“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” Midseason Finale

Since the premiere of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” ’s premiere on the CW back in October, star Rachel Bloom (“Robot Chicken”) has consistently proved her knack for singing, writing and acting in one of this year’s best new shows. By infusing witty original songs into its musical comedy genre, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” explores the imaginative mind of Bloom’s character, Rebecca Bunch. So far in the first season, Rebecca has grown from an unhappy, overworked New York lawyer into a more emotionally involved character in West Covina, Calif. She clearly still denies many of her actions, constantly repressing how she moved to the West Coast just to be with her high school summer fling Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III, “Hostages”). Regardless of her motives, Rebecca’s underlying neurosis and her quest for happiness builds a strong foundation within the show. This past week’s mid-season finale, “My Mom, Greg’s Mom and Josh’s Sweet Dance Moves!” feeds viewers another round of strong character development and musical numbers in a typically pleasant fashion.

The holiday theme of the episode plays out nicely, but for Rebecca and Co., the holidays are far from nice: Rebecca receives a visit from her domineering single mother (Tovah Feldshuh, “Flesh and Bone”) for Hanukkah, in hopes of mending the boiling tension between the two; Greg (Santino Fontana, “Frozen”) dreads spending time with his mother (Mel Harris, “Thirtysomething”), who left him and his dad when Greg was young; Josh yearns for the glory days of being a kid at Christmas (who wouldn’t?). While these characters cope with their problems during The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” showcases their situations as a vehicle for their growing self-awareness.

Since the pilot, Rebecca’s strained relationship with her mother has been slowly building to a climax — their tense interactions only shown through flashbacks, a phone call and a brief FaceTime chat. But now that Rebecca’s mother makes a complete appearance, we see their dynamic in action. In her first grand entrance, Mrs. Bunch belts out the episode’s first musical number “Where’s the Bathroom?” where she makes rapid-fire critiques about Rebecca’s home, taunts her physical appearance and inquires about her sexual orientation. Through her fast-paced delivery, Mrs. Bunch’s overbearing personality and critical behavior toward Rebecca become evident, and the song clearly reflects Rebecca’s harsh upbringing.

Following Mrs. Bunch’s formal introduction, Rebecca does everything she can to impress her disparaging mother. She lies about how she works at a refined law firm and how her best friend is a stuffy British woman, played by Rebecca’s actual best friend and confidant Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin, “The Good Wife”). Though Rebecca’s “mom-pleaser” attitude may be a gag in the episode, her constant attempts to win her mother’s approval unveils a deeper, much more psychologically troubling truth. Coupled with her depression, Rebecca might be tackling reactive attachment disorder. Rebecca explicitly admits to her “mom-pleasing” ways, yet she perpetually lies to her mother about her work life and friendships simply because she still aches for the approval she has always wanted.

In contrast to Rebecca, Greg embodies the opposite — a “mom-hater,” if you will. He reluctantly goes to visit his mother, whom he calls by her first name “Shawna” and brings along Rebecca’s neighbor Heather (newcomer Vella Lovell) for support. Much to Heather’s surprise and Greg’s dismay, Shawna and her “privileged” family are genuinely welcoming people. But instead of acknowledging how thoughtful and caring his mother is, Greg continues to resent her, solely because she abandoned him and his father. Greg has too much pride in recognizing his mother’s kindness, whereas Rebecca has too much anxiety in overcoming her mother’s coldness.

Of course, Rebecca and Greg eventually learn from their mistakes; Greg accepts his mom and her generosity to spend time with him and Rebecca accepts her mom as well, though she still doesn’t see how her mother continues to deprive her of happiness. The only small flaw within the midseason finale is Josh’s subplot. It’s oddly short and primarily used to connect with the last sequence of the episode: Josh’s yearning to celebrate Christmas as a kid is fulfilled when he rejoins his old high school breakdancing crew at West Covina’s annual Winter Wonderland event. This, however, leads into the second musical number, “California Christmastime,” which is equally hilarious, campy and clever.

