The Sobering World of BPD in ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’
Rachel Bloom’s hit show ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ has garnered a modest cult following since its premiere in 2015 to its end in 2019, especially praised for its portrayal of female sexuality, parenthood and genre-bending storylines. However, the show is most revered for its handling of mental illness – the symptoms, behaviours and treatments of which many of the characters undergo, most noticeably the protagonist Rebecca Bunch. While the show often presents as a rose tinted musical romance, it doesn’t often stay there, making it one of the most uncomfortable, realistic and hopeful portrayal of mental illness on television.
After moving from New York to the small town of West Covina, California to pursue her ex-boyfriend (Josh Chan) she had as a teenager, the show immediately sets up that something is… odd about Rebecca Bunch. The immediate stalking signs we are used to emerge – frequent social media refreshes, showing up places where he may be, befriending his acquaintances for information – however the show also slips in a few subtle nods that Rebecca is not just ‘crazy-ex’ crazy but perhaps genuinely mentally ill. She pours a seemingly excessive amount of medication down the drain at her new Californian home, deletes a message from a stereotypically overbearing mother who mentions a past suicide attempt and confesses to friend Paula momentarily that she thinks she has lost her mind. This, intercut with songs such as “The Sexy Getting Ready Song” and “West Covina” where she draws blood from waxing her butthole and flies on a giant pretzel (respectively), makes it very easy to gloss over the warning signs. It is comfortable to put Rebecca into a box of a loveable though admittedly unstable ex-girlfriend who we hope will stop being so darn crazy!
Fans of the show may be hesitant to place such heavy meaning on the plot lines of ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ dealing with mental illness. Sure, the showrunners want to discuss the importance of attention and treatment for those struggling with anything from depression to coping with a loved one’s suicide attempts, though its a comedy, right? Right?? Right. But its also extremely hard to watch on occasion. Before Rebecca’s diagnosis in Season 3, many of her behaviours can be troubling though still quite easily chalked up to a deep romantic obsession with Josh. She goes through bouts of depression which are acknowledged as recurring though seem to be mostly triggered by romantic endeavours. Rebecca self medicates, makes rash and impulsive decisions that don’t often pay off and experiences phases of lucidity concerning her behaviour that can be immediately abandoned in the face of a mood swing. Perhaps this sounds like you, or your less than reliable friend but the show builds the nuanced case that this isn’t your average unlikeable protagonist. She’s neither a depressive nor a boundless irritant. Something is wrong with Rebecca. Or as a savvy mental health advocate would suggest, Rebecca is simply suffering from some unnamed mental illness and hasn’t been given the proper tools to prevent the fallout.
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The most significant moment of the show’s third season is undoubtedly Rebecca’s suicide attempt. While on a plane heading home, considering the latest emotional distress she had placed on her loved ones, Rebecca decides that her return is not worth the embarrassment and overdoses on her anxiety medications. It would not be out of place for the creators to make this into a shiny dance number, perhaps a suicidal Rebecca singing about her woes to a man dressed as a bottle of pills. This seems callous, but would have been far more welcomed than the actual scene which features no music, no jokes and no television magic, instead making us sit in the lack of comfortability. Rebecca begins to fade, looking up to the ‘help’ button above her before it morphs into the word ‘hope’. She presses it, saying simply “I need help” when the stewardess appears. Its hard to watch but offers something – literally projecting the word ‘hope’ to Rebecca and us. Things are getting better.
Oh wait. Mental health doesn’t work that smoothly.
Rebecca is taken to a hospital to recover, and given a second bout of hope with the promise of new diagnosis. She muses (through song, obviously) about her sense of belonging that will come with this official confirmation – Schizophrenic, bipolar disorder, OCD? She can work with any of those as long as the right pill can be prescribed. But Rebecca has something a little different to a chemical imbalance. She has borderline personality disorder. After being told to not research this condition, she immediately researches this condition, shocked to see the hard to manage and unattractive symptoms that come with it, even stumbling on the statistics that 1 in 10 people with BPD will eventually commit suicide.
Anyone with a mental illness understands the difficulty of diagnosis, even when expecting the result. Not only is Rebecca surprised, in her eyes she’s been given a ticket for a lifetime of “craziness”. And this is where Crazy Ex-Girlfriend shows something we aren’t used to. Recovery isn’t easy. It often doesn’t feel worth it. Those who actually suffer from mental illness don’t dramatically take a few pills, survive and then get a boyfriend who saves them. They buckle under diagnoses, new medication, new therapy, the fallout of broken relationships and complicated situations that arise from their behaviour. It comes with health risks and disappointment.
It’s uncomfortable but where else can we see it?
Rebecca Bunch isn’t immediately a better or worse person following all this, even leaving the show with some pressing goals to work towards for her mental health. She isn’t perfect now but everyday is a step. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend can make us worried, scared and sad – just like the world. But sometimes that same universe is kind and features a few hilarious musical numbers. Love is a part of it, friendships, family, pretzels, but ultimately you aren’t a “stupid bitch, who doesn’t think and deceives the people you love”. Rebecca will be okay and you’ll be okay.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
It’s good to see more shows looking to portray mental illness realistically, rather than treating it as either an informed flaw or something that makes characters evil and monstrous.
