Rachel Bloom is riding a giant, flying pretzel to stardom. The one-time YouTube star won Best Actress in a comedy at the Golden Globes for her role in the musical-comedy she co-created, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Yes, it’s a musical. Yes, it involves a set piece with a massive soft pretzel. But this is definitely not Glee.
The show follows a successful but miserable New York lawyer named Rebecca Bunch who decides to shake up her depressing existence by following an old boyfriend to California. The songs feature rather adult topics, from one night stands to waxing before a date to untangling the complicated and creepy ways our society talks about father-daughter love. The show has also received praise for its diverse cast—it devoted an entire episode to a Filipino character’s traditional Thanksgiving celebrations.
“I don’t give a f— about being relatable. I care about being truthful,” Bloom told TIME of her decision to reject the tropes of other network sitcoms. TIME checked in with Bloom to talk about diversifying TV, lampooning sexism and whether Rebecca should choose Josh or Greg after her Golden Globes win.
Rebecca has been diagnosed with some sort of mental illness. That’s been a major taboo on TV—especially in comedies—so how did you approach handling that topic?
There were no boundaries. There was an early version where we had her cutting herself. We’re doing a f—ed up romantic comedy, right? The rom-com plot is a girl realizes a guy she dated in summer camp is her true love so she moves across the country to be with him. The flip side of it is: that’s a really f—ed up thing to do. If you were to actually do that, chances are you’re not a healthy person. In reality, Rebecca’s a pill-popping, severely depressed lawyer with insomnia. It would have felt very false to romanticize love as an escape.
In the pilot, Rebecca sings “The Sexy Getting Ready Song” showing all the arduous and painful things women go through to look good and you reprised it in an Instagram post before the Globes. Why was that important to skewer?
That song is about our collective madness. You think Rebecca is crazy to pluck and wax and wear Spanx for love, but is she? She’s just buying into the madness that all women are told to buy into. That’s what women are taught they have to do to impress a dude. Rebecca has problems but her problems are symptomatic of the contradictory messages that women are given every single day. We’re told to be both successful and beautiful. The fairy tale ends with marriage. But then when a woman is upset over a breakup or goes to pursue love in a way that’s irrational, she’s “a crazy bitch.”
Every woman has the story of wearing Spanx going out and then having to hide them when they get to a guy’s place because you have to put in all this effort but can’t let anyone know you’re putting in the effort.
Exactly. I think something else we try to explore on the show—and I find fascinating—is that love is one of our main drives, but really it’s just our bodies trying to get us to reproduce. We’re animals. And all of the complicated drama that surrounds is us trying to humanize a very animalistic thing. Rebecca’s very base animal urges really contrast with her high level of intelligence. She often does things that her body wants her to do, but she knows she should not do.
When the show first came out some people thought the title Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was sexist. Did you expect that?
No. I didn’t. The CW has basically taken a cable show and put it on a network, and they are my heroes for doing that. But yeah when people said, “That’s sexist,” it’s like, “Watch the show.” You see in two seconds it’s the opposite of that. The theme song says “crazy ex-girlfriend” is a “sexist term.”
Had it been on cable I don’t think there would have been backlash, because people would have assumed it was a subversion. But because it’s a network show, people take it at face value. But it’s a deconstruction and a darker comedy than people would expect for network television. I think our show title is perfect because our show is all about deconstructing stereotypes.
You spoke after winning your Golden Globe about the diversity of your cast. The show makes a male Asian character, Josh, a sort of sex symbol which is really rare for TV.
I grew up in Southern California, and I wanted to set the show there in part because it’s very diverse in ways that you haven’t seen much on television. We talked about what type of guy would be wrong for her, and thought it’s in Southern California: he could be a bro. And I was like, I’ve never seen the trope of an Asian bro portrayed on TV, and I grew up with a lot of Asian bros. The homecoming king at my school was Chinese.