After eight spectacular episodes, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” ends its mid-season finale on a high note. Though it isn’t the best of the season, it deftly ties together three subplots, two refreshing musical numbers and one charming protagonist — making for an overall emotionally satisfying episode.

Grade: B+


“Saints & Strangers”

There’s nothing that says Thanksgiving like watching a dramatic reenactment of the date that inspired the holiday. If you know a thing or two about American history, the story of Thanksgiving isn’t exactly one of celebration and gratitude. In fact, the pilgrims who sailed the Mayflower faced rough living conditions and conflict with the Native Americans before and after the first Thanksgiving harvest. National Geographic’s two-part miniseries, “Saints & Strangers,” provides the audience with a bleak retelling of these events. Because it uses a period drama formula, “Saints & Strangers” isn’t particularly refreshing or insightful. However, the miniseries captures the gritty realism of the battle for survival between the natives and pilgrims. Even though the show draws from textbook facts and gravitas in order to sensationalize Thanksgiving’s origins, the story is strengthened by dark visuals, fine acting and a chilling score.

Set in 1620, the first episode follows devout Englishman William Bradford (Vincent Kartheiser, “Mad Men”) and his harrowing journey on the Mayflower to the New World. Along with Bradford and his hapless wife Dorothy (Anna Camp, “True Blood”), the Plymouth pilgrims seek refuge in America from religious persecution in Europe. Once they reach a soon-to-be Cape Cod, Bradford and the rest of his crew (Ron Livingston, “Office Space”; Ray Stevenson, “Thor”; Michael Jibson, “Les Misérables”) start building a community, only to run into trouble with the Wampanoag tribe, led by the dubious Massasoit (Raoul Trujillo, “Sicario”) and his emissary Squanto (Kalani Queypo, “Slow West”). The second part, set a year later, delves deeper into the growing tensions between the tribe and the pilgrims, with hostility increasing on both sides. Despite several faults within the storytelling, “Saints & Strangers” succeeds in other aspects.

While both parts of “Saints & Strangers” are lengthy, the sequences in each are briskly paced (the ride on the Mayflower only lasts for 22 minutes of the first part). Kartheiser’s impeccable performance as Bradford stands out among the rest of the cast’s performances, embodying a real-life figure coming to terms with loss, death, faith and survival in 17th century America. The same goes for Queypo’s fierce portrayal as Squanto, who also struggles to maintain stability in his life when his land and people are colonized. Both characters carry the plot along, as they fight for themselves and their fellow kinsmen while seeking to mediate a peaceful coexistence with one another. In order to accentuate the gloomy aesthetics of “Saints & Strangers,” composers Hans Zimmer (“Inception”) and Lorne Balfe (“Terminator: Genisys”) infuse an intense score with somber strings and ominous drums. Yet even with all of its redeeming qualities, “Saints & Strangers” is missing an edge that could distinguish itself from other historical dramas.

Whether or not the events depicted in “Saints & Strangers” are inaccurate or offensive, the story is made to feel very one-sided. The two monikers in the miniseries’ title indicate a type of prejudicial separation, with the Native Americans being marked as the “strangers” and the pilgrims as the “saints.” Granted, the writers of the miniseries probably took some dramatic liberties in order to make the story more gripping for television. But instead of humanizing both perspectives of the natives and pilgrims, the miniseries plays by strictly historical means. The natives are portrayed as cunning, vengeful “savages,” whereas the pilgrims come off valiant and righteous. It seems as though the pilgrims aren’t given as harsh of a treatment as the natives, despite laying their foundation onto an already occupied land and taking away resources from the natives. Perhaps white privilege doesn’t just exist in the realm of “Saints & Strangers,” but within the writing of it as well.

Given its historical relevance though, “Saints & Strangers” does a mostly adequate job of reproducing the characters and events during the first Thanksgiving. But even with its dramatic take on an iconic American event, the miniseries could have a more compelling twist had the natives been depicted in a more sensitive light. If you’re a history buff, “Saints & Strangers” can be captivating to watch. But if you’re not, then it may read like any normal high school history textbook brought to life.

Grade: B