The first three seasons were fun, the fourth forgot it was a comedy and the fifth was only a partial recovery. It might have been invigorating from the perspective of looking at mental health but it became a bit of a chore to watch. And the new Greg wasn’t half as good either.
There were only 4 seasons 🙂
Maybe it felt like five series but your point about it becoming a chore was true for me so I bailed around the time Nathaniel became more important. But at its best it was fabulous and I still listen to ‘JAP Battle’ a lot.
The fourth season was uneven, but there were more than enough moments of brilliance to compensate for the slower ones.
Maybe you dreamt an extra season? Which would be very in keeping with the rest of the show!
Hilarious, clever, brave, and the soundtrack was absolutely fabulous! Really going to miss it, my sister in law printed us t-shirts for the last episode, so have something to remember it by 🙂
Series 1 and 2 were great. 3 was patchy. 4 we stayed with kind of out of loyalty but it really wasn’t very good any more. Bit of a shame. Songs were (almost all) great and Rachel Bloom’s work was a knockout. I did feel the show would have benefitted from a decent edit towards the end.
If season 4 had had the same time and dollar budget but 2/3 of the episodes, it would have been great. I think it suffered from being stretched over 18 episodes and the cast (Rachel bloom in particular) looked exhausted by the end. I still think there were unforgettable moments in season 4 though (pretty much everytime Paula was on screen!)
That show was fun and clever. I nearly missed it because I hated the title and knew there was some musical numbers, usually a big turn off. I am glad I went through with it – yeah, some serious issues were nicely addressed but frankly I just loved the irrelevant, self-mocking tone of it all. White Josh is fantastic. The whole thing dripped with a sort of joyful sarcasm I don’t see often on TV. Of course, some episodes were better than others (the ones with White Josh) but that’s normal, surely.
It may be too simplistic to equate Crazy Ex Girlfriend to a big colourful fluffy Fleabag, but they certainly are some similarities. Except White Josh. Fleabag didn’t have a White Josh.
I love your WhiteJosh love 🙂
I waited 4 seasons for White Josh to get his own solo song and it did not disappoint. I am supportive of anyone who loves White Josh as much as I do
There’s a great deal to like about this show and some of it is very funny. For me the last series has dragged and I felt as if I’d watched multiple episodes in which Rebecca tried to choose between three men who were all desperately in love with her and the songs weren’t as good but I’ll still go back and finish it. I don’t think I should like it more before all the characters went on personal growth journeys but I do. I also never got why anyone would be interested in Greg when he was so sulky but that’s just me.
A TV all time great. The acting, tight storylines and the songwriting are all consistent ly brilliant. While I agree that some of the ‘issues’ concerning mental health dragged on a bit, the production never fought shy of dealing with a whole variety of modern day angst. It was also written for us adults. It has set the bar high.
Started out fresh and funny….soon became tiresome. Not a great loss
Great article and amazing show!
That’s really interesting how they look into the mental illnesses that people actually go through rather than her just being the quirky and ‘crazy’ girl. I’ve never seen the show, but it immediately made me think of Netflix’s “YOU.” In that show, his past trauma and mental illness are touched on, but never expressly talked about. Which I think would be good to see, so I’m glad this show is doing that! Great article!
Favourite of all time and criminally underrated. Smartest show ever. Incredible songwriting. Too good to be ignored, it’s going to become a true cult.
I’ve never heard of it, but am intrigued now.
CXG was one of the most original and creative shows on tv and Rebecca Bloom is so talented. The show was very funny, but tackled issues in a way that didn’t patronise or exploit. Even without the songs it would have been a thought provoking comedy, but the songs were jut such good fun!
This was great until it wasn’t. The story dipped and weaved and got a bit silly in the 3rd and 4th years. But even then the songs; Paula and White Josh were enough to keep me watching.
There has been so much writing, singing, acting and directing talent in this little gem of a show I have no doubt it will posthumously be regarded as one of the lasting greats.
My favourite musical is Catz followed by Starlight Express. Both have Hidden depths of wokeness or are be woken
Crazy ex girlfriend is such a unique show. funny, daring and sarcastic. the songs are brilliant!
Loved S1. Got tired of the singing and gave up during S2.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend provides devastating visibility for women who struggle with mental illness and for people who are uncomfortable with recognizing it. The brilliance of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is that it convinces both the audience and the character that Rebecca is simply a quirky caricature. However, as Rebecca clings to the stereotype the audience abandons it. Downing pills with a plastic cup of airplane wine isn’t followed with a song and dance. Suicide isn’t sexualized.
An enjoyable essay . I noticed the show on TV but had not thought of watching it, now I’m interested.
crazy ex gf is so underrated and i love how it tackles mental health in such a raw way
All I knew about this show was its title and that it was on the CW, so my expectations for it were pretty low, and would never have expected it to tackle subjects like this, let alone accomplish dealing with them.
I really needed to hear that I’m not a “stupid bitch, who doesn’t think and deceives the people you love” today <3 haha. wonderful article! I love the way Rachel Bloom took a very dated and tired idea of the 'crazy ex-girlfriend' and turned Rebecca into a fully fleshed out and truly human character.