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The true-to-life fantasy world of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Across its various mediums, genre entertainment explores very real, relatable experiences and feelings through fantastical elements. Using other-worldly ingredients, art can help us make sense of the actual world around us.
But, here's the thing about that actual world, about real life: It can be fantastic, surreal, horrific and out-of-this-world enough on its own. And no television show captures that quite like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
Over the course of its four seasons, we have followed Rebecca Bunch as she attempts to navigate her world and her at-times challenging brain using musical fantasy sequences. While the series has always hit the marks of comedy, feminism, and self-awareness with near-perfect aplomb, even the most ardent fan couldn't have anticipated how well Crazy Ex-Girlfriend would handle its darker dive into Rebecca's road to being diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and subsequent dealing with the disorder and life in general.
As someone with my own diagnoses of major depression, anxiety disorder, panic attacks, and PTSD, living with mental illness is... weird. Hard isn't the right word. It's just... weird. Sometimes it's sad, scary, anger-inducing, or overwhelming, and sometimes there are bursts of euphoria or even just normalcy, and sometimes it's all of those things and none of those things, and it can be difficult to trust that any of it's real or how long any of it will last. Living with mental illness can be its own kind of sci-fi/fantasy/horror experience. It's Blade Runner without the budget but just as many edits, filtered through the various director's cuts of our own memories, perceptions, and experiences. Where Crazy Ex-Girlfriend thrives so well, in a way I've never seen any other show handle mental illness let alone female mental illness, is in that understanding of the surreality of day-to-day existence and how strange it is that we work so hard to make sense of a world that makes no sense.
Even beyond mental illness, the show depicts all the other ways normal life would be inexplicable and unnavigable without some serious song-and-dance numbers or at least a couple singing pretzels. Relationships, unrequited love, friendships, and work, these are all "normal" parts of being a human person that are as untenable as a voyage through the 'verse in a spaceship. And as such, show's fantasy elements can at times feel more grounded than reality. We understand pop culture. We don't always understand our own lives.
So when Rebecca envisions herself as the literal villain of her own story, wakes up the understanding that prison isn't the "Cell-Block Tango" she imagined, makes choices that she hates herself for and doesn't understand, or even simply resigns herself to getting a f*ckton of cats, it's real. It's real in a way so much of genre entertainment can never be. The science fiction futures or dystopias are unpredictable and brutal and terrifying and at times so idealized and stunning, but so is right now, this very moment just existing in the world.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer taught us that the hardest thing in this world is to live in it. But for those of us without unyielding strength, magic powers, or at least one hot vampire boyfriend, it's a different kind of hard. Mental illness especially can rob us of every hint of energy or personality, of ourselves. Forget super strength — we'd take the strength to lift our heads and get out of bed some mornings. Of course, occasionally these shows and films go to the other extreme entirely wherein the illness itself becomes a form of superpower, ultimately this magical wonderful thing. And that's not it either. Mental illness just is. Life just is. And getting through it is often just that — getting through, not thriving or faltering.
Even in its most mundane moments, human existence is a cacophony of every element that makes genre entertainment so enjoyable, terrifying, disturbing and every other adjective that describes why we read the things we read and watch the things we watch. Life is hard and weird and beautiful and terrible and ugly and unreal. Life is as bizarre and nonsensical as the strangest sci-fi, and as unbelievable as the farthest-out-there fantasy.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend gets that, making it the perfect genre show even without maniacal villains, alien beings, or supernatural powers. Those things exist inside all of us all the time anyway. And the only heroes we have to save us are ourselves and the people we love.