“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “BoJack Horseman” Explore the Emptiness of Success

Both shows examine how their protagonists' success is intertwined with their depression and feelings of inner emptiness. And they're both funny!

As I binge-watched the show’s first season this fall, I fell in love with the CW’s musical dramedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which returns to screens tonight. Like heroine Rebecca Bunch (and creator Rachel Bloom), I am a bookish, curvy, bagel-noshing Jewish girl from New York with a Biblical matriarch’s name, a love of musical theater, a feminist sensibility, and a degree from a certain university in Massachusetts. So naturally songs like “JAP Battle” (the only novelty Jewish rap song that’s been funny in years), “Heavy Boobs,” “Sexy Getting Ready Song,” “Where’s the Bathroom,” and “Put Yourself First (For Him)” won me over with their sly references to the cultural tropes I appreciate, from riffs on Jewish mothers to critiques of commodified feminism and beauty standards.

But the in-jokes weren’t what convinced me to keep watching; instead, I was captivated by the way the early episodes of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — in which a woman who seemingly has it all figured out completely loses it — nailed the hollowness of a life oriented around achievement and a false ideal of happiness. Rebecca has a nervous breakdown after seeing a TV commercial for butter that asks her when she was last really happy. “This is what happy feels like,” she tries to tell herself, as she stands on the verge of physical and emotional implosion. A high-paid Manhattan lawyer, Bunch has racked up a double Ivy League degree, professional success, tailored suits, even a partnership offer at her firm. But a combination of seeing those ads and spying her summer camp boyfriend, Josh Chan, across the street unsettles her deeply. She upends her entire life to chase him — and the promise of a simpler life that he represents — to California.

It’s fascinating to watch television explore such an existential dilemma, which goes beyond the zany love triangles that initially seem to be the focus of the show. In that respect, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend follows the path trod by the titular depressive cartoon horse on Netflix’s BoJack Horseman. The obvious connection between the two shows is their difficult yet charismatic protagonists who suffer from mental illness: Both Rebecca and BoJack experience depression and anxiety, numb themselves with food and substances, and are relentless self-saboteurs, constantly scheming to solve their problems through outsize gestures  (sometimes generous ones) and shenanigans rather than confronting them head on.

During the course of these schemes, they both throw around buckets of money and charm, which reminds us that their success is intertwined with their depression. These plotlines suggest that on the other side of getting everything you want, there’s likely a gaping abyss — and it’s that abyss that might propel the characters’ quests to be winners. Elisa Albert examined this paradox in her recent essay, “The Snarling Girl,” for Hazlitt. “So you got what you wanted and now you want something else,” she writes. “If you have ever spent any time around seriously ambitious people, you know that they are very often some of the unhappiest crazies alive, forever rooting around for more, having a hard time with basics like breathing and eating and sleeping, forever trying to cover some hysterical imagined nakedness.” This sounds a lot like both BoJack and Rebecca at their lowest moments.

Indeed, after BoJack receives his coveted Oscar nomination, he freaks out: “I feel… the same,” he says. It’s a moment that sums up the core theme of the show: the fruitless search for the panacea that will make you validated, happy, or even just ok with mortality and transience. “I can’t keep asking myself ‘Am I happy?’  It just makes me more miserable,” BoJack’s foil, journalist Diane Nguyen, tells him early in Season 3. “I don’t know If I believe in it, real lasting happiness. All those perky, well-adjusted people you see in movies and TV shows ? I don’t think they exist.”

Of course, what makes Rebecca Bunch “crazy” is that she still believes in that rom-com myth that Diane has rejected. She has traded in one impossible ideal of success for another. She’s given up on being a big shot in Manhattan, but what she wants in return is to Disney-fy her life, to be saved by a construct of romance that’s every bit as superficial and out of reach as winning the rat race. She becomes obsessed with Josh, who has a girlfriend, and tries to woo him with all her brilliance and assiduousness, to the extent that she downplays the community of friends and well-wishers she’s accumulated out West.

Yes, she does grow, just a little bit. After losing a case to her rival, Audra Levine, she tells her old nemesis to try to be happy. “I am happy. I’m so happy. This is what happy feels like,” Audra says, using Rebecca’s old line. Rebecca is wise enough to see through Audra’s self-delusion, but not her own. She keeps searching for her happily ever after. As she explains to Josh once she finally beds him at the end of Season 1: “The second I saw you on the street in New York, I just knew you were the answer to all my problems.” Josh isn’t the only one who cringes at this line.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend looks like it will use its upcoming second season, which premieres tonight, to explode the concept of “successful” romance as a panacea. We’ve seen that both Rebecca’s love interests, Greg and Josh, are far from a pair of knights in shining armor. “She’s making the mistake that people make of defining herself based on which man she’s having a relationship with. We all know that’s not a good idea,” the show’s co-creator, Aline Brosh McKenna, told the A.V. Club recently. “But she would rather not think of the realities of her own issues and her own mental health.”

BoJack, too, obsesses over his past loves rather than dealing with himself. He even upends his life at the end of Season 2 for a road trip to find an ex-girlfriend, Charlotte, who symbolizes the last time he felt content. But in the memorably dark “Escape from L.A.,” he falls back into his own dark patterns by almost sleeping with Penny, Charlotte’s daughter — ruining any shot he had at redemption and plunging himself deeper into despair. He somehow thought that glomming on to Charlotte’s life would enable him to be happy by osmosis, but it only makes him sadder.

Damaged people do damage. Through almost unendurably painful childhood flashbacks, BoJack Horseman and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend show that abandonment, insecurity, and unloved-ness are the driving forces behind Rebecca’s and BoJack’s need to prove themselves, their desperation to be liked, and their inability to maintain meaningful attachments.

If these shows offer any hope, it’s in the friendships that both characters accumulate, the small moments of understanding. As BoJack tries and fails to tell Kelsey in the third and most recent season, “In this terrifying world, all we have are the connections that we make.”  We hope against hope that characters like BoJack and Rebecca will realize this truth, and look for satisfaction in the everyday rather than reaching for the next shiny trophy, whether it’s an Oscar or a big love story. But it’s hard to ask more of them than we do of ourselves.