Rachel Bloom is concerned that someone is spying on us. She’s sitting across from me at Echo Park’s Andante Coffee Roasters, sporting a pair of vintage sunglasses that previously belonged to a now-dead Holocaust survivor (more on this later) and a red Free People peasant dress that previously belonged to her Crazy Ex-Girlfriend character Rebecca Bunch (“I’m going to a beer festival after this, so I wanted a dress that I could have a beer belly in,” she explains within 90 seconds of sitting down). In the middle of walking me through the juicy, twisted conclusion to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s season finale — which, on this warm November morning, is months from its February 3 airdate — Bloom stops suddenly, adjusts her Holocaust glasses, and drops her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “We’re being quiet, right?” she asks. “That guy over there isn’t writing down what I’m saying?”
One can forgive Bloom for being slightly paranoid. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which Bloom also co-writes and executive produces, has been one of TV’s strangest, most sidelong success stories in recent memory, the sort of oddball underdog that usually gets Freaks and Geeks’d or My So-Called-Life’d after a single transcendent season. Sprung from the brains of Bloom and co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna, the series was originally purchased by Showtime in 2014 before being dropped unceremoniously. The CW swooped in and rescued it in 2015 and has since renewed it twice, despite consistently low ratings. By all traditional forms of measurement and American taste (see: The Bachelor franchise, Kevin James sitcoms), Crazy Ex-Girlfriend shouldn’t still be on the air. The general consensus is that its survival is due, in part, to its near-unanimous critical acclaim — Zadie Smith called the show “sublime,” The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum tweeted that the show is her "panic room," the Golden Globes gave Bloom a Best Actress In A Musical or Comedy award last year and nominated her again this year — and the sheer idiosyncrasy of its subject matter and tone.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is, all at once, a darkly comic musical satire, a thoughtful exploration of mental illness, a subversion of the still-ubiquitous Prince Charming fantasy, a love letter to female friendship, and a deconstruction of — to risk overstating it — the entire female experience. It is, by turns, raw and matter-of-fact — a recent episode saw one of its main characters calmly but thoughtfully undergo an abortion — and utterly absurd. As Rebecca, Bloom is an anxious-depressive prone to delusion who, in the series’s first episode, runs into her onetime summer camp boyfriend Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) on the streets of New York during a particularly miserable moment, immediately quits her high-paying job at a top law firm, and chases Josh across the country to West Covina, California, in hopes of finally finding happiness. The first season’s finale saw the unlikely reunion of the pair, doin’ it atop a sleek red convertible. The second season, which concluded Friday, was an examination of what happens when you get everything you’d convinced yourself you’ve ever wanted — in Rebecca’s case, a fairytale wedding to her dream dude — but you’re still profoundly unhappy, and then, oh fuck, while you were over there having an emotional crisis, you lost that thing because it spontaneously decided to go to seminary school. The season ends on an aerial shot of Rebecca and her bridesmaids hovering on the edge of a cliff, planning Josh’s imminent destruction. “The show is about to get so dark,” Bloom whispers gleefully.
It’s become an irritatingly recurrent cultural trope to assume that if a woman creates an onscreen persona, she’s done nothing more than hold a mirror up to herself, so it bears noting that Bloom is nothing like Rebecca in person. She has none of Rebecca’s palpable insecurities, none of her terrified energy. At 29, Bloom has the unflappable confidence of somebody who’s turned herself inside out, bemusedly examined her innards, and been like, “Cool, got it.” During our 90 or so minutes together, Bloom transitions effortlessly between making sharply funny observations about her own bouts with depression and about her butter croissant. She's hyper-verbal, narrating and dismantling her inner monologue in real time. Within minutes of sitting down, she hops up from the table to buy a coffee, gets in line, opens her wallet, and walks back. “Shit, I forgot my credit card,” she says. Before I can even offer mine, she starts to laugh at the “celebrity approximating authenticity for a profile” vibe of it all. “I didn't do that on purpose. Wow, that felt so staged,” she says. “I swear it wasn't.”
To use qualifiers that have been exhausted in the age of breathless Jennifer Lawrence and Lena Dunham profiles, Bloom is unapologetically herself. And fearless. And an oversharer. I know, I know. But what separates Bloom from her Real Girl peers is that nothing about her personality feels strategically branded or even deliberately irreverent. Bloom just ... is this way. She’s genuinely strange, compulsively honest, with a unique ability to point at and make a trenchant joke about the worms crawling underneath the rock before the rock’s even been turned over.
