In praise of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s honest take on mental health

CW`s musical-rom-com takes mental health beyond a story arc

Credit: 
Screenshot from YouTube

A couple years ago when I was on the hunt for a new TV show to binge, a friend suggested I try the CW network’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. 

I asked what kind of show it was and he told me it was a dark romantic-comedy-drama-musical. In my confusion at how a show could possibly balance all of these genres, I jumped in and have been hooked ever since.

Though the concept of a romance-drama-comedy infused with musical breaks might sound absurd, if not completely implausible, creator and star Rachel Bloom is able to seamlessly weave these various genres together and create a touching, emotional and hilarious masterpiece. 

From its inception, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has excelled at creating a truthful portrait of its complicated protagonist, Rebecca Bunch. 

While its premise — a girl who moves across the country in hopes of falling in love with a man she briefly went to summer camp with — is that of a conventional or slightly zany rom-com, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is far from typical. Bloom flips the rom-com trope and reveals its dark side, showing that someone who’s changing their life or putting it on hold in the hopes of a far-fetched love affair is often not mentally stable.

Rather than exploiting the dramatic aspects of mental health when it’s narratively necessary, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend goes where most shows never do in creating a protagonist whose mental illness is an integral part of their character. Most shows unfortunately typically use mental illness for an episode or two as an arc, often ending with the character acting as if the illness never happened. Recent examples include an episode of Scrubs in which a main character is diagnosed with postpartum depression until shortly after when it’s never spoken of again, or Scandal where the protagonist’s undiagnosed PTSD drives her to murder and then is magically cured without intervention.

Television portrayals of mental illness like that of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rebecca Bunch are important in creating relatable characters for audiences living with chronic mental illness. While Scrubs’ postpartum depression storyline showed a touching portrayal of mental illness, it quickly faded, alienating viewers who thought they may have finally found a character to relate to. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend made Rebecca’s anxiety and depression clearly understood from the first episode and while it isn’t always a major plot line, it’s a recurring and prominent theme in all choices she makes.

Another aspect of mental illness television often gets wrong is the reality of treatment. Shows tend to vilify mental health professionals and medications, choosing to have characters “fight it on their own.” 

While this may provide some interesting character development, it discourages viewers with real mental health issues from seeking the proper treatment they may need. Shows like UnReal and Pretty Little Liars depict medication and therapists as soul-sucking monsters who drain protagonists of their creativity and freedom.

While Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rebecca isn’t particularly invested in her treatment — in the pilot episode she dumps her medication down the drain and is frequently seen ignoring all of her therapist’s advice — her unwillingness to seek treatment is never shown in a positive or empowering light. The show frames her reluctance to treatment as an obviously unfavourable decision for her and the negative consequences are always evident. 

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend highlights the ups and downs that accompany chronic mental illness, finding the balance between the avoidance of both sensationalizing or minimizing its challenges. Though television is usually a place lacking honest portrayals of mental health, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s unconventional approach provides a relatable protagonist who’s equally open about the humour and hardships that accompany her mental illness.

 

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