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Opinion The radical promise of TV’s mentally ill women

Rachel Bloom as Rebecca Bunch in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” (Eddy Chen/The CW )

The anti-hero revolution in television was defined by men who behaved badly in specifically masculine ways, but who we loved anyway. Men like Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Don Draper (Jon Hamm) alternately ignored and dominated their families, bossed around their business associates and didn’t disdain force, sexual and otherwise, when it suited their purposes. Given how we’ve lionized strength, decisiveness and violence and disdained passivity and weakness, getting us to root for these charismatic men perhaps wasn’t the world’s heaviest lift. By contrast, a second wave of innovative shows about difficult women is attempting a harder task: getting audiences to sympathize with heroines who are needy, dramatic and highly emotional.

The most recent entry in this genre is the CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” a candy-colored musical with a rotten tooth of depression left behind after every sticky bite. The series follows Rebecca (Rachel Bloom), an accomplished lawyer with an overbearing mother and a mangled mental-health history who turns down a partnership at her New York firm, throws out her medications and decamps for West Covina, Calif., on a whim after a chance encounter with Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), whom she dated briefly at summer camp in her teens. “Okay, I do not love him. I barely know him. I dated him for two months when I was 16 at a summer camp. So you’re saying I moved here from New York and left a job that would have paid me $545,000 a year for a guy who still skateboards?” Rebecca tells her new co-worker Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin) when confronted with evidence of her obsession. “I did not move here for Josh because that would be crazy and I am not crazy. Oh my God.”

The musical numbers in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” are spritely and charming, but their often-inappropriate interjections into the show’s events and their disturbing lyrics contribute to the series’ environment of general mental ill-health. “She’s so broken inside,” insists the song that plays over the opening credits, only for Rebecca to interject petulantly that “The situation’s a lot more nuanced than that!” When Rebecca develops a friendship with Josh’s girlfriend Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz), that fixation escalates quickly: “I want to lock you in a basement with soundproof walls / And take over your identity,” Rebecca sings in a number about her girl crush. And in tonight’s episode, she imagines a boy band made up of four versions of Josh who manage to make lyrics like “All your psychological problems / Girl, we’re gonna solve them /  Because we’re not just a boy band made up of four Joshes / We’re also a team of licensed mental health professionals” sound like a Backstreet Boys throwback.

But for all of its stylistic innovations, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” has lots of thematic similarities with its counterparts. One element these shows share is a sense that their characters’ parents contributed in some ways to their mental illness. On “Homeland,” Carrie Mathison’s (Claire Danes) bipolar disorder is an inheritance from her otherwise loving father, but her mother’s long absence from her life doesn’t seem as though it’s been helpful either. In “UnREAL,” Rachel Goldberg’s (Shiri Appleby) mother (Mimi Kuzyk) is also her therapist, in a clear violation of medical ethics, providing her daughter’s prescriptions and manipulating her in sessions.

The sources of Rebecca’s problems on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” are less clear, though still obviously parental. Her mother puts tremendous pressure on her. “She’s just [angry] because I didn’t do the mock trial summer intensive,” 16-year-old Rebecca tells Josh in a flashback to summer camp that starts the series. “She didn’t even want me to go here. But then, I called my dad on his honeymoon in the Bahamas and told him I was having suicidal thoughts, so, ta-da, here I am.” When she has her near-breakdown in New York, Rebecca tells herself of the partnership she’s being offered that “This is great. I’m so happy. Mom’s going to be so happy. This is what happy feels like,” even as her reaction suggests the opposite. “You inconvenienced a lot of people,” Rebecca’s mother tells her over the phone, referring to a suicide attempt she made in law school. And as we learn in tonight’s episode, Rebecca’s father abandoned the family when she was in seventh grade.

And on all three shows, Carrie, Rachel and Rebecca cope with their mental and emotional health issues in part by covering for them with professional excellence. To a certain extent, this is in keeping with what Slate’s June Thomas describes as television’s fetish for “people who accomplish things more efficiently than the rest of us.” But it’s also a way for “Homeland,” “UnREAL” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” to communicate the full dimensions of their characters’ illnesses. For Carrie and Rebecca, the obsessiveness that leads them to pursue unsuitable romantic partners and push their bosses too far has also made them experts in their fields and helps them be attentive to detail in a way that helps Carrie crack tough intelligence riddles and means that Rebecca constantly out-thinks rival real estate lawyers. And Rachel’s hypersensitivity to emotion causes her to act out, but it makes her uniquely capable of manipulating the contestants on the reality show for which she works.

The most interesting element of “UnREAL,” though, and one that I hope “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” tackles at some point, is the idea that mental illness is an appropriate response to certain social conditions and expectations for modern women. The “Bachelor”-style show Rachel works for pushes the women who appear on it to their absolute limits, forcing them to adopt artificial personas and suppress their feelings to compete for the affections of a man who’s appearing on the show only to boost his business. Being the person involved in manipulating other women is a highly unpleasant task. And an on-air meltdown Rachel suffered shortly before the events of the first season of “UnREAL” may actually be the sanest and most humane possible reaction to the job.

“Homeland” has always had a trickier time managing this kind of tension, because it relies on the idea that there is a credible threat of terrorism. Carrie is a Cassandra, warning about threats that everyone else ignores. If she was someone who had been driven mad by an overreaching security state conjuring non-existent monsters out of the dark, “Homeland” would be a very different series that deployed Carrie’s mental illness to a very different purpose.

“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” works at a more intimate level: Rebecca is just trying to find a way to carve out a normal life in the world, rather than puppet-mastering a television show or racing against the clock to prevent attacks on the United States. But that’s exactly why I’d love to see the series grapple with whether her mental illness is a reasonable response to the expectations for successful, modern women (a number about female beauty standards was a good start). Think “The Feminine Mystique,” but with dance breaks.