And, to the great fortune of her viewers, she’s essentially funneled every uncomfortable, unseemly thought she’s ever had directly into Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Both in person and in her art, Bloom has an unaffected shamelessness and willingness to turn almost anything into comedy — she and her show are blissfully untethered to social norms. Carrie Bradshaw giggled about anal penetration; Rebecca waxes her asshole on camera. Mila Kunis writes safe op-eds in the Huffington Post about equal pay; Bloom wrote a piece in the New York Times about her childhood inability to poop in the potty. Bloom’s uncommon inclination to excavate herself for our entertainment, to permanently blur the lines between her life and her work, is what has made Crazy Ex-Girlfriend so singular and indispensable. Bloom isn’t Rebecca, but Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is all Bloom.
This distinction matters because, for a lot of women, myself included, watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — the show, not just Bloom’s character — is like looking in a mirror. The show speaks to a Venn-diagrammable portion of the population — depressives, dramatics, anxious Jewish girls, irritatingly expressive theater kids, morbid nerds, people who cry at condiment ads — who’ve been consistently accused of too-much-ness, who’ve been commanded to rein it in since birth. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend rips off those reins, lights them on fire, and cackles wildly as the smoke rises. The first time I watched Bloom’s Rebecca negotiate a panic attack induced by a butter ad, I was hit with a greasy wave of self-recognition.
Bloom gets that a lot. “I gotta say, there’s, like, something with the Jewish condition, ’cause I run into a lot of girls like me,” she says. “Obsessed with sex but scared of sex. Obsessed with death but scared of death. Loving musical theater but getting made fun of. All of these little contradictions. And I think it’s something to do with being an other.” The recognition goes both ways: When I first met her on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s set a few days before our coffee date, she greeted me with a hug, asking me how I’d been. Confused, I told her that we hadn’t actually met before. “Really? Are you sure?” she asked. I noded but joked that, according to my research, we are, essentially, the same person. She stepped back exaggeratedly and shook my hand. “Let’s start over,” she said.
Bloom grew up in Manhattan Beach, California, an only child of “musical-theater-nerd” parents who met on a Jewish singles bike ride and still own yearlong passes to Disneyland. She lived a mile from the beach, surrounded by “blonde, athletic surfers” who both befuddled and mocked her, a self-described neurotic “who was obsessed with dark things, but also weirdly a prude.” She found solace in Sondheim and Todd Solondz movies. “I’d get to school and be like [sings “Adelaide’s Lament”], ‘A person can develop a cold,’ and people would be like, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’” Bloom laughs. “When I saw the movie Welcome to the Dollhouse, that was really important, because I watched that scene where [the cheerleaders ask Dawn Weiner], ‘Are you a fucking lesbian?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, it’s not just me.’” As she does several times over the course of the conversation, Bloom turns her attention back to me, verifying a shared experience. “You get it,” she says.
Likely understanding that this all sounds very “Taylor Swift had no friends in high school,” Bloom explains that none of it was intentional or even remotely enjoyable, not even in that “fuck everyone else, I’m going to be a STAR” way. “I wasn’t ever trying to be weird,” she says. “Every time I tried to be cool or fit in, I would fail miserably. I was never like, ‘Let your freak flag fly!’ I was like, ‘I want to be popular. How do I be popular? I know, I’m going to do a great talent show!’ And not understanding how that [came off].”
Before Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was even a twinkle in her eye, Bloom transformed this particular trauma into a sort of digital Great Talent Show: a series of viral YouTube videos, which eventually caught Brosh McKenna’s eye and inspired her to reach out to Bloom and begin building the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend world. The 2010 video “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” sees a 23-year-old Bloom doing Britney Spears cosplay and imploring the aging sci-fi writer to “read a little Fahrenheit 69.” In 2011’s “I Steal Pets,” a maniacally grinning Bloom calmly explains that “I steal pets from the popular people, and dress them all up like the popular people, and lock them all in my shed.” “I still love that video,” Bloom says. “It’s my soul.”
On Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, her outsider upbringing manifested itself not in Rebecca’s unhinged behavior (“Rebecca’s very much an East Coast Jew, so many parts of her are based on [Brosh McKenna], who grew up in New Jersey, went to Harvard, very very very Type A”), but in the character of Greg (Santino Fontana). A darkly witty alcoholic bartender who falls for Rebecca’s morbid intelligence after growing up surrounded by blissed-out surfer bros and yogis, Greg “is me in many aspects,” admits Bloom. The rest of the West Covinians, she says, are roughly based on the kids who used to bully her. I stop her to clarify: She made a show that smiles kindly upon the people that made her childhood hell? “Yes,” she says. “Though I have to say, in the past year and a half that I’ve been doing this show, which is really about Southern California, I now understand what the mind-set was of the people I grew up with. They were like, ‘Hey man, just, like, take it one day at a time.’ I feel like I’m more California now that I’ve gotten mental health.”
