Rachel Bloom (Photo: Scott Everett White/The CW)

The term “cringe-worthy” is, all by itself, totally cringe-worthy. But is there a better way to describe the emotional journey that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s mid-season premiere demands of you?

Forgive the informality, but Jesus fucking Christ, this is an uncomfortable watch. Rachel Bloom is good at many things — maybe most things — but she’s goddamn unparalleled at making it clear how committed a character is to a wholly terrible idea. If her mission in “Nathaniel Needs My Help!” has a spiritual cousin, it’s the moment in the season three premiere, in which she gleefully outlines her grand plan for re-vannnnnnnge. Her schemes with George are just straight-up “coprophagia!”, only that moment lingers for almost an entire episode. I loved it, but I am so tired.

Credited to writers (and brave humans) Audrey Wauchope and Rachel Specter, “Nathaniel Needs My Help!” revisits a load of familiar territory. That’s not unusual for a television series, but in this case, it’s not because of familiarity, reliability, or laziness. Instead, Wauchope, Specter, and company return to an oft-visited well because that’s totally what Rebecca would do. And that’s where all the cringing comes in.

Have you ever met a person? I’m sure you have. If that’s the case, you’ve known someone with hang-ups, and that means you’ve also known, and probably loved, someone who can’t help falling into the same goddamn traps, time and time again. Not one, but two of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s primary characters fall back into harmful patterns this week, and they both behave inappropriately for seemingly benevolent reasons. If you needed further proof that Rebecca and Paula are kindred spirits, you’ll find it here; if you’ve been hoping, like me, that they’re each destined to help the other find more solid footing in their lives, you’re likely to be disappointed.

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This is a very good, if somewhat uneven, episode, but the most off-kilter episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is still top-tier stuff. That’s due, in no small part, to the strength of its cast, and any series that sees its A-story centered on Bloom and its B-story centered on Donna Lynne Champlin can’t help but be entertaining. They demand your affection, and so the dread a viewer might feel as Rebecca goes way too far or Paula stalks a young woman isn’t tempered, per se, but is somehow made participatory. It’s as though you — you, specifically — aren’t stopping them. They mean well, but holy shit, won’t someone please step in? Won’t someone please remind them of what is and isn’t appropriate?

That’s part of what makes this series, and this episode, so consistently uncomfortable, despite its many delights. For 2.5 seasons, Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna have led us on a merry chase, asking us to love and support people who do terrible things. Just terrible. But they’re not terrible people, because many people who do terrible things are actually pretty OK, most of the time. That’s true when they’re miserable and desperate, and true when they’re happy and giddy. So Paula can use her evil powers for good, and Rebecca can turn a relatively healthy relationship into something that’s deeply messed up. They mean well! They try your patience, but they’re trying. They want nothing but the best, but they’re going about it in a very wrong way. They ruined everything, those stupid bitches.

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Still, as always, the situation’s a lot more nuanced than that. As directed by Jude Weng (who also directed one of the best episodes of the current season of The Good Place), “Nathaniel Needs My Help!” doesn’t shy away from the messed-up stuff in this episode, but nor does it condemn its participants. Paula and Rebecca do some seriously questionable things; in one case, those actions are (endearingly but somewhat questionably) forgiven; in the other, they result in blackmail and a bullet somehow dodged. That things work out in the end doesn’t erase the problem. It’s OK because Darryl and Nathaniel care for them; it’s OK because we care for them, but if we’re being honest, it’s not really OK, and they both seem to know that. That, folks, is what we call growth. That’s two people learning, for not the first time but perhaps the last, that they really need to respect basic boundaries — legal, emotional, and otherwise.

If you doubt the importance of boundaries in “Nathaniel Needs My Help!”, look no further than the righteous Amy Hill solo the world has been waiting for. There are two really fun songs in this episode, and both are entertaining, but the latest Pete Gardner jam doesn’t hold a candle to the private-room karaoke banger offered up by Lourdes Chan. Most of the great Crazy Ex-Girlfriend songs are either inherently catchy or thoughtful, nuanced things, but this song is incredibly straightforward. This is reality, it says. Please face it, because I am fucking exhausted. I love you, but get the fuck out.

That’s not where Nathaniel’s at, but Lourdes’s struggle is, as they say, real. Weng’s direction puts you right up in this mess: Rebecca swoons about her own plans, and you can’t flinch hard enough; Paula approaches a park bench and you want nothing more than to run away; Josh sits still and my god, how badly do you want him to move? It’s a mess. It’s uncomfortable and weird. And the happiest possible ending is, for once, what we get. Rebecca recognizes her patterns (thank you, therapy!) and makes a hard decision. Josh listens to his mother and starts tracing his problems to the source. Paula realizes that, once again, she’s gone too far.

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So now we’re in a place where everyone can grow. The end of the season doesn’t loom, precisely, but it’s there; beyond it lingers the end of the series. At some point, at least some of these messy, well-meaning people have got to start figuring out their shit. This feels like a first step, a real first step, unlikely to be interrupted by an ill-advised marriage proposal. From here on out, maybe, everyone gets better.

Maybe. Probably not. Old habits, and so on.


Stray observations

  • G-G-G Award: Lots of solid small performances here, but when the reigning title holder delivers, they must be recognized. Cheers to Danny Jolles, who will not be ignored or interrupted, but will absolutely be manipulated into dubious behavior under the thread of exacerbating someone else’s suicidal tendencies.
  • Don’t get me wrong, I am so about the healthy sperm number, but... doesn’t it feel just a little bit like filler? That said, it puts that song in company with “Having A Few People Over,” which is also filler but is undeniably perfect, so who the fuck cares.
  • Self-promotion, but relevant: I interviewed Rachel Bloom last month. She is exactly as brilliant, generous, and funny as you dreamed.
  • More Amy Hill in everything. That’s what I want of 2018.
  • The Rebecca/Josh scene feels hugely significant. We’ll see what happens next, but if the rest of the series is Rebecca and Josh each figuring out how to be healthy and happy, I am all about that.

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