The CW series follows Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), a successful lawyer who encounters her summer camp crush, Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), in Manhattan, New York. She sees their unexpected run-in as a sign: It's time for a change.
Rebecca leaves her law firm and follows an unknowing Josh to the slothful West Covina, California, a close-knit community that immediately embraces her. Rebecca consistently tells herself, and anybody who will listen, that she didn't abandon the life she'd built to pursue a long dead relationship with Josh.
She tells her new co-worker Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin) that it's crazy to assume she ditched New York for Josh:
OK, I do not love him. I barely know him. I dated him for two months when I was 16 at a summer camp. So you're saying I moved here from New York and left a job that would have paid me $545,000 a year for a guy who still skateboards? I did not move here for Josh because that would be crazy and I am not crazy. Oh my God.
Her obsession with rekindling their teenage flame is the lens that unveils Rebecca's spiraling anxiety and depression. "This is what happy feels like," she often tells herself, though her reality is completely opposed to that mantra. Those decisions — ditching her medication and upending her life to pursue a man who's already in a relationship — unfurls the ferocity of her mental illness.
Despite its premise, "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" has shown a wholly unlikable, self-centered heroine who is grappling with her mental illness in a way that's all too relatable.
Rebecca is consistently battling with herself about attending therapy. After a psychiatrist refuses to prescribe her medication without her first agreeing to counseling, Rebecca agrees to attend therapy on a consistent basis.
It's an eternal fight that most people with mental illnesses know all too well: One in five Americans over the age of 18 have experienced a mental illness, according to the US Department of Health & Human Services.
Many of them never seek help. A 2014 study published in "Psychological Science in the Public Interest" found that only 59.6% of people with mental illnesses receive treatment. It's a mixture of many factors, including stigma and lack of access, that prevents those with mental illnesses from getting help, but "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" shows how the performance of hiding mental illness factors into that choice.
Rebecca isn't the prototypical woman with a mental illness that's so often shown on TV.
As critic Angelica Jade Bastién explained in Vulture, TV still perpetuates stereotypes about women with mental illnesses that are difficult to undo. For instance, few shows, including "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," ever actually diagnose the character with a specific illness.
"By failing to offer a diagnosis, a show's writers can cherry-pick a variety of symptoms, which ultimately creates a dishonest portrayal that hinges on plot needs," Bastién wrote. "This often leads to confused characterization, or worse, an exploitative view of mental illness."
Furthermore, even as TV offers more female protagonists with mental illnesses on shows like "Jessica Jones," "You're the Worst," and "Being Mary Jane," there still aren't many characters specifically like Rebecca.
She's functional. While she misses commitments she's made to her friends, like writing Paula a recommendation letter for law school, her work as an attorney hasn't suffered — other than a drinking binge that resulted in a botched meeting. She's still able to create meaningful friendships, even as she spirals.
Rebecca resembles the bulk of people with mental illnesses: she's pushing through, even at the expense of her own health.
It's a cautionary tale that Bloom, who co-created the show and stars as Rebecca, purposefully concocted.
In an essay for Glamour, Bloom explained how her own anxiety is infused into "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's" titular character. She felt depressed as she wrote the first episode, which definitely translates into the character she's playing.
"Rebecca is depressed, and as my co-creator, Aline Brosh McKenna, and I were writing that episode, the anxiety and depression that had invaded my own brain like an alien when I was a kid came back in full force," she said.
For all of its flaws, like that cringeworthy title, "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" has gotten the most crucial part of its story right: Mental illness is disruptive. It can cause people to make poor decisions. Rebecca Bunch is perfect, TV-worthy, proof of that.