Jewish women have not done well on TV. There’s the (s)mother from the (second) “Goldbergs”, Lillith from “Cheers” and “Frasier” (yes, she was Jewish; her son had a bris on “Cheers,” a bar mitzvah on “Frasier” and… uh… yeah, that was about it).
Single Jewish women have done even worse. Rhoda, Rachel and Monica from “Friends,” “The Nanny”… Add to the list their movie and literary counterparts ranging from “Goodbye, Columbus” to “Marjorie Morningstar” to “Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York City” (yes, I read that when I was 13; no, I probably shouldn’t have) and the picture becomes even more gloomy. Short version: Jewish women, especially single ones, do not come across well in popular culture.
I wish I could say that my initial decision to not watch the CW’s new, hour-long sitcom, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” was based on my lack of desire to see yet another Jewish woman character get trashed. But I didn’t even know the character was supposed to be Jewish. Sure, the creator and star is named Rachel Bloom, but that doesn’t mean anything. Both William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy were Jewish, but “Star Trek’s” Kirk and Spock most certainly were not.
The truth is, my lack of enthusiasm was due to the title and premise: A successful NYC lawyer quits her high-powered job to follow an ex to California, where she proceeds to stalk him and his current girlfriend. Women be crazy, am I right? (Actually, isn’t that kind of the plot of “Felicity” in reverse?)
Anyway… no, thank you. I can live without watching yet another male fear/fantasy on my screen.
Except then I found out “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is a musical. And I’m a sucker for musicals. Also, the non-traditional format suggested the whole show might not be exactly what I was expecting.
So I watched the pilot.
Our first clue that Rebecca might be Jewish comes when we meet her teen self at drama camp in 2005. She confesses to her boyfriend, Josh, that her mother is “just pissed because I didn’t do the mock trial summer intensive.” Jewish mothers be crazy, am I right?
Josh then promptly breaks up with her, explaining that they’re too different. “You’re dramatic and like… weird.” (What exactly was he expecting at drama camp? But I digress.)
Cut to 10 years later. Rachel is now a lawyer whose job, according to her boss, “is your whole world.” An anxiety attack which she attempts to quench by folding her hands and muttering, “Dear God: I don’t pray to you because I believe in science,” is interrupted by Rebecca running into Josh on the streets of New York City, only to learn he is moving back home to West Covina, CA. On impulse, Rachel decides to move there, too.
And this leads to a musical number, wherein our heroine explains, over and over again, that she is not moving for Josh, she is moving for herself. “Josh just happens to live here.”
For those still confused about Rebecca’s ethnicity, the next act hits it right on the nose (sorry, bad pun) when her new boss explains that his soon to be ex-wife’s lawyer is “one of those real smart Jewish guys.”
“I’m sorry, I’m Jewish,” Rebecca interrupts.
“I honestly had no idea. That is a tiny nose. It’s like a button.” Her boss stammers, excusing himself with, “I just want to see my wife’s face. Her Jew went to CSU Long Beach. My Jew? Harvard and Yale!”
The conversation ends with Rebecca promising, “Let’s circle back about the Jew thing because that’s a conversation that we need to have.”
Of course, can you really blame her boss for being confused? On this show, the boy Rebecca met at an East Coast drama camp named Josh is played by the Filipino-American Vincent Rodriguez III, while Josh’s friend, a dark, curly-haired bartender enacted to Woody Allen levels of twitches and neuroses by Santino Fontano (the voice of Hans in “Frozen”!) is called Greg Serrano. Oh, and a child actor named Jacob Guenther plays a nebbish kid named Chris. This is one set that clearly committed to race-blind casting!
By the second episode, the theme song has Rebecca exclaiming that “crazy ex-girlfriend” is a sexist term (makes you wonder what she said when it was first proposed at the pitch meeting). Alas, they’re stuck with it. Which is a real shame. Because title and premise aside, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is really (surprise, surprise) something fresh, original, and special on network television.
That’s primarily due to the musical numbers which, frankly, are balls to the wall bonkers. They make “Galavant,” a show set in the middle ages with a black squire whose parents speak—and sing—with Yiddish accents, feel staid and traditional by comparison.
In one set-piece, Rebecca warbles a duet with her 7th grade self where they both desperately swear, “I Have Friends I Definitely Have Friends” (yes, much of Rebecca’s low self-esteem is pinned directly on her mother, played by Tovah Feldshuh, who is not afraid to go very, very broad with this character, especially when she is comparing her daughter’s mess of a life to the successful—and newly married—Audra Levine. Also, presumably, Jewish).
In another episode, a stirring, Broadway/Whitney Houston-type ballad about facing your fears starts out normally, then offers advice like: “Run with scissors/Fly out of a window/Fly off a building/Just believe in yourself/Face your fears/Stare at the sun/Play in the street/If you’re scared of bees/Get stung,” while a heavenly children’s choir hums, “Don’t have an epi-pen ready,” and “Drop out of school,” followed by, “School is stupid.”
But it’s in the 4th episode, which aired on Monday, November 2, where the show really hits its outrageous stride (and not just because they do an extended comedy bit about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire).
A Tinder-facilitated hook-up turns into a sexy, music video of Rebecca hoping the stranger in her bed isn’t a murderer and wondering if he’s been tested for STDs (twice—don’t forget the three month window!).
But nothing will beat “Why Not Settle For Me?”, performed by Greg as a Fred Astaire homage in black and white and evening wear with lyrics like, “Yes, Josh is a dream/But I’m right here/In flesh and blood and self-hate/Settle for me/In a sad way, darling, it’s fate.”
So, no, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” does not reverse the portrayal of Jewish women over the past 50 years on television or elsewhere. But it tells Rachel’s familiar (sounds better than clichéd, doesn’t it?) story in such a hysterical and creative way that you’d be crazy not to give it a chance.