Newton’s third law of motion states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. It’s a rule of the natural world that, like so many others, provides handy parallels for what goes on in our lives, for the plain old ugly truths we encounter every day. A bug hits a windshield and splatters, and there’s force asserted on both car and insect. A bird flaps its wings, and the air it’s pushing pushes back. A person hurts another and both spiral off to some other new future, propelled by the force of their own choices, and by the choices of others. Put plainly, actions have consequences.
This is something Crazy Ex-Girlfriend handled sneakily well in its first season. Rebecca spent money like it was nothing, and wound up broke. Greg drank everywhere, all the time, and wound up passed out in his own vomit. Josh refused to acknowledge the reality of his relationships with both Rebecca and Valencia and ended up spiraling at his sister’s wedding. Paula got so caught up in Rebecca’s tornado that she almost let it destroy their friendship, to say nothing of her marriage.
With “When Will Josh See How Cool I Am?” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend tackles this more directly since that time Paula and her husband threw a rock through in the wrong direction (though that one gets bonus points for actually involving physics). The actions taken and choices made by Greg, Rebecca, and Josh send the show’s characters rocketing off in one direction or another, often resulting in new choices and actions that then lead to more rocketing. It’s a big old emotional game of pool, which is probably the game Rebecca will pretend to be great at next. And it does all of this by sidelining the protagonist, just a little.
Rebecca, of course, remains the biggest incoming force throughout the episode. Yes, she’s still got plenty of screen time, but so much of the story centers on the ways in which people react to Rebecca that she feels a bit like a plot point, rather than the protagonist. Sure, we get to see her learning to play ping pong and get a few flashes of her internal life—”Ping Pong Girl” is her fantasy, not Josh’s—but for the mosts part, the audience’s focus is elsewhere. We don’t see Rebecca make the kugel, we see Josh’s response. We don’t see her write the letter, either. In most episodes of the show, we’d be spending out time with her as she figures out one scheme or another, but instead we’re with Paula, Greg, and Josh, looking in on the madness. And yes, we’re with Hector when he says, “why are all my friends in love with this girl?”
Rachel Bloom nimbly leads this show week after week, but by pulling Rebecca back into the ensemble a bit and letting the effects of Rebecca’s actions dictate the story, rather than the actions themselves, some other cast members get to step to center stage. First on that list: Donne Lynne Champlin, who continues to nail Paula’s transition from instigator and accomplice to port-in-a-storm. This might be Champlin’s best episode to date, and that’s really saying something. If this keeps up, it’s likely that Paula will start to feel like less of a supporting role and more of a borderline co-lead. If her opening song is any indication, that would be far from unwelcome.
Some of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s best songs to date have balanced real pathos with comedy, and Paula’s big Disney Princess number joins that particular roster. It’s beautifully sung, of course, and it’s got a few terrific sight gags. But what really makes this particular tune so successful is that it manages, like “You Stupid Bitch,” to be silly and strange while still getting you right in the guts, emotionally speaking. It sneaks up on you, slipping in poop jokes galore while preparing for that last, simple moment, where Paula once again steps back from a dream to deal with her own unsatisfying reality. Any song—hell, any show—that can pivot from dump cramps to a quiet, affecting moment is doing something really right.
Champlin’s far from the only standout. Both Santino Fontana and Vincent Rodriguez III step up as well, and it’s likely not a coincidence that they’re both also working with characters who are revealing new sides of themselves. In Rodriguez’s case, we’re seeing a self-centered and thoughtless Josh, and to the credit to Rodriguez and the writers, it feels a bit like perhaps he’s always been that way, and we just weren’t seeing him clearly. Rodriguez also gets the episode’s catchiest tune, a showcase for his particular talents that’s bested only by “Angry Mad” in terms of suitability. “Ping Pong Girl” is a pitch-perfect sendup of a particular kind of pop-punk tune, and I encourage you to go back and listen to it again. All the little interjections get funnier the more you hear them.
Fontana had the toughest job and the smallest target to hit. It would be all too easy for this new, sober Greg to fall into the terrible trope of the saintly recovered addict, but he never steps over the line into treacly nonsense. Instead, we get a Greg who’s trying, really hard, to find a way to get back to life without falling back into a dark place. Fontana and Bloom’s final scene together could so easily have gone saccharine, but instead it’s just sad, and a little sweet. His big song again balances humor with just the slightest trace of sadness, but it’s his quick reprise that most clearly shows how a person can ricochet off another so quickly and with such force that things get broken (in this case, hands).
Don’t mistake praising an episode in which Rebecca took a backseat for advocating for less Bunch in the show. It wasn’t a backseat, really, more like a middle seat, and too many episodes with Rebecca on the sidelines would rob the show of the central frenetic energy that makes it soar. But as a look at the way in which our actions can harm others, it’s a damned effective choice. Rebecca’s the biggest hammer of all, but all these characters can nail each other if they’re not careful. Paula seems to have learned that lesson, and Greg’s learning too. It’ll be interesting to see if and when the rest of the gang catches up.
- Vela Lovell’s back! Her scene with Greg was among my favorites.
- “My buddy Throttle gave me that nickname because I was so overprotective of my coke. Those were the days.”
- “What could possibly stop me?” Cut to Rebecca.
- “I don’t hate football, I get why it’s fun, it just kind of propagates the ideology of physical dominance, and the economic subjugation of the working poor, plus the concussions, it should be illegal, LOL.”
- VRIII is great at playing Josh as slightly too dumb to lie effectively.
- “It’s a light beer, idiot-ass”
- Hector award: Gosh, I don’t know! I really loved Guardrail, though he was mostly a foil. What do you guys think?