DOCTORS and aswang are the two things most often associated with Filipinos on prime-time American TV. In the ’80s hospital drama St. Elsewhere, doctors were boggled by a weird sickness called “ba-ngyoo-ngyot”; more recently a doctor in House was supposed to be Filipino-Korean. “Ass-wang” have turned up on CSI, Grimm, and recently on The Strain, where they were described in a book. But another category has sprung up since Tina Fey started fantasizing about one on 30 Rock: the Filipino boyfriend. There’s the computer nerd on How to Get Away With Murder, and now there’s the raison d’etre for a new CW series: a Fil-American guy so desirable that the titular character leaves everything she’s ever worked for in New York to follow him to West Covina, CA.
Okay, he’s actually an amiable lunk with little ambition, and she’s not really crazy. Self-dramatizing, yes, with poor impulse control and an inability to read signals. The word “crazy” is often used to shame women for not behaving the way society decrees they should. Rebecca Bunch is crazy because she’s buying into society’s expectations of women: You should have it all, but give up everything for love. A wonderful career, a great apartment, Louboutins, freedom — these are nothing compared to finding your destiny, which only comes in guy form. As this hilarious series created (with Aline Brosh McKenna) and written by and starring Rachel Bloom unfolds, it becomes clear that if anyone should be institutionalized, it’s society.
So then: trenchant social critique, in musical form. Rebecca and company are given to bursting into song, beginning with “West Covina” — in the tradition of those big numbers in which the heroine announces her intention to conquer the Big Apple, except that she’s moving in the opposite direction. I dread musicals — I’ve never sat through The Sound of Music movie or an entire episode of Glee — but I paid close attention to the songs in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and even took notes. “It’s my destiny, that much is clear,” she warbles, whereupon a voice says, “Please welcome Destiny” and a stripper comes out. Too often musical numbers are an opportunity for the viewer to check her messages, but here the visual jokes are almost as good as the lyrics. “To be clear,” Rebecca continues, “I didn’t move here for Josh, I just needed a change/Cause to move here for Josh, now that would be strange.” Self-delusion, subterfuge — this is what women are reduced to, even the powerful ones.
The combination of visual and lyrical hilarity reaches its peak in “The Sexy Getting-Ready Song,” and if you have any lingering doubts about the show, this erases them. Rebecca lists the tortures and indignities women must endure in preparing for a date, from plucking to squeezing into Spanx, and it’s less sexy than doing laundry. “First I make everything shiny and smooth,” she sings, abrading her soles, “Cause I want my body to be so soft for you.” “Bye-bye, skin,” sings the chorus. “Let’s see how the guys get ready,” she cooes, and we see her date lying on the couch, snoring with the TV remote on his chest. Guest rapper Nipsey Hussle sees the torture instruments in her bathroom, has an epiphany — “Nasty-ass patriarchal bull(bleep)” — and proceeds to read Simone de Beauvoir and apologize to the women he objectified in his videos. And when her date compliments her, Rebecca says, “I totally just woke up from a nap.” A woman is required to look naturally beautiful, even if it takes an army of stylists to make her that way.
Tales of obsession tend to be dark and twisted; Crazy Ex-Girlfriend vaporizes the pain in sunshine and humor. Despite her social awkwardness Rebecca makes friends: Greg (Santino Fontana), who likes her and is therefore not her type, and coworker Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin), who encourages her to seek Mr. Destiny. Fontana and Champlin, both Broadway pros, are the most accomplished singers in the fine cast — Champlin gets a bluesy solo called “Face Your Fears” in which she riffs on that self-help platitude: run with scissors, fly out of a window, swim right after eating. Eventually Rebecca finds her Filipino ex-boyfriend Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III, who understudied in the Imelda musical Here Lies Love), who is already involved with fiery Mexican-American yoga teacher Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz).
In a first season with many highlights, the Thanksgiving (If America is so politically correct, why do they still celebrate it?) episode is especially noteworthy for its knowledge of Filipino culture. We’re not generic Asians anymore, yay! In fact the show correctly identifies Filipinos as Latin-Asian. Rebecca wangles an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner with the Chans, and teaches herself to prepare a Filipino dish: dinuguan. While the Jewish heroine cooks pig innards in pig’s blood, she listens to a Tagalog tutorial, and her pronunciation is better than most Fil-American starlets’. The portrayal of the Fil-Am family is spot-on — the emphasis on academic achievement, the formidable matriarch, sisters named Jayma and Jansenity. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is destined to be your new favorite musical comedy TV series.
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