by Elliot B. Gertel
THE CW NETWORK’S Crazy Ex-Girlfriend began with Jewish lawyer Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) running into her irresolute summer-camp crush, Filipino-American Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), and then leaving a high-powered New York job in order to stalk him in his home town of West Covina, California.
Rebecca is obsessed and devious, but it’s all in the name of comedy, right? Maybe this is not the best image of a Jewish woman — nor is the depiction of Rebecca’s obnoxious and cruel Jewish mother, played with aplomb by Tovah Feldshuh. But there is much talent in the series, as well as a je-ne-sais-quoi or indefinable quality that has kept many viewers (including me; see my earlier piece on the show) watching for more than its clever, multiple-genre musical parodies.
What is the show’s allure?
A lot of its charm rests in the quirky and relatable characters. And yes, this series has teased viewers with its Jewish allusions. Sidekick Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin) prattled, “I just love mixed race babies….Jewish and Filipino is the best mix.” The same episode featured a crack about a Latina physical trainer not eating bagels after 8:00 p.m., and a water expert’s observation that “until the Israelis learn how to desalinate we’re in trouble.” But such references are hardly noteworthy in and of themselves.
Some viewers may be attracted by defiance. Familiar types have been trotted out to sanction the Rebecca-Joshua romance despite its depiction as unhealthy. In the first season finale, for example, Josh walks in on Rebecca by chance while she is purchasing an earring. The aged Jewish jewelry store proprietor, Moshe, asks Rebecca if she has found her bashert, her soulmate. She shrugs as if not knowing the term, either in her Jewish vocabulary or in her life experience. Eyeing Rebecca and Josh, Moshe sighs: “Oy vay. What’s with these sad faces?” By episode’s end, Rebecca and Josh are flouting the sadness and any social or religious conventions that would keep them apart, falling into each others’ arms in a car seat to the syncopations of the rousing lovesong rendered at the wedding by Josh’s aunt.
Could audiences be somehow mesmerized by the teasing aspects of the show, which sometimes direct viewers to second-guess their opinions of flawed characters? The question is raised more than once, for example, whether Rebecca’s mother, who berates her and still accuses her of driving away her philandering father, is so horrible after all. Rebecca recalls spending her bat mitzvah money to buy a plane ticket to surprise her father in Santa Fe, only to experience his rejection yet one more time. In an on-flight reverie, she hears her psychiatrist (Michael Hyatt) tell her: “Somebody did love you; somebody still does. It just doesn’t happen to be him [Dad].”
Also in that dream-sequence, Rebecca tells her psychiatrist that if he can grant wishes, Rebecca wants to “haunt Hitler and get him to rethink a few things and to see what Oprah does in her bathtub.” Obviously, writers Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna were willing to take their “teasing” quite far.
Yet along the way, the series does offer indications that Rebecca’s excesses, especially her take on Jewish life, might not be fair or even rational. When she brings Josh home for a bar mitzvah celebration in her mother’s family (“the Torah portion with the menstruation and the lepers”), Josh bonds with Rebecca’s mother, who teaches him to make challah French toast. Josh has fun with Jews, but Rebecca insists that Jews don’t know how to have fun. A woman rabbi (Patti LuPone) rightly scolds Rebecca: “Our people is not responsible for your life. You are. This stuff, this town, this people, they’re you. And if you hate that stuff, you hate yourself. And if you hate yourself, it doesn’t matter how great your boyfriend is. You’ll always be unhappy.”
There is something engagingly “honest” about Rebecca’s lack of emotional, spiritual or moral compass. When she does turn to spirituality, it is to seek magical signs pointing to her bashert . At one point she tells her therapist: “The whole reason I’m in West Covina is because the Universe sent me a sign, literally in an arrow pointed straight down to Josh on the street in New York.” The psychiatrist suggests that it was a coincidence.
The show constantly returns to Rebecca’s warped mom as the source of her lack of direction and self-esteem. “My mother couldn’t eat egg salad when pregnant,” Rebecca reminisces. “It’s on the list of the things I ruined for her, including her career and her vagina.”
