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Throwback Throwdown: Who Is the Crazier Ex-Girlfriend -- Rebecca Bunch or Diane Chambers?

By Michael Salfino & Cara Salfino | TV | March 2, 2017 |

By Michael Salfino & Cara Salfino | TV | March 2, 2017 |

Publisher’s Introduction: This is a new column, where a father and daughter — from different generations, obviously — compare and contrast pop culture from their respective eras over email.

From: Michael Salfino Date: Tue, Feb 21, 2017 at 12:59 AM
Subject: Diane Chambers vs. Rebecca Bunch Throwback Throwdown
To: “Cara Salfino

This is the golden age of television’s golden age with just about every classic show in history available via streaming. But the drawback is that there are just too many choices and you end up watching nothing. I’m embarrassed to even estimate the total time I’ve spent searching through a queue of seemingly endless options, unable to settle on any one thing to actually watch.

But I’ve thought of a way to rectify that while getting out of that comfortable loop of just rewatching shows that bring my past alive and provide a warm, soft wave of nostalgia. It occurred to me when you successfully persuaded your mother to watch Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. My first thought when I heard the title was, “Sam and Diane.” This wouldn’t mean anything to you though. This part of television’s past would be as lost to you as its present often is to me. But what if we bridged the generational gap by finding the antecedents to modern shows? Maybe that provides both a framework for a deeper dive and a more structured way for each of us to expand our cultural horizons.

So let’s start here with a Throwback Throwdown. Who is the crazier ex-girlfriend: Rebecca Bunch or Diane Chambers? Cheers ran for 11 years and only five of them featured Sam and Diane’s usually frustrated romance. It overwhelmed a show that was originally conceived to be more about a family of people at a bar. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend just runs with this idea. Let’s base our verdict on a handful of episodes for each show. Cheers ran half hour show so I’ll choose four Sam and Diane episodes versus three for me of your choice for CEG (I’ll skip the songs…. Just kidding!) My picks from the ridiculously expansive Cheers catalog: “Just Three Friends” (Season 2, Episode 11), “Behind Every Great Man” (Season 3, Episode 19) “Strange Bedfellows, Part 3” (Season 4, Episode 26), “Chambers vs. Malone” (Season 5, episode 13). Of course, a part of our analysis will be who is it crazier to be so attracted to: Sam Malone or Josh Chan?

From: Cara Salfino
Date: Thu, Feb 23, 2017 at 5:58 PM
Subject: Re: Diane Chambers vs. Rebecca Bunch Throwback Throwdown
To: Michael Salfino

After watching Cheers for the first time, I’d definitely say that it’s crazier to be attracted to bumbling surfer dude Josh Chan than to the always smart and snarky Sam Malone (even taking into account Danson’s more goofball moments that we see in “Behind Every Great Man”). As far as who the crazier ex-girlfriend is, I’m going to stand by Rebecca Bunch. The premise, after all, hinges on exploiting the trope of the crazy ex-girlfriend (a concept that brings to mind characters like Diane, though she is far from one dimensional), and bringing in someone with legitimate mental health problems — true crazy, rather than Hollywood crazy, despite what levity the musical numbers may bring.

CEG crafts a show that can be both slapsticky comedy at some points and while also existing as a true character exploration of someone that show creator and star Rachel Bloom called “profoundly disturbed.” Here are my picks for episodes that give you the best sense of just who Rebecca Bunch is (and how seriously they’re taking the term “crazy” in the title): “Josh Just Happens to Live Here!” (Season 1, Episode 1), “I’m So Happy That Josh Is So Happy!” (Season 1, Episode 7) and “Josh Has No Idea Where I Am!” (Season 1, Episode 15) — although the season 2 finale, “Can Josh Take A Leap Of Faith,” was heavily considered to make the list, if only for the final few minutes of the episode.

Let me know what you think!

From: Michael Salfino
Date: Fri, Feb 24, 2017 at 8:54 PM
Subject: Re: Diane Chambers vs. Rebecca Bunch Throwback Throwdown
To: Cara Salfino

Man, things got dark. After reading what you wrote I felt watching these episodes like a Shyamalan audience after the plot twist has been revealed. The vibe was less screwball comedy and more Flight of the Conchords meets Fatal Attraction.

My verdict is that Rebecca Bunch is crazier than Diane Chambers — but in ways more sad than funny.

But am I being too cynical in thinking the showrunners and Bloom want to have it both ways? They get the screwball nostalgia that indeed was a trope even back when Sam and Diane mined it on Cheers a generation ago. And they also can deflect any criticism arising in an age where we are (thankfully) sensitive to mental illness and measure the extent to which female characters engage each other only on the subject of men (the Bechdel test), which CEG would fail miserably.

Crazy has always been funny. Lucy Ricardo (I Love Lucy) was certifiably psychotic in her relentless thirst for her husband’s entertainer’s spotlight. Major Nelson (I Dream of Jeannie) and Darrin Stephens (Bewitched) were nuts to NOT want to indulge their enchanted paramours. Hot Lips Houlihan and Major Burns probably met several clinical thresholds in 1970s’ “M*A*S*H” even before Hawkeye Pierce had a genuine breakdown (spoiler alert and, also, not at all funny). Post-Cheers, in which Diane was briefly institutionalized, the entire cast of Seinfeld could have many of their countless hijinks offered as proof of profound mental illness.

But we don’t want to kill comedy. I can’t imagine Crazy Ex-Girlfriend show runners are going to more substantively address her mental illness. Not to sound like Josh from Big here but, “What’s fun about that?” Where do you see this show going and what are you rooting for next season? Are there boiling bunnies in Rebecca’s future?

From: Cara Salfino
Date: Sun, Feb 26, 2017 at 1:38 PM
Subject: Re: Diane Chambers vs. Rebecca Bunch Throwback Throwdown
To: Michael Salfino

To consider CEG a typical screwball comedy is quite a stretch. However, I’d argue that the showrunners aren’t trying to have it “both ways” when it comes to screwball comedy vs. a serious show about mental health. Like other modern comedies (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt being the best example), CEG has worked mental health into the narrative of its comedy fairly seamlessly. In fact, the show would veer too far into the territory of sheer ridiculousness — even more so than it already does with the musical numbers — were it to lack the self awareness to address the serious health issues its main character is having. Unlike a show like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, whose cartoonish tone fits having characters blissfully unaware of their underlying problems, CEG has crafted a deeper narrative, without necessarily sacrificing humor in the process.

I’m not entirely sure what we’re rooting for in CEG. At different points I’ve rooted for Josh to escape the clasps of Rebecca, for Rebecca to somehow come to her senses and lead a life that isn’t defined by the men around her, for Greg to be with Rebecca, for Greg to also escape Rebecca. There are so many different neuroses wrapped up in the series to consistently root for any one character — except, of course, for White Josh and Daryl. They have my undying support.

As far as where I see showrunners — specifically Bloom — taking things in the next season, almost anything seems to be fair game. We’ve already seen the dark side of Rebecca Bunch in flashbacks and her season two finale vow to “destroy” Josh Chan seems ominous. I look forward to the means she’ll go through to do that, and how crazy they’ll end up being. Like the rest of the show, it will be surprising, musical and awash in sunny West Covina technicolor.

Dad Michael Salfino is a sportswriter most frequently for The Wall Street Journal, for which he also occasionally writes about movies. Daughter Cara is a college senior and private investigator. Though separated by decades of times and hundreds of miles of Mid-Atlantic geography, they still carve out quality time to discuss pop culture. This is their virtual Coffee Table.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.