Q&A: ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ creators weigh in on the exploration of Rebecca’s mental health
Don’t let the catchy songs fool you. The CW’s comedy-musical “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” has hit a more dramatic key in its third season.
The series that introduced viewers to Rebecca Bunch — the titular heroine who, in Season 1, upended her high-powered lawyer life in New York to move to West Covina and chase after an ex — has been delving deeper into the character’s mental health to put her questionable, often extreme, behavior into perspective. Rebecca, played by co-creator and star Rachel Bloom, has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, opening up new creative paths for the show.
“It's a story that we embarked on telling so many years ago, and I think we both always felt like we owed this to the audience,” said co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna.
The Times spoke with Bloom and Brosh McKenna ahead of the show’s new episode that airs Friday at 8 p.m. PST, to discuss Rebecca’s new diagnosis, taking the air out of romantic love, and where things are headed in the second half of Season 3.
This season is really the culmination of what you set out to do. Talk about laying the groundwork to reach this point. So much of Seasons 1 and 2 was about romantic love and the healthiness and unhealthiness of it. And now the underlying mental health element has come into focus.
Brosh McKenna: In the pilot, [Rebecca’s] mother references her suicide attempt, and [Rebecca] throws the pills away, and puts some other pills down the disposal — and we have not really delved into those things in depth until now. When she decides to come to West Covina, she puts herself at the top of a very, kind of tippie-toe mountain. She's sort of like Julie Andrews spinning around in the meadow. And then as things evolve and devolve, she starts to tumble down the mountain, and we were lucky enough to have the time to watch her descend into some of her old patterns and dilemmas.
Bloom: But heightened. The falls are harder and more exaggerated this time. It's interesting, because this season she's gone to sadder levels, but even from the pilot she was doing very manipulative things. She basically hooked up with Greg [Santino Fontana] just to get information about his best friend. From moment one we've tried to make it clear that she's a very flawed person, she means well, but is ultimately kind of selfish and driven by her id, so I think that we've given a lot of reason to empathize with her, but also a lot of reason for people to not be surprised when she goes to a very dark place.
Brosh McKenna: I think that the reason that it's not as visible to people in the first two seasons is because it's cloaked into “this boy loves me.” And so we really forgive a lot for that. If you look at romantic comedies, a lot of people's behaviors are just psychotic ... And we justify all that under the headline of love. We really are very, very forgiving of someone if we think they're in love with somebody, and they're being invasive and intrusive and obsessive, it's kind of rewarded, weirdly. So I think that's why you don't notice it as much until this season ... Especially the episodes where she's lashing out at her friends, she doesn't really have anything left over to be that kind of rom-com adorable girl.
I think it's the most unromantic romantic comedy possible.
— Aline Brosh McKenna, co-creator of "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend"
Why do you think that is and what were the challenges in pushing against the fantasy that romantic love equates to completion?
Bloom: We've done a lot of stuff [this] season that is rare for network television: discussing very specific mental health diagnoses, and suicide attempts, and sleeping with your ex-boyfriend's dad. I don't want to call ourselves groundbreaking because that feels very masturbatory, but I have not seen much art out there, whether it be cable, or network TV, or movies, that takes the piss out of romantic love. Because even in the darkest pieces of media, the person's love for their wife, or this relationship, is still this pure, redeeming thing and ... it's very complicated, but in many instances, that's wrong.
Brosh McKenna: As somebody who worked in rom-coms for so many years, it was very hard to ever get anybody to ever talk about any of the underlying behavior and … I was always trying to drag it toward what's really happening in these situations emotionally — and everybody really wanted to have all of the sunshiny, happy ending stuff. I remember pitching early on in my career something about what happens after that happily ever after kiss, what happens to that princess? People really looked at me like I didn't have all my marbles. But Rachel was down with that from the beginning. Rachel and I have been in long relationships, and I think that when you have that infatuation phase, it’s real, it's wonderful, but it isn't what you base a long relationship on.
And yet there's so much fiction — so much fiction! — about the falling in love. It's 98% just all about how wonderful it is to fall in love, because it's such a drug.