Still, the series depicts Rebecca as good at helping people. She finds purpose in directing a community to fight for clean tap water. She can even face her hometown rival, Audra Levine (Rachel Grate), another female Jewish lawyer, who is a barracuda in the courtroom. They face off not only in the trial, but in a “JAP-Rap” song with clever Jewish allusions that have spawned internet commentary. (Are such songs somehow cathartic for dealing with pressures to engage in Jewish life and community?)
Though Rebecca does not win the case, her dedication to it (mainly to be near Josh) does win friends and admirers, including Josh. There are even references in the catchy music to the Hebrew Prophets, to justice rolling as a mighty stream (Amos 5:24). This nod toward social justice and helping others can enchant viewers, even though Rebecca also makes fun of certain people whom she won’t help.
Meanwhile, when caught in her lies, Rebecca makes up a fake boyfriend who actually materializes to rescue her. That man, Trent Maddock (Paul Welsh), admired Rebecca from afar when they were Harvard students and happens to be stalking her the same way she has stalked Josh! Trent is an all-too-perfect suitor who seems to be intended both as a parody of Rebecca’s behavior and as a portent of her destructiveness.
Rebecca is confident that Trent will tire of her once she does something annoying like “eating a piece of ham off the ground.” Indeed, Rebecca often obsesses on unkosher foods. Is this intended to be indicative of her more dangerous obsessions?
The third season had Rebecca careening closer and closer to the edge, with a frenzied mock-up of Jewish associations, stereotypes and allusions that reveal her borderline personality and mental illness. Left at the altar by Josh — who, we finally learn, was alerted to Rebecca’s past dangerous stalking by her own stalker Trent — Rebecca loses all self-restraint in pursuit of revenge, barges into a Catholic church while Josh seeks sanctuary, damages his reputation (spreading rumors that he is a “homophobic Holocaust denier”) and almost harms his family. Then she attempts suicide.
Tempted, as always, to help Rebecca with her frenzied schemes, whether because of her charisma or her guile, her friends find the self-awareness and generosity to stage an intervention. Her pal Paula even gets Rebecca’s bitter mother to take her in for “healing.” But it would seem that Rebecca’s trust in her mother has been misplaced, and that she has been medicated under false and expedient pretenses by a mom who is at best impatient with her and at worst dangerously manipulative. (For some reason, we are told that Mom just happened to have pills “left over” from the High Holy Days, as if those festivals somehow necessitated self-medication.)
All along, and despite Rebecca’s horrible actions, the other characters praise her for making a difference in their lives and for “inspiring” them with her efforts to find love and to be more lovable. Is this all it takes to hold friends — and audiences?
At the end of Season Three, Rebecca’s colleague/latest lover Nathaniel (Scott Michael Foster) is ready to defend her in a (frame-up?) attempted murder trial. But her desire to confess all that she has done leads her to reject his counsel and perhaps the reality of her own mental illness, not to mention the advantages of her legal training. Is she trying to come to terms with individual responsibility by assuming some? Or does she want to confess to achieve her own peace of mind, realizing that she has done many bad things?
Some of these questions apply to the series itself as well as to the main character. Was it courageous for this show to have dealt with mental illness and suicide, or was it convenient? After all, if Rebecca’s amorality, bad behavior and deprecation of Jewish life are all in her head, then the nasty portrayal of a Jewish mother, the glorification of (interfaith) stalking, and the mockery of Jewish life can just be shrugged off as a clever, artistic tease, and not as baggage somehow related to her Jewish background. Or can they?
Or could the charm of this series be the premise that defiance, derision and debunking of the sacred can be a tribute to the sacred, provided that bad behavior can somehow be separated from a character’s — or a TV show’s — appealing qualities?
Could this show’s pull be its inversion, whether intentional or unintentional, of an old rabbinic premise that “a person does not sin unless a spirit of folly/madness/craziness enters into that person” (Sotah 3a)?
Elliot B. Gertel is a retired pulpit rabbi who has been film and TV critic for the National Jewish Post and Opinion for thirty-five years. He is the author of Over the Top Judaism and What Jews Know About Salvation.