Saturday, October 24, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Mondays at 8:00 on The CW

Who would have thought that Pushing Daisies would have so much influence?  Bryan Fuller's cancelled-too-soon gem seemed like an outlier when it was on the air, what with its quirky flights of fancy, flowery narration, vivid color palette, and cheery optimism with a dash of macabre.  But more than five years after the show concluded its run, we're starting to see its roots take hold.  You could find many of Daisies' signature qualities in last fall's breakout hit, Jane the Virgin, a zippy spin on telenovelas that features a "Latin Lover Narrator" and onscreen comments via typewriter print.  And you can see even more of its influence in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the new show that The CW is smartly pairing with Jane the Virgin.

Like Jane, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has a title and premise that make passersby think that it's going to be terrible, but it actually turns out to be one of the most refreshing and effervescent shows on television.  The premise in question involves a woman named Rebecca Bunch (played by Rachel Bloom, who also co-wrote the pilot) who uproots her hectic life as a lawyer in New York to follow Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III), a guy she had a fling with 10 years ago at summer camp, back to his small hometown of West Covina, California after she randomly bumps into him on the street.  Bloom is absolutely magnetic, and she's a large part of why this pilot works so well.  She's got a springy energy that brings her character's neuroses to the forefront in a way that's both endearing and entertaining.

The whole episode itself has a pep to match its lead, moving along like its been pumped full of caffeine, jokes and songs flying at the audience a mile per minute.  But there's also a deep undercurrent of sadness that runs through Ex-Girlfriend, this idea that Rebecca has to just keep charging forward because any hint of slowing down would cause her to come to grips with the fact that she's depressed and completely obsessed with some guy that she barely dated when she was 16 years old.  Before leaving New York, Rebecca constantly sees an ad centered around the question "When was the last time you were truly happy?," and you get the sense that she's only fixating on Josh because she associates him with the last time in her life that she felt real joy.  That's some dark stuff for a musical comedy to be grappling with, but it completely works.

Marc Webb stepped behind the camera to direct the pilot, and more so than anything he's done in a while, this feels like the perfect use of his talents.  The episode really pops visually, its bright colors and elaborate detail complementing the zany energy of the writing and performances.  Webb made his bones directing music videos, so there's an authenticity and high-production value to musical interludes like the endlessly entertaining "Sexy Getting Ready Song."  Not to mention the fact that the big number in the first half of the episode resembles the iconic song-and-dance scene from his debut feature film, (500) Days of Summer.

This was originally a Showtime pilot that was apparently much raunchier (even containing some kind of blowjob scene), but you can't really tell that the pilot was toned down in any way.  Its chipper, sunny vibe feels like it was always meant for The CW.  You can tell there was editing for length more so than for content.  The original incarnation of the first episode was 30 minutes, but it had to be bumped up to fit the hour-long standards of The CW (though without commercials it stands at a slim 39 minutes and 55 seconds).  As a result, there are times where the structure of the episode doesn't seem as sound, especially in the second half when a few scenes start to feel like they're lasting a beat or two too long.  Yet it's not enough to knock the episode down any pegs.  This is by far the best pilot of the very weak fall season.

Grade: A-

Addendum: Because I'm a failure -- a busy and tired failure! -- this review is coming a week late, which gave me some time to watch the next episode as well.  Second episodes for shows like this are crucial, because these high-energy, tonally tenuous series tend to burn out very quickly.  I don't think this week's episode was as much of a mess as some critics seem to, but it certainly doesn't maintain the quality of pilot.  When a show has to churn out as many musical numbers as it seems like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is going to, some of them are bound to be clunkers.  And "I'm So Good at Yoga" was truly awful.  I also think the writers need to transition away from Rebecca's obsession with Josh being the show's only focus, especially since Josh is kind of dull.  Still, Bloom is so terrific and the show seems to be embracing its own dark weirdness, when it could have easily tried to become safer and more conventional.  It's going to be fun to see where this goes.

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