Rachel Bloom, Gabrielle Ruiz

Six episodes into its inaugural season, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s installments have ranged from excellent to still-really-good-but-not-outstanding—not a bad track record. But even when individual storylines or scenes have dipped in quality, there’s one thing each episode has had in common: terrific music, written and performed in such a way that it’s essential to the show. Imagine “I’m Going On a Date With Josh’s Friend!” without “Settle for Me,” or “Josh’s Girlfriend is Really Cool!” without “Feelin’ Kinda Naughty.” Cut the song, and suddenly there’s a huge hole to fill, much bigger than you could normally fill with roughly three minutes of material. It’s the mark of a great musical, and that’s not something one sees on TV very often, if at all. What a remarkable thing.

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Of course, it isn’t good because of the music alone—while the songs are often a highlight, they wouldn’t work without the clever, thoughtful material into which they’re fixed. In this case, four of the show’s primary characters—Rebecca, Paula, Greg, and Josh—have very disappointing Thanksgivings in their own special, terrible ways. When it’s at its best, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend manages to balance on the fine line between broad humor and pathos without ever giving over fully to each, and that’s true of “My First Thanksgiving with Josh!” as well.

Rebecca’s plight may be made that much worse by a top-notch poop joke, but it’s still honest and genuinely awful, and each of the actors does a remarkable job of playing their scenes honestly without ever tipping too far in either direction. Santino Fontana, in particular, does excellent work—and it’s hard to do anything involving a dying parent without really laying into the heavy stuff. But nor does he ignore it, and neither do Rachel Bloom, Donna Lynne Champlin, and Vincent Rodriguez III. It’s impressive stuff, made more impressive by all the singing, dancing, and non-pants-shitting that went on while it was happening.

Still, as with previous weeks, the most impressive thing about this episode was the music. While shows like Glee may have, from time to time, achieved what Crazy Ex-Girlfriend does on a weekly basis, this isn’t a case of familiar music being used to tell a dramatic story. Nor is it, like Smash, a musical about making a musical. Instead, it tells its own unique story—that of a desperately unhappy woman who makes a dramatic and unplanned life change in hopes of achieving something like joy—in an original, daring way. It’s created a world in which it really seems possible that, when Rebecca flashes into a fantasy where she’s talking like Deborah Kerr and surrounded by beaming Filipino kids, she might burst into her own little version of The King and I, and the biggest surprise was that she didn’t.

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Like the best musicals, the thing that makes that kind of storytelling possible is the music itself. It gives us permission to step into a world that’s larger than our own, and illuminates what couldn’t otherwise be seen. This week, the first song is “I Give Good Parent” (which, by the way, has an official explicit version that I highly recommend). Yes, it’s funny. That’s no small thing. But what’s really amazing is what it it tells us about Rebecca, how she views her time with Josh’s family, and what actually takes place. Descending into an EDM-laced Nicki Minaj fantasy (and how about that turkey bra, huh?), she treats the holiday like a conqueror, swaggering in with her authentic Filipino dish and her string of pearls to demand their affection through relentless ass-kissing and excellent table manners. Despite all protests to the contrary, “I Give Good Parent” shows us that Rebecca really does view the dinner as an opportunity to do real damage to Josh and Valencia’s relationship. It’s defiant, arrogant, and ultimately triumphant—and we don’t need 10 minutes of dialogue to tell us what happens (“Wait, my uncle is in radiology!”)

And yes, it’s funny. Hurtling through a room of family members frozen in place, Bloom struts, preens, and confronts, spitting her lyrics like an epic diss track—which, to a certain extent, it is. Mrs. Chan helps with the hook, which we see in Rebecca’s glossy fantasy world, where the hot pants all list some of her nicer qualities and a mom can have both a grill and a copy of North American Home and Garden. The backup dancers are dressed like pilgrims, and Josh is nowhere to be found. It isn’t really about Josh, at all.

As fun as it was, “I Give Good Parent” is basically in line with what one might expect from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on a weekly basis. The bigger surprise was “What’ll It Be,” Greg’s own take on “Piano Man.” The song deserves consideration on its merits alone, which we’ll get to below, but it also marks a pretty significant shift in that it’s the first time a character on the show has gotten a musical number without Rebecca being around to create it in her head.

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Hints have been dropped here and there, most notably after “Settle for Me” and “Face Your Fears,” that the way she hears things is different from the way they actually occur. But with “What’ll It Be,” Rebecca isn’t there to hear it at all, and nor does she know what’s taking place, so it can’t be her fantasy of Greg’s Thanksgiving, either. Combined with a mutual hatred of having a hot butt, it’s the biggest indication yet that, whatever the connection might become, these two people are kindred spirits. What the show does with this structural leap remains to be seen, but for now, the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has given another one of its characters license to wander away into musical-land, and it’s a very welcome development.

But the song itself is an excellent one, and exemplifies what made this episode (as well as the other standout episodes of the season thus far) such an achievement. It would have been easy to write a solid parody of “Piano Man,” and when Greg glanced across the bar and saw that piano in a pool of light, it seemed like that’s where the show was headed. The opening moments seemed to confirm it as well. But that’s too easy for a show this bold, and instead they gave us a smart sendup that was also much more. Has something that has hints of parody ever been so successful in earnestly illustrating the anger and disappointment that can arise out of feeling trapped in life? The fact that such a question can even be asked is, by itself, surprising. But they manage it, pairing genuinely funny lyrics with an honest weariness and frustration that feels completely earned. In doing so, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend succeeds in both grounding Greg’s particular story—caring for an ill parent at the expense of your own plans and hopes—in melancholy reality without ever letting it get too heavy. Grey’s Anatomy this ain’t.

More could, and should, be said about this episode as a whole, and about what the music in television’s best modern musical achieves on a weekly basis. But for now, let’s leave it there: two great performers in two songs that couldn’t be more different who let us into the corners of their hearts by treating the jokes like they matter, and the big stuff like it’s just another part of life, which it is. It’s an accomplishment worth singing about.

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Stray Observations

  • Hey-it’s-that-guy watch: Amy Hill plays Mrs. Chan (Enlightened, UnREAL, 50 First Dates, a million other things), and isn’t she just delightful?
  • Tonight’s episode was written by Rene Gube (a.k.a. Father Brah!)
  • I always appreciate it when you can tell that an actor is actually playing (or knows how to play) the piano. Even better when they break to play air drums for a second.
  • “You know, I want to go, but I have to take a giant… rain check.”
  • “Is it a tiny trampoline, or a ghost with a rusty knee?”
  • “Clench, Becky!”
  • Paula’s jewelry game is serious, and not just when it comes to spy-brooches. Those cupcake earrings were on point.
  • Nothing will top the butter campaign tag, but this one was pretty good too. Of course that’s Rebecca’s fantasy of spending time with a Filipino family. Their commitment to making her just a little bit awful and trusting that we’ll still love her is admirable.
  • This is what popped into my head while watching Josh’s face as he and Valencia left his parent’s house.

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