Bloom: We are specifically addicted to the chase, right? It's the mating dance, it's the pursuit, and it's a term called “limerence,” that Aline and I have talked about for quite some time, which is the definition of what that romantic love feels like. And when you are in a limerence state, [it’s] only heightened, and actually kept alive, by some aspect of not being able to fully have that person. And that's why you don't want to see what happens happily ever after emotionally, because all you care about is the chase, and then that culmination.
Brosh McKenna: We were both really interested in trying to take that apart because women, especially young women, are told that once you get that approval from your love object, there's some completion. And for Rebecca, she’s still hurt, she still has the same pain and heartbreak, and no man is ever going to make that better. I think it's the most unromantic romantic comedy possible.
This season, Rebecca is diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. How did you decide on that?
Brosh McKenna: We wrote her by what felt like it would be right for that character. And then, after a couple of seasons, we started to try and really figure out what were those underlying things, and we sent some episodes cold to a therapist. We sent them without saying what we thought [the issue] might be to get their professional opinion. And all signs really were pointing to borderline.
Rachel and I really like to try and get into the specifics of things, and not be vague ... if we were going to do it. So we immersed ourselves in the research, and Ilana [Peña], who wrote Episode 6 with us, really researched every single thing she could find. We talked to more specialists. Otherwise, if we don't get specific about it, we're doing what critics of our title would be doing, which is saying, "She's crazy!"
What went into unpacking Hollywood’s “crazy woman” trope?
Bloom: A perfect example of a movie about a crazy ex is “Fatal Attraction.” “Fatal Attraction” is about someone with borderline personality disorder. But it’s mostly male gaze, where you don't care to diagnose her because the monster has to be destroyed. If you humanize the monster, there's not a satisfaction in that kind of black and white human being.
In creating Rebecca, Aline and I definitely took versions of ourselves — some of the best qualities and some of the worst qualities. I know that some of the deepest regret I have is how much I immersed myself and debased myself for romantic love.
I have had very, very intense crushes that make me depressed since I was 7 or 8 years old, and that interestingly enough has to do with the fact that when you're in romantic love, you get these floods of dopamine, which also lowers your serotonin. I already have low serotonin, which is why I'm on Prozac.
The point is, we created this character by feel based on heightened versions of things that we had felt, and that's what borderline is: someone with no emotional outer layers. They feel the things that everyone else does, just heightened by 1,000.
What did you want to achieve with the “A Diagnosis” song?
Bloom: The most important thing, I think to me and Aline too when we were talking to doctors about this season, was that I definitely saw diagnosis as something with a capital "D." And I always have.
And the doctors said the diagnosis is really just a tool to help you get better, and mental health is a still very imprecise science. There's so much we still don't know. And that's why something like borderline is really hard to diagnose because there are a lot overlapping things with other illnesses.
Even if you have borderline, you can also have elements of narcissistic personality disorder or histrionic personality disorder. And so it's very imprecise but the whole point of a diagnosis is then, "OK, well if you have this diagnosis, what treatment can help you get better?"
Once we got into that, that really helped us, especially in writing that diagnosis song. The diagnosis song is someone who wants to be told who they are. It's someone who feels like they've never fit into the boxes. That's what the musical numbers are — it's her trying to put herself in these different boxes and saying, "OK, well maybe I'm the sexy French lady today. Oh, no, no, maybe I'm a pop vixen.” It's, like, finally this diagnosis will tell me who I am.
How will things unfold as the season progresses?
Brosh McKenna: It's very moving to watch somebody try and move forward from this, and knowing what she knows, and trying to start a more quote-unquote "normal" life for herself, but it's not like she's all of a sudden going to be a person who makes A+ choices across the board because she still has these issues. So, we're not dealing as heavily, 24/7, with the diagnosis after that, but it is a constant negotiation for her and how to live her life and make decisions. She has a completely different rubric under which to live her life now, to understand her behavior and try and do things differently, and it's a little bit one step forward and a few steps back.
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