Rachel Bloom (The CW)

In its winter premiere, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend mostly sticks with what works: a funny song, jokes that come out of left field, lots of awkwardness, and the occasional moment that punches you right in the gut. There are only two big changes: Rachel Bloom’s got some hardware now, and they blow up the premise. Both things are excellent, and it pleases me greatly to report that all is well with one of the best comedies on television.

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In what’s easily one of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s most solid episodes to date, writers Dan Gregor and Doug Mand take the whole “I didn’t move here for Josh” song-and-dance—in this case literally, since it’s the whole basis of the theme song—and light it on fire. They do it in a way that, even though they pretty much tell you what’s coming, it’s still a surprise. It’s every bit as funny and affecting and upsetting as previous installments (right up there with “I’m Going On A Date with Josh’s Friend!” and “I’m So Happy Josh Is So Happy!”), but it’s so deftly plotted, so simple and smart, that it almost beggars belief. After all the lying, the lies that got told so many times that they might have even started to feel true, the thing that popped her inner-tube of denial was the one lie that involved someone else. It was Darryl Whitefeather, on the party bus, with the lead pipe (or the bean dip, if you like).

Of course, it’s really Rebecca that gets Rebecca caught. We’ve heard her tale of how she moved so many times, and this time she finally trots it out around someone who could actually say—and prove—that it isn’t true. Paula couldn’t coax the truth (or scare it, or yell it) out of her, and her mother couldn’t shame it out of her, but Rebecca could, as she’s been doing all season, just shoot herself in the foot. That’s what comes of denial, it seems. It gets you stuck in doggy doors and poopsgivings and all manner of terrible situations. It leads directly to the party bus and a pole-dancing routine.

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There’s a long road before we get to that party bus, however. The episode starts with Rebecca in a non-sexy, non-french depression, watching a teen cancer drama (The Cancer Crew) alone and shoveling popcorn into her mouth while she cries. This leads directly into teeny, tiny, heartbreaking reprise of “I Have Friends,” after which she immediately sees all the friends she doesn’t have. It’s a thoughtful way to start an episode that could otherwise seem focused pretty much just on Rebecca’s feelings for Josh. Instead, Josh is just a part of the anxiety-lined pit of loneliness Rebecca sometimes calls home. By beginning the story with Rebecca staring longingly at Josh and his friends, rather than just Josh, it sets up nearly every upsetting beat for the rest of the episode: that first shot of her exiting the party bus; her genuine pleasure at seeing Darryl, even if he did follow her there; the moment she calls Paula from the bathroom; everyone staring at her after Darryl outs her lie. She has friends. She definitely has friends.

She does, is the thing. White Josh might not be her favorite person, Valencia (err, Vaseline) is just awful, and Greg and Heather do an awful lot of judging and staring for people who ostensibly like Rebecca, but as low as the lows are here—crying alone in a party bus bathroom is low—Gregor and Mand give us a few little jabs that wrap all that bad stuff in tenderness. Pete Gardner continues to delight as Darryl, managing to hit a few of the episodes’s best jokes—the cigarette burn on the hand, and “I’m going to kill myself”—as well as one of its most subtly warm moments, as he tells Rebecca that he’s good at keeping secrets. Donna Lynn Champlin goes into full surrogate mom mode, standing in for the viewers at first (“Lose my phone number! But just about the Josh stuff, we’re still on for mani-pedis at lunch, right?”), then serving up some tough love, and of course being there for the inevitable fallout. Champlin’s always funny, but in her few short scenes, she easily cements herself as one of the cast members capable of really packing an emotional punch when that’s what’s needed (as Santino Fontana did in “What’ll It Be?”).

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But the biggest wallop of them all came, surprisingly, from Josh himself. Vincent Rodriguez III is incredibly endearing, but not all of his work to date has seemed as high-voltage as that of the rest of the cast. That changes with this episode, as he nails both his childish fight with Greg, his utter bewilderment at Rebecca’s pole-dancing antics (word choice deliberate—good gracious, was that every bizarre and uncomfortable), and especially his kind, not at all condescending response to her impassioned monologue about West Covina. Watching Rodriguez’s face as Rebecca goes on and on about the strip malls and the sunshine is a treat: he still looks uncomfortable, but just a little bit moved. The real magic happens in the reprise, of course, when these two people discover one thing that they absolutely have in common. It may not be the total truth—on her side, at least—but Rebecca and Josh both just want to be happy, and they’re not sure it should be so hard to get that happiness.

There’s a lot of power in someone saying they don’t think you’re crazy. Depression and anxiety can feed themselves and each other in a never-ending cycle, with each moment of perceived coldness or isolation further entrenching the very emotions that helped to create the cycle in the first place. To be seen and understood, even just a little, is a very great gift. While the biggest development in “I’m Going to the Beach With Josh and His Friends!” has to be the bursting of Bunch’s bubble of denial, the second has got to be this: there’s a reason, a real one, to root for Rebecca and Josh.

“It’s not just a coincidence, it isn’t just by chance. It’s logical, it’s obvious, it all makes perfect sense, and I’m just so happy that you’re here.”

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Stray observations

  • Anyone tuning in post-Golden Globes to see what the fuss was about would not have been disappointed. Rachel Bloom was exceptional tonight, in moments big (that pole-dance) and small (her last moments with Paula). Easily one of the best performances on any show currently running.
  • It really was a great episode, but even had it been just OK, I still would have been really, really glad to watch tonight. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and whatnot.
  • The return of White Josh! Of all the possible random pairings this show could give us, White Josh and Darryl was one I’d never expect. It was very funny and so, so white (with one-eighth Chippewa thrown in.)
  • Slogan for The Cancer Crew as noted on the poster: “friends ‘til the end!” Emphasis theirs.
  • It seems like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s songs tend to fall into one of two camps: character-driven (“Settle for Me,” “I’m a Good Person”) and idea-driven (“The Sexy Getting Ready Song,” “I Love My Daughter”). There’s not one song from the show I’ve disliked thus far, but I tend to prefer the former, so tonight’s new song didn’t thrill me. Still got a few hearty chuckles in there, though.
  • How could we ever forget Poopsgiving, Paula?
  • “Stop! Rebecca time!”

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