Netflix’s Crazy Ex Girlfriend doesn’t shy away from the reality of mental illness

Crazy Ex Girlfriend

In The Moment production editor Kate Bennett has been obsessed with Crazy Ex Girlfriend since it appeared on Netflix…

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Looking for a slightly mindless but entertaining show to let my mind switch off in the evenings, I was drawn in by its rom-com style title and promise of musical comedy.

As the opening number began, I remember wondering how many episodes I’d watch before something else piqued my interest. But by the end of that first episode, I knew that it was going to achieve binge-watch status in my Netflix queue.

In that first episode we meet Rebecca Bunch (played by the show’s creator and writer, Rebecca Bloom), an overworked lawyer who is getting through life by relying on anti-depressants and achieving all that her mother dreamed by being offered partner at her firm.

Crazy Ex Girlfriend

Within the first few minutes of the show, she’s bumped into an ex-boyfriend, Josh, who reminds her of the last time she was truly happy – at summer camp with him. At the drop of a hat, she abandons her busy life and relocates to West Covina, California, where Josh ‘just happens’ to also live. So far, so slightly silly, unrealistic rom-com, right?

But then things get good. The second number, ‘The Sexy Getting Ready Song’, hits hard at both societal expectations and the portrayal of women in music videos in one fell swoop. Lyrics such as “First I make everything shiny and smooth/ Cause I want my body to be so soft for you (bye bye skin)” paired with comedic but oh-so-realistic scenes of Rebecca waxing every inch of herself to get ready for a party, make us both giggle and applaud the underlying feminist agenda.

But at no point do we question the fact that Rebecca has this whole fantasy world going on inside her head.

Through the next two seasons, we continue to be charmed by Rebecca’s ‘zany’ personality, enjoying the witty songs that emerge in her mind from her erratic behaviour.

We’re aware that she’s probably not mentally well, but we can’t help but root for her in her goal of marrying her childhood sweetheart – even if it means breaking up him and his live-in girlfriend, running over a different girlfriend’s cat, sleeping with his best friend, or forcing her way into his sister’s wedding, to name a few. And I think, for many of us, there are certain songs and actions that ring true.

Crazy Ex Girlfriend

Insta-stalking your ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend, for example, might not be that foreign to some. The more we get to know Rebecca, the more we find ourselves identifying (and empathising) with her.

Fast forward to today, when I’ve just finished watching season 3, episode 6 (Josh Is Irrelevant) on my lunch break. I’ll admit it now – I cried into my soup. Somehow Bloom has taken this accessible yet nuanced show and used it to upend everything we know about the portrayal of mental health in television series. Without giving too much away (if you haven’t watched it yet, you must immediately), a season 3 gets real about Rebecca and her fantasy episodes, reframing the fun and whimsical catchy tunes through a serious diagnosis of borderline personality disorder after a series of difficult events.

It pulled me up short. I was amazed that I’d been so quick to overlook the entertaining behaviours in previous series that her therapist was now listing as primary symptoms of the disorder. I was surprised at how permanent this plotline will be; it’s unusual to see such a definitive diagnosis in a comedy show. I’d gotten into the habit of assuming that with a quick, slightly-sarcastic song we’d be back on the happy track, where everyone else kind of ignoring Rebecca’s actions – like we do in most shows where mental illness is hinted at.

But this is why Crazy Ex Girlfriend is so good – obviously, life isn’t always like that. At some point, we all have to face up to behaviour that could maybe once be explained away, but is causing increasing problems for us.

The consequences of Rebecca’s actions not only affect her, but also those around her, showing just how much of an impact mental wellbeing can have on all our lives.

But that also doesn’t mean that mental illness has to equal doom and gloom; a fact that Bloom is keen to remind us of. “Who says we just have to sit here and accept his diagnosis with a capital ‘D’? We don’t have to just take his ‘D’. Who says his ‘D’ is so great?” is a memorable and risqué joke that’s made in the episode, when Rebecca receives her diagnosis and is unhappy with what she’s been told.

The show is still full of its signature songs and witticisms, but now they’re just directed towards a different subject matter.

Check out these related articles on wellbeing:

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend -- "Josh is Irrelevant" -- Image Number: CEG306a_0151.jpg -- Pictured (L-R): Rachel Bloom as Rebecca, Vella Lovell as Heather, Gabrielle Ruiz as Valencia and Donna Lynne Champlin as Paula -- Photo: Robert Voets/The CW -- © 2017 The CW Network, LLC All Rights Reserved.

And the series doesn’t just stop with the diagnosis either, or simply put it in a box, to be mentioned only occasionally through related plotlines in future episodes. The way things are looking, Rebecca’s journey to better mental wellbeing is going to be front and centre, warts and all. It isn’t always as simple as being told what is wrong with you and getting a spot of therapy to make it all better – things can be difficult to hear, hard to process, and time-consuming to work through.

But with the show’s handling of the situation, this is far from something to be scared of, or reluctant to be involved in. In Crazy Ex Girlfriend, the stigma of mental illness becomes non-existent, and taking steps towards self-care is only a positive thing.

I, for one, can’t wait to go through that journey with Rebecca when it returns in January – learning more about her particular diagnosis, but also maybe realising a few things about myself on the way as well.

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Images courtesy of Netflix