.” For a while, she even ignores his next comment: “I had no idea. That’s a tiny nose. It’s like a button.” Ultimately, after helping a bit with his divorce negotiations, she has him proud of “my Jew, Harvard and Yale” as opposed to “her [his wife’s] Jew” who “went to Long Beach.” By then Rebecca is confident enough to blurt out, “Let’s circle back about the Jew thing, because that’s a conversation that needs…”
THE “JEW THING” remains remains fairly minimal until the Chanukah-Christmas episode. There’s a Holocaust “joke” and a tidbit about Yiddish in the second episode, and Rebecca fears that a repairman has stolen her grandmother’s “necklace from Cracow” in the third. She jumps at the opportunity to cook pork in pork’s blood in order to ingratiate herself with Josh’s family after finagling a Thanksgiving invitation from his mother, and when the family invites her in the sixth episode to a special Catholic mass, she accepts the invitation, saying, “You have made me feel like I truly belong.” Josh’s Latina girlfriend, Valencia, a slim and supple personal trainer, interrupts, and not (totally) inappropriately, “I’ll also join for mass because I actually believe in Jesus.” Valencia is the show’s idea of the ultimate “un-Jewish” character, one who is not into humor and wonders whether all people who went to Harvard and Yale talk about it as much as Rebecca does. She represents what Rebecca envies and wants to be, at least in a song routine: “I want to kill you and wear your skin like a dress, but also have you see me in the dress. I want to lock you in a basement where you can be my personal trainer.”
Then comes Chanukah. Facing a visit from her mother, Rebecca takes down her Christmas decorations and puts up Chanukah decorations. At the office a new, prosperous client, Calvin, an African American who has studied the k’rav m’ga martial art and is close friends with his instructor, greets her with “Happy Chanukah” in Hebrew. Not recognizing the Hebrew, she asks him if he has “a little phlegm in there,” but shows some proficiency in Italian. She does agree with him that “the sabras [native Israelis] are a fierce people.”
It would seem that Rebecca has put up the Chanukah decorations solely to please her mother, in order to be handed the Garfinkel family ring that “gets passed down for generations.” (The episode’s prelude, spoken in Yiddish, offers some background in the spirit of the opening scene of the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man.) But her mother is incapable of being pleased. From the moment she enters the house, she kvetches about Rebecca’s looks and abode, particularly as regards the most sacred (and urgently needed) space — the bathroom. Not wanting her mother to meet her co-workers in a firm that Mom would find all too shabby compared to the old job in New York, and obviously wishing to score some points, Rebecca lies that she works at a very observant Jewish firm which is closed for Chanukah, and that all her partners are “in Israel,” are “mentshes” (upstanding) and “all in Mensa.”
Clearly, Mom must be rather clueless about religious practice because Chanukah is simply not one of those major holidays for which even the most observant Jews would close their businesses. Even within the context of observance that Rebecca has fabricated, her mom encourages her to leap to a business meeting during their holiday reunion and to bring her along. As soon as Mom sees client Calvin, she asks Rebecca, “Is he a boob man or a butt man?” Mom even offers some vulgar asides about Rebecca being “a slut in high school.”
After Mom discovers that Rebecca has given up her New York career to pursue Josh, and indicates that Rebecca might not be handed the heirloom ring, this matriarch decides to give her daughter the ring if Rebecca pimps Mom to Calvin. (So much for the ring as a symbol of the sanctity of Jewish marriage.) But Calvin has moral scruples (or at least sees the red flags), and walks away.
As for the ring, Rebecca’s ally Paula has been trying to get her to reject “that stupid” object “that your family hands down like a bunch of hobbits.” Paula regards the ring as symbolic of Rebecca’s compulsion to feed her mother’s dysfunction. But out of her own need to feed Rebecca’s dysfunction, Paula agrees to pretend to be a jet-setting, accent-sporting, British-Jewish friend who broke up with a Saudi prince “cause he wouldn’t convert.”
In the end, Rebecca has her own Chanukah moment of truth and explodes at her mother, “You’re a horny, unemployed divorcee who married an Irish Catholic. I’m half him and that is why you hate me. I’m half of what you hate.” This leads to Mother’s only tender words thus far, “Our people are not about happy. We’re about survival.” Mom says that she regards Rebecca as a survivor, and that she respects her for it. Would she respect Rebecca as much if her daughter were also a mentsh?
THE ONLY PLACE Jews and Catholics mix well in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is at clergy level in an interfaith basketball league. Josh’s priest takes every opportunity to practice basketball moves, especially before “playing the Chosen Ones,” because Cantor Goldstein “has this killer move called the Torah because you can’t touch it.” In a sensitive moment in the fifth episode, the priest tells Josh: “What matters is what you do, not what you think. What God cares about are our actions, that’s all.” Real Catholic and Jewish theologians might quibble with that statement, for different reasons. But does Bloom put any stock in religion to affect human actions and change human lives? To what would Bloom attribute Rebecca’s outburst of principle when, in an episode by Sono Patel, she bursts into a hotel room to stop Paula from committing adultery?
Ironically, the show is not without a biblical premise. Human deviousness was admired in ancient Middle Eastern (and other) myths, legends, and wisdom literature, especially when women employed it to preserve family values. In the Hebrew Bible, human deviousness can be marshaled in service of God if flawed human beings have some sense that they can achieve a higher purpose through trickery, within certain limits and circumstances. Jewish women are praised for this: Rebekah trusts the prophecy given her that Jacob must wrest the birthright from his brother Esau; Tamar sexually ensnares Judah to ensure family continuity when his sons forfeit that duty; Naomi knows that her daughter-in-law Ruth must find redemption for both family and people by seducing Boaz; Esther must manipulate King Ahasuerus in order to save her people.
There is some deceit or trickery in all these stories, but these vices are enlisted to overcome certain adverse conventions for a higher purpose — yes, “survival,” to use the word of Rebecca’s twisted mom, but for the continuity of a covenant that sets a standard for human relationships and, I dare say, for human happiness. In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Bloom has made Rebecca a deceiver, but not in the exalted biblical sense. It would seem so far that Rebecca is stalking Josh out of a pure desire to manipulate him simply because she wants to do so, and, to some extent, can.
The woman with the biblical virtues in this TV show is Rebecca’s next door neighbor, Heather (brilliantly played by Vella Lovell) a deadpan nonconformist who feigns gracelessness and yet brings grace and insight to every situation. The “desirable husband” is Josh’s friend, the bartender Greg, whose kindness and intelligence (and capacity to consciously choose to be and to do good) are amplified in every episode, and whose Astaire-Rogers dance scene with Rebecca in the fourth episode is touching and memorable. It is interesting that when Rebecca learns that Greg and Heather have hooked up, she responds with a far less than wholehearted, “Mazal, mazal.”
In today’s or yesterday’s TV climate, a tale about a Jewish woman who employs charming trickery to entice a Jewish man to establish a Jewish home for spiritual reasons is so unlikely that, if done right, it might prove refreshing. But, at least so far, Bloom’s series comes across as a parody intended to squelch any such scenario.
Bloom deserves credit for a smart and sometimes charming parody on bad choices. The impression given here, however, is that the master and magnet of bad choices is a Jewish woman — and that this is par for the course.
Elliot B. Gertel is a retired pulpit rabbi who has been film and TV critic for the National Jewish Post and Opinion for 35 years. He is the author of Over the Top Judaism and What Jews Know About Salvation.