Over the last several years, musical television has achieved a kind of quiet ubiquity. Here in the era of “Peak TV,” a series like Empire can reach a level of cultural importance that defines generations of entertainment. Shows like Nashville, NBC’s ever-growing stable of lavish productions like The Wiz Live!, and even HBO’s failed Vinyl are all working with the same basic expectation: people will show up for stories told through song.
Though the musical-as-TV-show (or even just the TV show about music) has been around for decades, Glee might have been the modern standard bearer for a particular kind of musical TV. It did something special: underneath the bright colors and syrupy pop covers, there was a deep well of very relatable pain drawn from the high school experience. Now, more than a year after its cancellation, new musical series like the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Netflix’s new The Get Down are coming into their own while advancing what Glee did so well at its best. Both series tell their stories with music and extraordinary performances. Both series grapple with startlingly dark, human problems while asking the viewer to stay hopeful for the future.
On the surface, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and The Get Down couldn’t be more different. The former is a deceptively lightweight rom-com about a high-powered New York lawyer who, after meeting her summer camp ex on the street, promptly has a nervous breakdown and decides to follow him to California in order to find true love and happiness. The latter is Moulin Rouge! director Baz Luhrmann’s mythic retelling of the birth of hip-hop, with its ensemble coming up against gang violence, the drug trade, and the despair of late-1970s New York City on their way to pioneering a new art form. Their objectives and ambitions exist on entirely different wavelengths, but the way they employ musical numbers is tellingly similar. The Get Down and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are speaking the same language Glee always did: that life’s hardships too often come from our differences. However, these new shows deepen that thesis by honing in on the hardships experienced by women and people of color beyond high school and in the real world.
'The Get Down' and 'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend' wrestle with hardship just like 'Glee' did
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a full-throated satire of the romantic comedy genre. Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) is smart, driven, and hopelessly in love. She goes to great lengths to win the heart of her attractive but fairly dull ex Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), despite the inconvenience of Josh’s live-in girlfriend Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz). Meanwhile, her friend Greg (Santino Fontana) is the good guy waiting for her to wake up and fall in love with him. The series delightfully sends up these tropes through numbers like "The Sexy Getting Ready Song," which mocks what women are expected to put up with for a first date. (Or just being out in the world.)
This is the kind of winking yet pointed commentary that makes the show so effective. Traditional romantic comedies often trade in destructive ideas about what women should do for love, and the show spends time slowly dismantling them through its over-the-top performances. But Rebecca herself sings because she’s wrestling with the effects of those romantic comedies on her own well-being. Her escape from New York to find happiness in Josh’s arms is a fool’s errand, and a part of her knows it despite her hopes. She breaks into song when her expectations run up against reality. But rather than make you root for her "getting her man," much of the comedy comes from the audience’s knowing that she probably can’t succeed and will need to figure out some other way to be happy.
The Get Down isn’t a satire or comedy, but like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend it isn’t so much escapist as it is about escape. Set in 1977, the story follows Ezekial "Zeke" Figuero (Justice Smith) and his crew of friends as they try to make their names in and outside the South Bronx. Zeke, a poet who discovers a gift for emceeing, is in love with Mylene Cruz (Herizen F. Guardiola), who dreams of becoming the next Donna Summer. Their romance and personal aspirations are tinged by the darkness of the world they’re living in. Hip-hop and disco serve as means of escape for them and their peers, and the music and the score are used to both accentuate the era’s problems and distract the characters from it. Luhrmann, already so well-known for his sumptuous (if messy) style as a director, manages to turn a blighted New York City into a kind of glorious ruin, steeped in danger and wonder. But the suffering is real, and in the midst of the mythmaking, there’s footage to show that the South Bronx really was hell on Earth in 1977, with burning buildings, crime, and murder serving as a constant reminder that the cast’s desire to leave their surroundings for a world only white folks tend to see was real and desperate. Nearly 40 years of progress later and that desire still resonates.
The Get Down still feels like a traditional musical — there are plenty of crowd-pleasing moments, and its characters’ highs and lows tend to be set to song and dance. But it and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are both subtly advancing the form. Each show’s musical numbers show the characters struggling against their respective world’s problems, but with few tangible solutions in sight. That's evident in where the songs take place, in the real world or in the characters’ heads.
Both shows subtly advance the traditional musical
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, as sunny as its outlook is, is filled with grown children dealing with internalized misogyny, abandonment issues, sour marriages, and squandered potential. An entire song is devoted to Rebecca conflating her infatuation with Josh with her need for mental help. Since Rebecca and her friends are often helplessly trying to map their fantasies onto reality, most of the show’s showstoppers take place in their imaginations. The Get Down, on the other hand, turns legend into reality, justifying the protagonist’s hopes, dreams, and thrills. The season’s first major arc ends with a triumphant DJ battle for Zeke and his crew while Mylene becomes a burgeoning disco sensation. Their victory is a real one, and it’s meant to feel Earth-shaking. But the audience is never allowed to forget that disco eventually died; that the South Bronx in ‘77 (like so many inner cities in the present day) is still dangerous and disenfranchised; and that Zeke may end up being the only one of his peers to make it out and tell his story. Neither show would have us believe that the problems they present are easily solved. They’re part of the fabric of life, and are deeply felt in the music.
Nevertheless, these are both incredibly hopeful shows. With lyricism and sheer production values, they both tackle problems of the day while still giving into the joy that comes with belting out a chorus. And even as they deal with deeper issues, they both invite the audience to smile and sing along. That’s powerful, and makes both shows meaningful and eminently watchable. Glee created a template for that, and it quickly became a cultural phenomenon. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and The Get Down both build on that template to make something greater. Hopefully, these new shows will enjoy the same popularity.