It would be weird to call an episode of a show that has only been on the air for one and a half seasons “vintage Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” but that’s exactly what “Who’s the Cool Girl Josh is Dating?” manages to be. Valencia is back, Heather is snarky, Paula’s having marital problems, and Rebecca is merrily scheming away, this time investigating Josh’s new eyebrow salon-owning girlfriend Anna Hicks (Brittany Snow). Even the episode’s primary musical number—an elaborately-detailed song about cyberstalking your ex-lover’s new squeeze—is right in the show’s strike zone: it has viral potential due to the universality of the topic, but it’s still germane to the plot of the episode. (The line about trawling through your ex’s new mate’s relationship photos on Facebook “deducing who broke up with who based on the hesitation in your smiles” is exactly the kind of twisted genius we’ve come to expect from this writers’ room.) So while Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is not exactly a formulaic show, this episode is as close to a template as it gets.
That’s both good and bad at this point of the series. Josh has been in the background for so many episodes running and, while it’s still mostly believable that he would still have a hold over both Rebecca and Valencia, it’s getting harder to buy into his presence in West Covina as the series’s central mechanic for motivating the characters. Every episode since day one has had the word “Josh” in the title—as a matter of convention, probably—but the longer the show goes on, the more it has grown into an ensemble comedy and the more strain it has put on its original premise. Sure, Josh works just fine as a way to get these characters moving. Rebecca’s obsessed with him and Valencia wanted to marry him a few months ago. And together, their madcap adventure—which involves accidentally running over Anna’s cat’s tail, investigating her salon as a potential drug front, and then trying to delete the security footage—is a great, if well-worn, sitcom plot. But just as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend swapped out its season one theme song for a number that was more reflective of what the series has become, at some point Josh will have to get booted out of the narrative structure of each episode.
That minor complaint aside, this episode showcases exactly how much Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s cast has grown since those vintage days. The Rebecca-Valencia pairing has been through so many iterations—first enemies, briefly friend crushes, then reluctant allies—but it has consistently been one of the show’s most generative. Rachel Bloom and Gabrielle Ruiz are terrific together, as usual, and it’s a shame that they’ve been kept apart by their characters’ rivalry for so much of the series to date. And Paula’s story—taking place largely in its own corner as it has for several episodes this season—is, as the kids say, almost too real. It might be impossible to find a more honest depiction of the struggles of a married, professional mother-of-two on television than Paula’s arc this season, which has so far involved going back to school, having an abortion, managing the breakdown of a best friendship, and struggling to be there for her husband. Donna Lynne Champlin and Steve Monroe (who plays Scott) have brought incredible depth to their performances this season, and Monroe’s delivery of the line “I don’t care whose fault it is; I just feel bad right now” is just stunning. (He’s also a great barbershop singer, apparently.)
Ultimately, this is classic season one Crazy Ex with a serious layer of season two emotion piled on top. In other words, this episode is exactly what this show has always wanted to be—even if it has taken its time getting here. It’s the eternal struggle of any sitcom to figure out how to stay true to its formulas while still allowing its characters to grow. But “Who’s the Cool Girl Josh is Dating” is a lesson in how to do just that.
May Saunders is a professional dog walker living in Minneapolis and an occasional freelance writer. In her spare time, she enjoys hanging out with her cat, who does not need to be walked. Follow her on Twitter.