In its stellar first season, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend performed many wonders, but none were greater than this: it played a long game, gradually revealing exactly how smart and self-aware it was, peeling back layer after layer of insanity until it became clear that the ostensible romantic comedy was something else entirely. Sure, there’s a love triangle, but that’s just the set-up. The real trick was how much was buried beneath the surface.

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That’s a trick that only works once, but never fear: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend still has plenty of surprises up its adorable, frilly sleeves. This time around, Rachel Bloom, Aline Brosh McKenna and company give us a thesis statement right up front, and its one that was hinted at throughout season one. This is a story about addiction, and about when people become ready to acknowledge their dependencies—or when they don’t.

But hey, it’s also a story where the lead gets to dress up like a cactus, where characters accessorize their sex lives with purchases from Amazon Prime, and where the manager of Aloha Tech has got it all figured out. In “Where is Josh’s Friend?,” writers Bloom, McKenna, and Marc Webb push all those buttons, offering a season premiere every bit as surprising as the series premiere, but with a lot more emotional heft. Webb, also the episode’s director, gets uniformly great performances out of one of television’s most reliable comic casts. Lots of people are funny, but the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend ensemble grounds all that crazy in delicious, delicious substance.

That’s especially true of Donna Lynne Champlin (Paula) and Santino Fontana (Greg), who are as good here as they’ve been on the series to date, give or take a few great musical numbers in season one. It’s no coincidence that these two anchor the episode, given that it’s Paula and Greg who confront their addictions most directly. Champlin and Fontana have been consistently terrific in this series, and with “Where is Josh’s Friend?” they carry a unique burden: they alone seem to have moved ahead. They’re in season two. Rebecca and Josh? They’re still stuck in season one.

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That’s not, in any way, a complaint. The tension between the four primary characters, two of whom have moved forward while the other two regressed, is perfectly in line with what made the first season, particularly the back half, so smart. Rebecca (Bloom) discovers she’s the villain in the story. Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III) gets swept up in the drama of a love triangle without any of the actual love. Now, in pushing Paula and Greg forward while tugging Josh and Rebecca back, the writers once again make the plot serve a dual purpose. It’s more than just what happens. It’s a language the characters speak, and for the moment, Paula and Greg are speaking a language of a much higher level.

That contrast makes Rebecca and Josh’s language that much funnier and leagues more uncomfortable. In one corner you’ve got Paula, who hears Greg talk about his alcohol addiction and realizes his “glitter inside” feeling—a nice callback to the pilot—is exactly how she feels about Rebecca’s nonstop parade of drama. In the other, you’ve got Rebecca, who hears the exact same speech and tries to figure out if she can still tell Greg it’s over without becoming the bad guy. In one corner, Greg, who’s stopped lying to himself. In the other, Josh, who’s still totally convinced he’s behaving like an adult.

While Paula and Greg may get the lion’s share of the self-awareness in this episode, the titular character still sits behind the wheel. Bloom’s delightful whenever Rebecca gets really awful, and boy, does she have here moments here. Contrast the Rebecca who takes action with the one whose thoughts we see in song and it’s clear that there’s at least a spark of reflection there. She knows she’s being treated like shit. She knows the reconnection with Josh later in the episode has less to do with honest affection and more to do with the temptation to do something you’ve sworn off. It’ll be interesting to see if this is a trend that continues, if perhaps Rebecca’s musical brain outstrips the part of her brain that makes decisions.

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The songs don’t number among the show’s best—though the new theme song is top-notch—but they’re packed with the same sharp intelligence and self-referential fun that made the songs in season one so delightful. That’s true of the episode of a whole, actually. Is this a best-ever episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend? Maybe not, but it’s a damn good one all the same, and like a cactus in the desert, we’ll take whatever we can get. And if this premiere is anything like its predecessor, we’ve only just scratched the surface.

Stray observations

  • Welcome back, CExG lovers! And welcome to all of you who discovered this show when it landed on Netflix. Please, for the love of god, tell your friends to watch.
  • The most important question of all got answered: yes, White Josh and Darryl are still together.
  • The Hector Award: for those new to AV Club coverage of the show, the Hector award goes to the non-lead actor who absolutely steals at least one scene in the episode. I’m tempted to give it to the namesake, but let’s go with Alex (Eugene Cordero), the manager of Aloha Tech. Nailed it, bro!
  • “If I’d run into Reuben Fishwell, remember that guy from camp with the chapped lips? If I’d run into him, I don’t know, I might have followed him to Michigan and started a lip balm company!”
  • “It means you’re ducking a homeless man.”
  • “That’s only because they don’t sell crustless bread at the supermarket, bitch!”
  • “Tell Rebecca’s friend Emory she’s never getting her sweatshirt back.”
  • This:

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