Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and How We Are All Rebecca Bunch: Mental Illness in TV

TW: mentions of attempted suicide

 

Many movies and TV shows have attempted to tackle mental illness, but, in my opinion, none has been as profoundly hilarious or deeply genuine as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

For those of you who haven’t seen Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, it is a musical TV show that centers around Rebecca Bunch, a top-notch lawyer who is working for a law firm in New York when she comes face-to-face with her childhood sweetheart, Josh Chan. Thinking about how a life with Josh would make her happy, she quits her job and flies across the country to West Covina, California. While trying to reconnect with Josh, she meets and befriends a wide variety of people and also gets into some weird situations which don’t need to be explained here.

What does need to be explained is Rebecca and her relationship with mental illness. In the first episode, after moving to California, she throws out all of her anxiety and depression medication because she very much believes in Josh’s ability to make her happy. Rebecca is rash and impulsive, characterized by her need to act first and ask questions later. And yet, her ultimate goal is to be happy. Her ability to procure that happiness is in constant flux for a majority of the series. Her tendency to throw herself at people and into situations alternates between entertaining and uncomfortable to watch. She’s bright and passionate and impossible to look away from, even if you sometimes may want to.

As the series progresses, the audience can see that Rebecca doesn’t acknowledge her issues. At different points in the show, Rebecca has small moments of clarity. She is on the verge of realizing that her problems are much more rooted within her than she previously thought and that no one person will ever solve all of her problems. She is eventually forced to examine her mental health when she is hospitalized after a suicide attempt and receives a new diagnosis: borderline personality disorder. And so begins her journey toward recovery. After thirty years of thinking that she has a combination of depression, anxiety, and OCD, she finally has a diagnosis that is more fitting for her.

Movies and TV shows have been home to numerous “crazy” women over the years. The “crazy” woman is hated and mocked and disregarded. She is relegated to an archetype and she can’t exist outside of it. Despite the popularity of this stereotype, one thing that a lot of media hasn’t been very interested in is the recovery of the “crazy” woman, much less the “crazy ex-girlfriend.” The latter often receives punishment for her perceived madness rather than concern on behalf of her mental state. Recovery for any mental illness is a long and drawn out process. For someone like Rebecca, there will be no easy fixes, no musical numbers to throw herself into. It will be working through some painful events, letting go of some of them, and seeing what happens from there.

As someone who suffers from mental illness, seeing Rebecca change and grow and falter throughout the series did something to me. As I was watching and rewatching the series, I was struck by how much of myself I saw in her. I experience her feelings of loneliness, of sadness, of anxiety so often that I didn’t have to look far to see the similarities. I understand her. I understand why she does the things she does and says the things she says. I may not always like her, but I understand her because I am her. I think that even if you don’t identify with every aspect of Rebecca (I know that I don’t), you can still understand her. You understand where she is coming from and why she’s so “broken inside” (to quote the first season theme song). We’ve all felt alone; we’ve all felt anger; we’ve all felt desire; we’ve all felt like we were frauds in our own lives.

To me, it’s deeply comforting to know that this character is in the midst of recovery rather than fully recovered or “fixed” as many people call it. The show does a good job avoiding showing the precise steps of recovery, which is good because there aren’t any. It’s different for everyone and there are always setbacks and losses, as well as triumphs and gains. In short, life doesn’t really make narrative sense, and the full recovery process can’t be turned into a satisfying two-minute montage. But that’s what so special about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Rebecca’s mental illness isn’t something that pops up in one episode and disappears with the next, nor does it completely define her. You want to watch her connect with people and get into and out of weird situations all while recovering with the help of her psychiatrist, therapist, and a network of friends. You want to watch her because you are her, and you want to see her try her best to better herself.

Rebecca Bunch is the type of character who brings people together, whether that be in the show or in the real world. She generates connections between people who otherwise might not have glanced at each other, and her views of the world have made me try to see it her way too. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is an absolutely brilliant show that lets us talk about mental illness in a way that’s not demeaning nor dehumanizing, and it allows us to explore our own feelings and issues through the wide variety of colorful characters and catchy songs. We’re all Rebecca Bunch, and maybe because of that we can all feel less alone.

Image Credit: Feature, 1, 2