Bloom is referring to the anxiety, depression, and OCD that have plagued her, on and off, since she was a kid. She's written and spoken about it at length, and tells me she first saw a therapist while working toward a musical-theater degree at NYU; her high school and college years included "a lot of sleep-deprived days not knowing who I was or what I wanted." Her most recent bout took place when she began writing the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend pilot and got engaged to now-husband Dan Gregor in the same year. “It felt like, all this is mine to lose,” she recalls. “When you have anxiety, it’s anxiety about anxiety, so it was like, ‘This anxiety is going to ruin my life, and whenever I think about my husband I’m going to have this anxiety.’ The snake eats its tail.” Bloom wrote that specific period into the show. “There’s a scene where Rebecca looks up [and says], ‘How long can a person go without sleep?’ That was me. And because the show is a deconstruction of a stereotype, of that person who’s going to move across the country to chase a man — she’d be mentally troubled, in a realistic lens. The rom-com version is, ‘She’s sad and has cats.’ The realistic version is, ‘This person is seriously depressed.’”
Meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy, and a willingness to engage in a “long growth period” helped Bloom get a handle on her mental health. She now abhors the romantic notion that anxiety or depression inspire better art. “It’s had very little to do with my art,” she says. “Because as I was getting better as a writer, I was letting all these other things kind of fall to the wayside.”
Destroying romantic notions is kind of Bloom’s thing, as it turns out. Unlike the relatively wish-fulfilling conclusion to the first season, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s second season finale signals a new, overarching grimness that Bloom says has been the plan all along. “Aline’s written rom-coms [including The Devil Wears Prada], and I’ve always been a fan of Disney and classic musicals, these Western idealizations of love: romantic love, obsession, the culmination of happily ever after. So we’ve always been interested in taking the piss out of that,” she says.
Appropriately, then, Bloom says that the template for the show isn’t, say, Felicity or Sex and the City — Bloom hasn’t seen the former, and she still thinks it was “very socially irresponsible” for Carrie to end up with Big — but the moral crumbling of the blue-meth boys of Breaking Bad. “The show’s not called ‘Sane Lady Who Has It All Figured Out.’ We really loved the idea of exploring a person who’s never really sought happiness, only what other people have wanted from her. There’s a certain amount of evolving that needs to happen in order for her to get at the core of what’s making her unhappy,” she says. “That’s what the show’s always been: Someone having a complete breakdown, understanding why that’s happening — and only when she really has that breakdown can she build herself up.”
Bloom stands up abruptly. “I’m going to use the bathroom.” She returns a few minutes later, and I compliment her sunglasses, as well as the fact that she kept them on in the dark restroom. “They’re my husband’s dead grandma’s glasses that I had re-lensed,” she says. “I just love them.” I joke that I would’ve stolen them from her had she left them on the table. “Well, you’ll have the spirit of a Holocaust survivor on to you now,” she says calmly.
“Is there a class I missed on how to be a normal person?” Bloom is sitting in the conference room of the fake law firm of Whitefeather and Associates, where Rebecca occasionally works but mostly just plots various acts of subterfuge with her best friend and coworker Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin). Bloom, dressed in one of Rebecca’s many LOFT-esque work dresses, is typing furiously on a laptop, feet propped up on the conference table, alternately mouthing and singing the lyrics to a song she’s writing for Episode 12. Jack Dolgen and Adam Schlesinger, who co-write the show’s songs with Bloom, sit on either side of her, offering up suggestions and critiques. Every few minutes, a crew member comes in and gently requests Bloom’s presence, and she hops up from the table and runs into the office’s main room, where she’s filming a brief scene with Champlin for Episode 11.
Bloom spends a minimum of 12 hours a day, five days a week, in this exact sort of situation, pulled back and forth between playing a woman losing her mind and trying not to lose her own. Just watching her navigate acting, writing scripts, writing songs, negotiating production decisions, and, at one point, deliberating a smoothie order, makes my head spin. Whenever she appears deeply invested in her laptop, I creep around the set, asking her co-stars how she handles it all without falling over the edge.
Pete Gardner, who plays Rebecca’s boundaryless bisexual boss Darryl, says that he was initially certain Bloom was going to “totally lose it.” “But she never did,” he says, still visibly impressed. “She never freaked out. And I think it’s because this is totally her jam. This is her wheelhouse. It’s a lot of work — so I can’t imagine it’s always fun-fun — but it’s what she loves.”
Bloom’s own lack of boundaries go a long way toward making the entire set unusually lighthearted. Gardner recalls that, during his audition, he bungled the name of a city and worried he’d blown it. “But Rachel was like, ‘Just go for it! Don't even worry about it.’ So as soon as she said that, I just let go. I could see in her eyes she was totally hungry to improvise. There was no sense of, like, ‘Do it right.’ Even today, when we’re doing stuff, she still has that energy.” The flip side of this freewheeling is that Bloom has a tendency to drift off into the ether at a moment’s notice. “Sometimes she’ll be in the middle of a conversation, and she’ll look off to the left, and you’ll continue a sentence or two, and you’re like, ‘She’s not here anymore. She just left,’” laughs Gardner.
This particular song Bloom’s writing today, called “(Tell Me I’m Okay) Patrick,” will end up being sung by a strung-out Rebecca to a delivery guy named Patrick (played by Seth Green). At this point in the season, Rebecca is, understandably and visibly, experiencing that aforementioned breakdown: She’s just made out with her hot-but-alt-right-y boss Nathaniel (Scott Michael Foster) in an elevator, and, desperate to paper over her panic, decided to plan and execute a shotgun wedding to Josh in a mere two weeks.
As she types, Bloom’s trying to explain to her co-writers that the song isn’t about mental health, not exactly. “No pressure, but my life is in your hands / No pressure, but now you’re responsible for me?” suggests Schlesinger. “I don’t wanna say she’s gonna kill herself,” says Bloom. “Can’t it just be like, ‘Tell me I’m okay, Patrick / No pressure but I really need to know’?” replies Schlesinger. “Yeah, sure — ‘I realize your occupation is not psych evaluation / But just this once Patrick, give it a go!’” she sings, fingers typing in time with her voice. “Hm. ‘Psych’ makes sense, but I don’t want it to be medical. She just wants gentle validation.”
The song, in its final form, includes that “gentle validation” line, and is a season highlight — a surreal woman-on-the-verge ballad during which, at one point, a delivery box plays a piano. The off-the-rails bridge, which got the most laughs during the on-set brainstorm, makes it in: “Seriously, Patrick, was I sick the day in school they taught you how to be a normal person?” pleads Bloom to a horrified Green. “Is there an instruction manual, or ...? Patrick, tell me what the secret is. Is there a manual? Do you have the manual?! I know you have the manual, Patrick. I know it’s in your truck, Patrick!!!"
The existence of a Normal Person Manual has been a fantasy of Bloom’s own, as she puts it, “since birth.” Despite the fact that her success has hinged largely on her inclination to sing about period sex on national television, she tells me she’s never fully let go of that childhood desire to blend in — a verboten statement in the era of the Real Girl. “Like Rebecca, I never felt normal growing up. I want to feel normal. I want to feel like a wife. I want to do these societal things,” she says. “So it’s this kind of need to be normal, but also understanding and deconstructing what that normalcy is.”
Perhaps in an effort to help her viewers do the same, Bloom slams through the guardrails that traditionally separate an actor from their audience, the Real Girls from the real Real Girls (the anxious, the condiment-ad-sensitive, the women for whom her show is a soothing reflecting pool). It’s something she does seemingly not by choice as much as by irrepressible nature. “I get messages — I actually am behind on checking my Facebook messages — every day,” she says when I ask about the response Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has gotten from younger fans. “It’s not so much girls talking about men, but more like people who I can see they’re depressed, or LGBT [youth] being like, ‘Darryl’s story line is so important,’ or ‘I feel like Rebecca. I feel upset and out of place.’”
I ask if she replies to the messages, and she gives another typically honest answer. “I just don’t have time,” she says. “I have an automatic message that comes up on my Facebook that’s like, ‘Thank you for your message. I will try to read them all. I may not have time to respond.’” I wonder about the toll all of this takes on her, if she feels an added responsibility or fear knowing she’s speaking to an audience of young Rachels. “No, not fear,” she says. “I’m very familiar with it, so I’m not afraid. I’m imagining myself watching the show. It opens me up, definitely, to vulnerability. But it’s a show that’s very personal to me, and art’s an emotional exchange, so I want to acknowledge that.”
We’ve been talking for almost two hours, and I tell Bloom she should feel free to take advantage of a rare day off and commence consuming mass quantities of beer. But rather than stand up from the table, she starts asking me more questions. Who else am I interviewing in Los Angeles? Where am I staying? Is that Mandy Patinkin on my phone background? Do I want to hear a funny story about how, when she met Mandy Patinkin at an Emmys party, he successfully convinced her not to smoke that cigarette, because she was “too talented to ruin herself”?
Before she finally heads out the door, I ask Bloom if she’s worried that the bleaker, meth-lab-inspired third season will alienate fans. “Of course,” she says. “But it’s the way to make the show good. We’ve been offered this opportunity, the likes of which we’ll never get again in our lifetimes, to make this ambitious musical television show on a fucking broadcast network. All we can do is write the show we want to write. Trying to do what pleased other people is not what got us to this place.”