Formulas are wonderful. When executed well, they offer endless variations, in which slight adjustments can create surprises and suspense. Better still, they can eventually be purposely and ingeniously left behind, for comedic or dramatic effect. In some ways, the single most notable thing about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s lovely, low-key midseason finale is the disruption of its most simple formula, and it’s that disruption that puts the whole episode in a new light.
This is a trick that the series has used before to great effect. Think of the first season, in which the theme song faithfully appeared every week after the pilot, until suddenly it didn’t. In “That Text Was Not Meant For Josh!” writer Elisabeth Kiernan Averick seems to abandon the theme entirely, until it suddenly appears in the third act, spoken aloud by Paula and Scott, a great joke elevated to perfect by one modified lyric (“and that’s exactly why she’s here”) and the inclusion of the title card. That joke works only because we saw that theme song every week, like clockwork, and just when it seemed to have vanished, it reappeared in a new form — and then was buttoned by the same old cheerful chime.
It’s a brilliant moment in one of the best episodes of the show to date, but it’s dwarfed by the simple act of taking Josh Chan’s name out of the title. Here’s “Getting Over Jeff.” The removal of Josh’s name does more than effectively erase the character as a force in Rebecca’s life. It also centers someone other than Rebecca in the narrative. It’s not the first time that an episode title has distanced Rebecca’s perspective: this season’s premiere was titled, “Josh’s Ex-Girlfriend Wants Revenge,” and last season we got “Who Is Josh’s Soup Fairy?” But this one’s different. This isn’t about Josh, and it’s not really Rebecca’s story either. “Getting Over Jeff” is about Paula and, well, Jeff (John Gatins).
Of course, the fact that Jeff’s last name is ‘Channington’ links Paula and Jeff’s story directly to the epic saga we’ve been following for three seasons. It’s fair to say that, while Rebecca gets her own storyline here, this functions as a showcase for the considerable talents of Donna Lynne Champlin and a deeper dive into the mind and heart of the character who is arguably the show’s secondary lead. Yes, Rebecca’s story is also interesting, as is Josh’s, as is Darryl and White Josh’s, and all involved are excellent, Rachel Bloom and Pete Gardner in particular. Still, Paula is the main event. Her arc offers some insight into why she may have been so invested in Rebecca’s infatuation with Josh in the first place, adds depth to a marriage that’s already complex, and gives Champlin a chance to say “penis” over and over and over again.
Not enough has been said about how much Bloom, Jack Dolgen, Adam Schlesinger, and their occasional songwriting guests make use of repetition. It’s a frequent go-to but never gets old. Think of “I go to the zoo in San Diego / It’s really such a better zoo,” or better still, “I want to kill you and wear your skin like a dress / but then also have you see me in the dress / and say “OMG, you look so good in my skin!” Those are funny examples, but “You Stupid Bitch” and “The End Of The Movie” use it, too. What’s great about “First Penis I Saw” is that it doesn’t actually need to use parallel construction or the breaking of a structured rhyme to be funny. It’s just “Mamma Mia,” but with the word ‘penis’ in there a lot: a ‘penis’ in every chorus, a penis here and a penis there, everywhere a penis penis. Penis.
It’s not just great because it’s funny, though it is very funny — the Jeff! packaging everywhere, the acknowledged turntable, Kathryn M. Burns’s exuberant choreography, and Paula’s terrific background dancers all help to make it a great and guffaw-worthy number. It’s great because it captures the feeling of first love in an honest, frank, and utterly unexpected way. I have never heard a love song about seeing a penis for the first time. I’m sure there’s one out there somewhere, but I doubt very much it’s anything like this gem. A lot of that is the writing; a lot is the wonderful staging and those marvelous throwbacks to the beginning of season one; and a great deal of it is the unguarded, joyful performance Champlin gives. When an actor can actually blush, you know they’re bringing their A-game. Crying is easy. Blushing is top-tier.
The resolution of Paula’s story is wholly satisfying, perfect for a holiday-adjacent episode that doesn’t actually acknowledge the holiday. She, as promised, gets over Jeff, because all she really needed was to stop wondering and to feel something other than discarded. The tantalizing appeal of being wanted — something that attracted her in the first season as well — releases its hold once she’s got a better sense of what’s really going on. That’s true in all cases in this episode. Once the person in question has got some clarity, things become simpler. Rebecca gets her A+ at getting a C+ by relinquishing her need to follow the script (in this case, the script would be that of someone in recovery from a suicidal episode), and instead gets drunk with her friend’s dad and allows that to feel good without getting super weird. That said, the song is indeed super weird and gleefully demented; having watched a few Shirley Temple tap numbers in the last week, I can tell you it’s dead-on, making two wins for Burns in this hour. She lets loose, laughs a lot, gets drunk, moves a friendship to the next stage, and gets laid in a surprisingly healthy manner.
The same holds for Josh, whose need to feel like a “big boy” sends him to the doctor and only stops when he acknowledges how unmoored he feels. It’s also true of White Josh and Darryl, who need two outside interventions in order to process what’s happened to their relationship — first, by getting coerced into acknowledging the necessity of breaking up by Madison, and second, by getting urged into a detente of sorts by Hector, who points out that they really don’t want to miss the spectacle of Josh thinking he’s Tom Cruise in Cocktail. It’s all good, and Gardner and David Hull might just break your heart a little, but clarity is again what matters. They see things clearly, act honestly, and things get better.
And then Rebecca gets a sticker, completing one last formula. What more do you need?
- Listen, given Paula’s present obsession, I have to do this, and sorry in advance: here’s Podlander Drunkcast: an Outlander Podcast, a podcast I host with one of the funniest women I know. We talk about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (and The Good Place) a disproportionate amount, given the podcast title, but the focus is obviously Outlander. If you like that show and also like dirty jokes, you will like it. It’s on Stitcher, iTunes, and elsewhere, and we’re doing a live show in Chicago next week. Apologies for the blatant self-promotion.
- Fun fact: John Gatins is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter!
- I remain Team Rebecca-Is-Healthy-And-Alone, but I have to admit that sequoia stuff was endearing, funny, and not a little hot.
- Glen-Garry-George Award: So many good options, but let’s give this one to the excellent Ms. Olivia Edward as the excellent Ms. Madison Whitefeather.
- “Syracuse is a lovely school for…. Communications or something?”
- “No cheese, no bread, I just want a hot salty tomato.”
- “That’s how I broke up with Jimmy. I ripped off… his bandaid!”
- “Oh, I always get busy after work tomorrow night”
- Never forget: