Crazy Ex-Girlfriend just concluded a terrific second season. I reviewed the finale here, and I have a spoiler-filled interview with co-creator/star Rachel Bloom and co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna coming up just as soon as I call Oscar-winning movies “clients”…
So, as discussed in that finale review, season two closes with Josh leaving Rebecca at the altar so that he can enter the priesthood, which prompts Rebecca — whom we have just learned was once institutionalized after having an affair with a married professor and trying to burn down his house when he broke up with her — to stand on a cliff at the edge of the Pacific and coldly tell her squad, “Josh Chan must be destroyed.” Here’s what McKenna and Bloom had to say about that, and a lot more.
How much faith did you have that the show would continue, and were you comfortable with the idea that this could have been the last episode?
Aline Brosh McKenna: I always say it’s like the Tim McGraw song, “Live Like You Were Dying.” We just always write like we’re not getting canceled. This was our plan to do it, to do these four seasons in this way, and so we just stuck to that. And they’re so supportive of the show that we felt more confident this year than we did the previous year.
Rachel Bloom: I was incredibly confident. And if they were at all on the fence about renewing us, I think they would have given us some sort of warning about, “Hey, maybe you want to start wrapping things up.” We’ve been pretty open with them about our plan and what the arc of the show is. They respect the show and they respect us. They wouldn’t fuck us like that.
So why is this an important place to take Rebecca to as the series reaches its planned midpoint?
McKenna: When we pitched it initially, however many years ago, this was in our very first pitch in the first round of meetings we took with various networks: “Josh Chan must be destroyed.” So this was something that we always wanted to end this season with. [Rebecca] has a tendency to take on roles that she understands in the culture. And in this moment of intense disappointment, instead of looking within, which is something she doesn’t like to do very much, she grabs at another prototype: the spurned woman, who is a destroyer.
Bloom: When you think of the title Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, this is what you think of. You think of someone vindictive, and we wanted to fully explore the full implications of the title when we thought of the show.
McKenna: So this is a different mode. The first season mode was, “Oh, you’re at Starbucks, I’m at Starbucks!” And the second season was, “We’ve slept together and you have to say that you love me.” Now we’re moving more towards what you think of when you think of the title, which is, “How do I get this person off of me?”
And now you’ve pretty much left behind any will-they/won’t-they questions about Rebecca and Josh as a couple. This is new territory.
Bloom: Exactly. Seasons 1 and 2 were a rom-com, at least in Rebecca’s head, and now it’s a stalker thriller.
McKenna: “Now I’m Glenn Close.”
Bloom: Now it’s the movie Swimfan, which is a lesser-known but similar to Fatal Attraction stalker movie about a woman who’s a fan of swimming, as the title would imply.
McKenna: Also, the idea for her is that this is a prototype and something she can play, but she’s fundamentally a good person, so I think this is going to be a struggle for her to pull it off with quite the amount of evil brio that she would like to.
What are some of the things you learned from making the first season — whether story or tone or what your actors could do — that you were able to apply to making this one?
McKenna: We knew the actors pretty well. The big discovery for us was Scott Michael Foster, who just exploded onto the show. I can’t overstate how well he’s fit into our traveling troupe. He can do anything. He’s been the biggest discovery.
Bloom: And as far as what we learned in the first season, so many things. But there’s something that Aline says really well about story on the show, which is you need almost like an excuse into the propulsion. Aline, I always remember you saying with episode 114, “Josh Is Going to Hawaii!” It isn’t enough that she just kissed Josh, now it’s like, “I need to make Josh see that we’re in love.” We had to give her a tangible goal — get tickets to Hawaii — so that the thematic stuff wasn’t overbearing.
McKenna: In season 2 of this year, when she’s trying to show Josh she’s cool, we conquertized it with her saying she’s good at ping pong. Which is just stupid, but that’s how she’s boiled it down in her mind, that she’s fixated on one thing that’s going to make her think she’s awesome.
Bloom: Otherwise, the story kind of wanders. “If I want to make Josh think I’m cool, I’m going to try this, then I’m going to try this,” and it becomes The Three Bears, where you’re just trying different things, and the story doesn’t have any build or propulsion, really. That’s been a really interesting thing that Aline has said a lot that’s spawned.
In the finale, we see that Rebecca was institutionalized after her affair with the Harvard professor ended badly, and Dr. Akopian is alarmed to realize Rebecca is disassociating in the middle of a session. How far are you comfortable taking the question of Rebecca’s mental health?
McKenna: It’s super important to the show. One thing that the audience senses but didn’t know is that bad things had gone down before. Like “Josh Chan must be destroyed,” the idea that she had an affair with a professor is something we’ve been talking about forever. It feels like someone who’s prone to fantasy, has father issues, is an apple-polisher seeking of authority, would be attracted to a professor. When I went to Harvard, there would be a thing where kids would just disappear to McLean [a mental hospital outside Boston]. “Oh, they’re in McLean.” We always knew that she had some eruptions that were not great, and I think that mental hospital was where she was first overmedicated, which is why she has a fear of that. That was her first major experience with being overmedicated, and I think that set the pattern for her. In the pilot, you see her throw her pills away, and she has a pull away from medication. But she’s got issues. Despite what she says, she has underlying issues to address.
You said before that Rebecca is fundamentally a good person, but she has a tendency to get so lost in her own head that she inadvertently hurts the people around her. Is there a line you aren’t comfortable crossing in terms of how Rebecca’s behavior impacts the other characters?
Bloom: I find it to be pretty case specific. It depends on what we’re talking about. I heard something once: You don’t have to like a character, you just need to understand them and why they’re doing what they’re doing. It’s become a specific thing where, do we buy her doing this? Or this? Is this earned? We’re not afraid of being too dark if it’s earned.
McKenna: The other thing I would say is we have something up our sleeve, which is national treasure Rachel Bloom. Rachel has an ability to be lovable and empathetic, so you forgive her so much. I know from so many years of making so many movies, that’s not something everyone has, and Rachel just has this quality of being joyful. We’re not trying to make her vulnerable or likable or any of those things you’re told when you’re writing female characters; we’re trying to make her understandable, so you know why she’s making these not so great decisions.
But I would say that she does harm people around her sometimes, but more often, she does great things for them. She was instrumental in Darryl’s rite of passage, and in Paula becoming a lawyer. We’ve always seen it that as she’s tied the anvil to herself and is drifting towards the bottom, she’s snipping other people’s anvils and helping them rise to the top. That happened very much this season, and it’s one of the cruel ironies of Rebecca, she’s very good at helping other people identify things about themselves: if not for her, Darryl might not have come out, Paula might not be in law school, Valencia might not be a wedding planner, Greg might not have gotten healthy and left town. In general, she has a not intentional good effect on people.
Speaking of Greg, Santino Fontana was only on a one-year contract and you planned things accordingly, but was there a point where you began plotting out a version of this season where Greg stayed in West Covina?
McKenna: We tried to keep in touch with him about how much he wanted to come back. And it became clear towards the end of the first season that he wanted to pursue things in New York. We had always planned to bust up the love triangle, because there’s a point in a love triangle where people start to seem impaired. Since he was feeling like he wanted to go back to New York, we combined the unwinding of the love triangle with him actually leaving. I have to say, it was a very moving storyline for us to work on, because I think he was the last person that you would expect to get his shit together. He was the one the most behind the starting line, and that he got his shit together was very moving.
Bloom: I was really excited: Aline and I are going to write later today, and I’m really glad Greg is actually just gone for this next season, because I don’t think Rebecca could contemplate the things she wants to do for next season if Greg were around. That love triangle thing, even if they were completely done, if Greg was in her life as this moral arbiter, I don’t think she could go as far as we want to push her. In some ways, it’s also a way of protecting him, because any sort of growth he could have in West Covina could only go so far with his best friend getting engaged to his ex and then leaving her at the altar. It would just pull him back to the depths of where he started. And so, I feel very protective of him, like, “No, keep him away!”
McKenna: We were so happy that we were able to get him to a good place.
Do you have favorite songs from this season?
McKenna: I do. My favorites are “Tell Me I’m Okay, Patrick” and “You Go First” and “The Math of Love Triangles.” Those are the ones I put on my own personal turntable.
Bloom: My three are “Love Triangles,” “We Tapped That Ass,” and “Remember That We Suffered.”
The latter is possibly the most Jewish moment in the history of modern television.
Bloom: Look, Transparent has a whole plotline about a mikvah,
McKenna: They’re always Jewier.
Bloom: I will say on network television, and I will say our ratings really reflect the desire for overtly Jewish storylines in Middle America.
McKenna: We’re speaking to the unexpressed longing that people have for seriously Jewy stuff.
Bloom: People in Missouri really want to know about epigenetics and how it relates to Holocaust survivors.
McKenna: We’re constantly getting tweeted at: “Not Jewish enough. Please! I’d like to learn more about this ethnic subculture.” Especially now! Nothing more commercial.
Bloom: Yeah, let’s talk about Israel more.
Was the songwriting process easier or harder this year, given that you already went through so many different music styles?
Bloom: I felt like it was as difficult, if not harder. Partially, when we did season 1, we had this backlog of ideas that we’d had for a year and a half. We thought we were going to series at Showtime. The yoga song, “Feeling Kinda Naughty,” “Cold Showers,” and “Group Hang” were written when we were at Showtime. And songs like “Settle For Me,” we’d been wanting to do that for so long. All those songs in the first season were fundamental character songs: this is what I believe, this is what my personal philosophy is. So when you go into the second season, how do you keep things fresh, how do you keep them motivated, and how do you keep things comedic? We do find that when we try to do dramatic, modern musical theater stuff, we end up going more towards a comedic bent with the songs, because that’s our style. So it was hard. I share this equally with Jack Dolgen and Adam Schlesinger, and depending on where we are in the process, it’s them writing the songs and I take a look at them and go, “This is a great song.”
McKenna: Process-wise, for me, it was much easier, because the first season, we were really building the boat at sea. We’d never done it before, and because no one had ever done it before, there were no templates. So there were many moments in the first season where we went, “Oh, shit, we need two more songs.” So just process-wise, we did 49 pieces of music the first year, and I think 35 pieces this year. When someone hit a cul de sac this year, we had more practice getting unstuck and moving on to a new idea
Bloom: We have more of an idea of what works. But I will say Greg’s goodbye song was really hard, because my original instinct in writing that song was, “We need to curse in this song. Because the only way to undercut the sincerity is for him to go, ‘This was a fucking shitshow.’” But we thought we were on a network, so they wouldn’t let us, and we tried writing it without cursing. Finally, we just went to the network and said, “We literally creatively need to curse.” And they literally gave us two “shit”s.
McKenna: Yeah, they gave two “shit”s.
Are there any kinds of songs you haven’t gotten to yet but want to do on the show?
Bloom: ABBA for me. And we want to write a tap something for Donna Lynne [Champlin].
Do you have a concept in mind yet for the season three theme song?
McKenna: The thing I would say that might be interesting to know is Rachel and I work on the show when we don’t need to 24 hours a day. You just have to picture two people making a piece folk art with dripped sand and little figures they’ve made out of pipe cleaners. It’s all we do! When Rachel and I get together, we were talking about a DVD commentary, and they were like, “Ooh, do you have time to do it?” And Rachel went, “This is all we do together.” So we have a weirdly extensive amount of material always going in our minds, and we’re always texting each other with random ideas, from big story ideas to little ones. Rachel had a really rather brilliant idea for the [new] credits sequence, and it’s always a question of whether these things stick or not, but right now I’m feeling pretty good about it.
Finally, we have to talk about “Period Sex.”
Bloom: Sure, ask away!
When you wrote that into the third episode this year, was it intended to be a one-off, or was it always planned to take on this life of its own?
Bloom: Very quickly, we were like, “Oh, this is going to be a running gag.” Because we had to record the cut-off song for episode three, and I think that’s when we wrote and recorded the whole song. And when I say, “wrote,” it was literally done in about five minutes? The whole idea is that it’s just this off-the-cuff song about having sex on your period.”Put down a towel, party ’til it’s dry” came from the room. We knew that we eventually wanted to do a full version, and it was a matter of inserting runners [in other episodes] and me between scenes popping into the writers room, and Aline’s trying to run a room and come up with a story, and I’m going, “Remember to put in ‘Period Sex.’”
McKenna: You should know that if it was up to Rachel, it would have been in every episode. Rachel would look off into the distance and be thinking and turn back around with another idea of where and how we could do “Period Sex,” who could sing it, and how we could bring it back. I bet you if we’d had more episodes, we would have done one that really featured it and had a full produced version.
Bloom: Well, we tried.
McKenna: It really caught fire.
Bloom: We sent the song, as is, to [broadcast Standards and Practices]. Because there was a little bit of time where I thought we could put it in the show. Because there’s no cursing in it and no graphic language, but she was like, “Yeah, no, there’s no way you can do any of this on television.” But the reference in episode seven was something that didn’t necessarily make it to the script, and I just did it on the day, and we orchestrated it after the fact.
It’s kind of amazing that the network will literally give two “shit”s, but you can’t speak in graphic detail about period sex.
Bloom: I’m amazed we were even able to say “Period sex, put down a towel, party ’til it’s dry.”
McKenna: Honestly, I think the reason we got excited about it is, I know a lot about jizz because of movies and TV shows. There’s Something About Mary, her with jizz in her hair was in the promotional material. We’re just comfortable with jizz in a way that’s odd. There’s a bunch of things on the show that we’ve talked about that aren’t talked about, and are just a thing — UTIs being another one. As a writer, you’re always looking for things that haven’t been done before, and I feel confident in saying no one has done a running song gag about menstrual intercourse.
Bloom: You know what, we should have included that it does sometimes help with cramps.
McKenna: That’s part two.
Bloom: I think as a writer and a woman, it still infuriates me that the majority of women don’t realize that all orgasms come from the clitoris. Because we talk about nut sacks, and we talk about dicks all the time, but we don’t talk about female pleasure for whatever reason.
McKenna: I don’t know: can we say “clitoris” on televiision?
Bloom: I think we can say it, because it’s a body part. So long as we don’t say, “Touch my clitoris.” It’s all context. Season three goals!
McKenna: Season three goals!
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org