Well, that was basically perfect.
Mental illness and comedy aren’t exactly strangers. We have neuroses to thank for a countless number of excellent movies, television shows, standup routines, jokes, bits, and the occasional patter song. Partially it’s because they’re often really funny, but it’s also because the line between hysteria and hysterical laughter, between laughing so hard you cry and just plain crying—it’s pretty thin. Maybe not so much a line as a piece of cheesecloth. Maybe not so much a piece of cheesecloth as a broken condom. It’s permeable, is what I’m saying. One bleeds into the other, and in that in-between place live some of the very best jokes—the jokes that hurt.
“I’m Going On A Date With Josh’s Friend!” hurts. It stings. It is also one of the funniest hours of television I’ve seen in a good long while. It lives in that blurry, bloody, cheesecloth, broken-condom place. The jokes never stop coming, and the stakes never stop being real.
The setup is “oh-my-god-I’ve-totally-done-that-I-am-the-worst” levels of familiar (at least for me, so maybe I’m accidentally revealing a lot about myself here): Rebecca makes one bad decision too many, has a moment of realization, and decides that this is it. This is the moment she’s going to change her life. So she promptly spends an entire evening not sleeping and instead reading things on the internet and making sudden and unrealistic lifestyle changes. She walks in her door a woman with a one-night-stand on her heels, and walks out the next morning a vegan kabbalist who loves bee pollen and colonics.
Like a move to West Covina or that yoga mat you’re never going to use, it’s just a bandage. It won’t actually fix anything. The problem with making these decisions, besides the inevitable crushing sense of defeat when you can’t sustain them, is that occasionally that new leaf you turn over can cut someone else. Let’s be clear: the West Covina Taco Festival isn’t a perfect date, but it’s damn close. And yes, calling someone a hypocrite isn’t nice, even when it’s a little bit true. But the thing that pushes Rebecca over the edge of fine and firmly into not-fine is the “adult-y” way they handle that conflict. Reality pushes her right into a reprise, and from the reprise straight into the arms of a pork taco and a vegan with a man-bun.
The result of that encounter, like Jason from Tinder at the beginning of the episode, is a pretty damn real mental health episode. Diagnosing people, even fictional ones, is pretty dicey territory unless you actually know what you’re doing, but it looks—and feels—a lot like an anxiety attack. They’re two moments, and maybe the only two moments, in the episode that aren’t even a little bit funny, but it’s the foundation for all the horrible, amazing, hilarious stuff that follows.
Josh’s subplot is pretty great, too, and honestly every scene in the episode works—particularly Rachel’s big meltdown in the Aloha Tech Center, which brings the two plots together. Still, we’re more than halfway through this thing, and there hasn’t been even so much of a mention of the music. And while “I’m Going On A Date With Josh’s Friend!” is a great episode of television, it’s also a great musical, in a way that it hasn’t been since the pilot.
That’s not to say the music hasn’t been excellent in the last two episodes. Despite some mixed feelings about “I’m So Good at Yoga,” I think the songs have all been episode highlights. But even the funniest of them (and for me, that’s “Feelin’ Kinda Naughty,” although “Face Your Fears” has also really grown on me) didn’t quite hit the heights of “West Covina.” In this episode, the two songs (and one reprise) came out of a moment that was larger than could be expressed in words, and illuminated what was going on in Rachel’s head in a way that dialogue never could. They’re tremendously well-acted, well-sung, and yes, well-danced.
They’re also very, very funny. Both “Settle for Me” and “Sex with a Stranger” are as likely to be shared over and over again on social media as they are to make it into the songbooks of aspiring musical theatre performers around the world. (Seriously, someone start a countdown clock; I bet “Settle for Me” gets sung for a casting agent somewhere within the week.) Watching Santino Fontana go from that razor-sharp (and incredibly charming) dance number—complete with tap break—to his ugly, baffled confrontation with Rebecca after man-bun leaves her place is quite something. It’s a great performance, and should, if there’s any justice in the world, earn him a whole new pack of devoted fans.
Still, his isn’t the best performance in this episode. That belongs, of course, to the addled former paramour of the show’s title. Rachel Bloom has never been anything but good, but her performance this week felt grounded and honest in a way that the show hasn’t yet achieved. “Sex with a Stranger” is great, and incredibly over the top, and yet there’s still more than a kernel of truth there. It’s no accident that the show takes the action from a writhing Rebecca singing about doin’ it and hoping she doesn’t get murdered afterward to the same woman frantically pacing in her kitchen.
Both the writing and the performance have the unshakeable confidence to leap from the absurd to the all-too-real and back again. It might not always work. The riskiest things don’t. But if Crazy Ex-Girlfriend can keep straddling that precipice, it might just be something really special.
That, and a few more tap breaks can’t hurt.
- Hey-it’s-that-guy watch, adult edition: Tovah Feldshuh (Mrs. Bunch)! TV nerds will know her from any number of things, perhaps most notably from her performance as Deanna Monroe on The Walking Dead. Theatre nerds will know her as Tovah MF Feldshuh.
- Hey-it’s-that-guy watch, child edition: Jacob Guenther, a.k.a. Jose from Mad Men. That is one talented freakin’ kid.
- About those Chris scenes: it really is like they wrote the scenes for three adult men, then added in a few age-appropriate comments (“Dude, I don’t even know what a record is”). I love it.
- It’s not really a hey-its’s-that-guy situation, but if you want to feel old, then allow to me enlighten you that Grant Rosenmeyer, who played Jason-with-carpal-tunnel, played Ari Tenenbaum.
- I’m now fully on board with Heather the neighbor (Vella Lovell). She had me the minute she pronounced Sartre like that, but her slow realization that she’s accidentally made friends with (and cares about) Rebecca was, like nearly everything else in this episode, just a little heartbreaking and wonderful.
- If you’re not a Beyoncé fan, do yourself a favor and watch the “Partition” video anyway, because you’ll have a whole new level of appreciation for the genius of “Sex with a Stranger.”
- “Maybe I won’t wear any underwear, and that way he’ll just smell my pheromones. Like a lion.”
- “Are you guys talking about drugs? Because drugs are bad. My cousin tried bath salts and she ate off her own lips.”
- “You can’t monopolize the bathroom at a taco festival!”
- “She’s like a stalker I used to live inside of.”
- That cane throw, though.