And that was interesting to us because then we decided to make the character first generation, his parents are immigrants, he has a very close-knit family, which is the opposite of Rebecca—she’s an only child, she’s scattered to the winds. Her dad left. Her and her mom have a very f—ed up relationship. So the idea that Josh would be the symbol of all the things she didn’t have with a really close family. So from the beginning Josh was this almost Brechtian symbol.
Being Jewish is a really important part of the Rebecca character. Even though there have been a lot of Jewish characters on TV before, they often don’t talk about Judaism because networks would say it’s not “relatable”—which I guess was their argument for excluding any type of diversity, really.
Exactly. The show has always been a Jewish show. I’m Jewish, [series co-creator] Aline [Brosh McKenna] is Jewish. And Jewish identity is really important. It informs family dynamics, it informs what careers your family might want you to pursue. I think in a lot of network television, everyone’s vaguely Protestant and doesn’t really go to church so they can be “relatable.”
But I don’t really give a f— about being “relatable.” I want to be truthful. Jewish, black, Filipino, whatever the specificity is, it’s specificity that makes a good story. And I think people are tired of seeing the same old shtick on network television. It’s just a group of white people hanging out talking about their jobs. Who cares? We’ve seen that. So I think diversity on TV is important because it’s telling stories that literally have not been touched on before.
I didn’t even realize until we were casting the show—if you’re a talented person of color, the chances are you’re represented by a smaller agency because the roles are not there for you. And that is astonishing to me. And, by the way, I’m a white chick who went to NYU for theater. I’m learning a ton about diversity.
Though you are a minority in writers’ rooms by virtue of being a woman.
It’s crazy because we’re 50% of the population. I have noticed when you get a bunch of dudes in a room together, and you just have one woman or two women, the dudes will bro out. And the woman won’t get heard. So not only is diversity important on writing staffs but not making it a token thing, making it a concerted effort.
It’s understandable why TV hasn’t been diverse because a lot of TV writers are white dudes from Harvard. And white dudes from Harvard aren’t going to immediately want to write about trans issues. They’re not immediately going to want to write about a Filipino family. They’re going to want to write about their own experiences in the bubble in which they live. And it’s not necessarily their fault. White dudes from Harvard will always have a place and will always have jobs, and I’m not saying they don’t care about diversity. But I think it’s time that other people have voices who could tell white dudes from Harvard stuff they don’t know from being a white dude from Harvard.
Unlike many love triangles, it’s hard to determine who is better for Rebecca, Josh or Greg—or neither.
At the beginning of the show, we needed to make the point that Josh is not perfect for her because the show is a f—ed up romantic comedy. We didn’t want you to actually be rooting for Rebecca and Josh because her seeing him as an escape is unhealthy. But then we got into the series, the way Vince [Rodriguez III] portrays Josh is so loving that we came to realize that it is actually what Rebecca needs. She supports Josh. She builds him up. She tells him, “You’re smart,” which he’s never been told in his life. And he gives her this unconditional love that she’s never had. And so it’s been an interesting shift. The love triangle between Rebecca and Josh and Greg is evening out.
So has the direction of the show changed for you?
We’re exploring what makes a healthy relationship in a way that I hadn’t even anticipated and is really exciting. The first thing that Greg says to Rebecca when meeting her is, “You’re smart and pretty and ignoring me, so you’re obviously my type.” That’s not a healthy way to get into the relationship. So people say they’re rooting for Rebecca and Greg, and obviously that’s one of our intentions, but the Sam and Diane kind of dynamics, at the end of the day, is that healthy? We’re taught to believe that because we like to see the game of the chase and the will they or won’t they.
Is there anything you want to tease for the second half of this season?
Rebecca’s denial is going to come back and bite them in the ass. The denial of a lot of other characters is going to come back and bite them in the ass. The theme of season one is “the lies we tell ourselves.” Rebecca is lying to herself, and everyone in the show to a certain extent is lying to themselves about their identity. Rebecca moving to West Covina is the catalyst that gets people to wake up. So I’m really excited for the second half of the season. It will become apparent that the status quo that we’ve seen established is not going to be the status quo anymore.