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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend goes quietly, daffily, beautifully back to basics

Illustration for article titled Crazy Ex-Girlfriend goes quietly, daffily, beautifully back to basics
Photo: Paul Sarkis (The CW)

Behold, a new entrant in the canon of the great monologues delivered to babies in hushed tones, which are really about the inner emotional state of the speaker and have not much to do with the baby, but could never exist without the baby. It’s a surprisingly rich category, given how bad the tropes in which it traffics can be. I’m partial to this particular entrant:

But Toby Ziegler could never do what Rebecca Bunch does here. (Can Richard Schiff sing? I hope Richard Schiff can sing, that would be great.) “I Can Work With You” is a lovely reminder that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s ability to embrace (and expertly execute) tropes while simultaneously deconstructing them is, if not unparalleled, then exceedingly rare. Credited to writers Rachel Specter and Audrey Wauchope and directed by Kabir Akhtar (the show’s Emmy-winning editor), this episode sees two of its central characters confront deeply rooted fears and insecurities in simple but affecting storylines, maneuvers two points of the show’s love quadrangle together and moves the other two to a place of kinship, and somehow leaves time for a disgusting hot mess pretzel and a swingin’ tune about language and daddy issues. Familiar stuff, all of it, but no other television show could accomplish those things in this way—and few could do so this well.


“I Can Work With You” essentially centers on two storylines, each with its own important sub-plot or -plots. Rebecca confronts her feelings about Hebby after Darryl calls her out on avoiding the baby so much as to basically block out the fact of her existence (and while Darryl demanding that an egg donor be involved in his baby’s life would be creepy, this seems more like Darryl demanding that his close friend who also happens to be the egg donor deal with her shit vis-à-vis his baby/her genetic offspring, and that’s still complicated, but less distressing.) Meanwhile, Paula tries to throw herself a secret graduation party, one that’s so secret that no one but her husband knows that’s what’s happening. Within those stories, there’s Greg coming over to tell Rebecca how he feels, Josh and Nathaniel butting heads (and then being buds), and Valencia and Hector dealing with their shit. That’s a full, and well-executed, slate.

While the Hector-Valencia beef is handled with an unsurprising (for this series) level of empathy, it’s the slightest of the three, mostly here so that Erick Lopez can tremble on the sofa and Gabrielle Ruiz can remind everyone that Valencia is crazy formidable. The Greg and Rebecca storyline, while well-handled by all involved, also seems like such an inevitability that something that would have once been a huge development here feels like a bit of an also-ran—for the first half of the episode, at least. That leaves Rebecca, Paula, and Nathaniel’s latest friendship at-bat, this time with Josh.

The Nathaniel-Josh story should really be called the Nathaniel story, and it feels quietly significant in his own personal development. His realization that he and Josh have a way to communicate (in song!) leads directly to the discovery that they’ve got some similar hangups (that knowing “Dads” near the episode’s end), which leads in turn to the genuine enjoyment of the party and of his company. Seeing Nathaniel, who has loudly been insisting he’s nice all season, simply be nice on impulse is oddly and unexpectedly touching; with Josh added to the roster, Nathaniel can now count Heather, White Josh, Josh, George, and (to a lesser extent) both Paula and Darryl as actual friends—tentative, perhaps, but friends all the same. Whether or not Greg is still active on that roster remains an open question, but it’s probably as open a question as the question of whether or not LeBron James was going to leave the Cavaliers in 2018. (Am I doing it right?)

The keys to this breakthrough? Self-awareness, and the presence of someone else. The “you” Nathaniel can work with is Josh, but he also works with himself, identifying what’s going on with him, pushing himself to think about the feelings of others, and acting accordingly. Both self-awareness and the presence of someone else are required for Rebecca’s big breakthrough, too—more on that below—but Paula’s takes a slightly different form. She knows exactly what she needs, or thinks she needs; it takes a lot of patience and then a gentle push from her husband to get her there.

Donna Lynne Champlin has always been great at these stories where Paula has to figure her shit out on the fly because she’s thrust into something she can no longer avoid. Think about the end of the pilot, where her confrontation with Rebecca turns on a dime into the beginning of a friendship. Think of her “Rose’s Turn” moment, or when Darryl sets her up with her husband, or the “Stuck In The Bathroom” fallout, or Rebecca’s conference room confession. A bunch of information comes in and she has to process fast, and you can see it short-circuit her brain a little. That’s what happens here, a spiritual if not musical continuation of “Maybe This Dream,” in which her own happiness, pride, and success freak her the hell out. Scott’s quiet refusal to let her torpedo her own party is lovely and affecting, and both Champlin and Steve Monroe do fine, fine work.


But really, this episode is Rebecca’s, and Rachel Bloom’s. It’s revealing that in an episode that sees Rebecca officially reunite with a beloved series-long love interest (albeit one who disappeared and came back with different fingerprints), the real thrill is a woman saying, “Hey, gotta press pause on this for a second and deal with my mental health.” It’s one of the most significant moments in the show’s history. It underlines what’s been true of this series all along: It’s not about who Rebecca falls in love with, it’s about how Rebecca learns to love herself and to allow herself to love and be loved by others.

That “Hello, Nice To Meet You” reprise is the latest in a series of particular Crazy Ex-Girlfriend songs—nearly all of them Rebecca solos—in which there’s nothing to parody, no commentary to make, just a person experiencing something so big it comes out in song. They’re the most musical-y of the musical numbers. The first “West Covina” reprise. The “Face Your Fears” reprise. The season two medley. “A Diagnosis.” To a certain extent, “You Stupid Bitch” goes here, too. Every time it happens, there’s a big shift. Something has changed. It’s a classic Crazy Ex-Girlfriend move, one of many in an excellent hour of a thoughtful show.


But the most classic Crazy Ex-Girlfriend moves of all are these: a step forward is always succeeded by a step or two backward, and you’ll always have problems again. Eight episodes left.

Stray observations

  • “Sports Analogies” = “High Hopes,” Rat Pack style as opposed to solo Frank (see: this “Vote For Kennedy” alternate version from The Rat Pack)
  • I don’t know if this is the first “have a truly happy day,” but it’s the first time I’ve caught it. I can’t decide whether it’s sweet, or just another pushy marketing strategy.
  • Bonus points for the abrupt cut in the “Settle For Me” romantical kiss music. Additional points for the SwimChan cue when Valencia sneaks up on Hector.
  • “So excited to see your living room, Paula. Never been in here before.”
  • All-time great Scott Proctor episode?
  • Killer delivery from Scott Michael Foster on “Water polo” and many other things, actually. Great episode for him, too.
  • “Berth?”
  • Sorry for the late arrival—for some reason, the screener of this episode was missing several essential scenes, two of them hugely significant. 

Contributor, The A.V. Club and The Takeout. Allison loves TV, bourbon, and overanalyzing social interactions. Please buy her book, How TV Can Make You Smarter (Chronicle, 2020). It’s short!