Today we’re talking about everyone’s favorite trope to hate on: the love triangle. Love triangles in many modern stories have a bad reputation for being underdeveloped, prolonged for drama’s sake, or pulled from thin air to bring more attention to the series. The “shipping wars” that are generated within television shows and trilogies are easy ways to get a the product talked about, but it’s not always good storytelling. Fans are rife with frustration as the hype around love triangles is exploited as clickbait and reduced to hashtag battles. Of course, love triangles are not a new thing. They are older than The Iliad; they’re in the Bible. They’re found all over Shakespeare and pop up in almost every Dickens novel. What gives love triangles such a bad reputation recently is the place that they have taken in the larger narrative. OTPs in a world where audiences consume and tweet about their media simultaneously has changed the function of a love triangle in storytelling. And it’s a pity because I love a good high-stakes love triangle. They’re all over classic literature.
Back when marriage and relationships were about more than just love, picking your future partner was a communal effort. It’s a traditional use of the trope, but think about Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It was a high-stakes decision when Lizzy turned down Mr. Collins. She was risking financial security for potential spinsterhood, which would not just have affected herself but her whole family. Of course in the end she won that social status from Mr. Darcy, but the choice to refuse Mr. Collins held a lot more weight to readers of Austen’s age than it does for us. The problem with the setup and/or interpretation of most modern love triangles is that they focus on the feelings of the now instead of the potential impact a choice will make on the future. Many sloppy love triangles are patched up in the end with a “she picked him” scenario, as if all the characters had been presented a with a choice. Life isn’t that simple and these relationship are usually very messy.
Love triangles from classic literature tend to have higher stakes. Instead of just one life being affected by the results of the triangle, it is a whole community or family who will be affected. When I started to watch Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on The CW, I was prepared to be aggravated with the romance but bare it for the musical numbers. Instead, I found a love triangle that felt original but oddly familiar. It was a love triangle with ripple effects and social consequences, a triangle with a darkness beneath it. I started watching Rachel Bloom’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend last winter, and as I progressed, I realized the love triangle wasn’t urging me to pick a side, but rather it was making me think. CXG presents relationships and the expectations of love in our culture in a high-concept way that’s unusual for network tv. The high-stakes choices and heavy consequences in CXG make it the perfect setting for a really messy and realistic love triangle.
The plot of CXG seems relatively simple. Rebecca Bunch is a wealthy lawyer in New York, heavily medicated and lonely. She sees Josh Chan, a high school summer fling, on the streets of the city. He tells her he is moving back to his hometown of West Covina, CA, which he makes out to be paradise. After a near nervous breakdown, Rebecca quits her job and moves to West Covina. She dumps her medications down her garbage disposal, trying for a fresh start. Within the first week in California, Rebecca finds a confidante in her new coworker Paula and a foil in Josh’s best friend Greg. Rebecca tells herself and everyone she meets that she moved because of a job offer, but the audience (and Paula and Greg) all know she moved for Josh. Too bad Josh has a girlfriend. So what makes the love triangle between pessimistic Greg, clueless Josh, and exuberant Rebecca so timeless? What makes it different from the love triangles in other WB/CW television shows from Gossip Girls to Gilmore Girls? I’m going to compare the dark comedy of CXG to some of the most respected classics of the 19th century by Hardy, Austen, Eliot, and Trollope. By taking a deeper look at this overplayed trope, I will hopefully redeem the love triangle and shine some light on what can make these stories of tough choices and torn hearts so memorable.
Many a classic heroine has a “fast friend” character to prod her in the right (or wrong) direction. By the end of the pilot episode of CXG, Rebecca has found her cheerleader in her co-worker Paula. Paula quickly becomes the devil on Rebecca’s shoulder, encouraging her in her plan to steal Josh from his girlfriend, Valencia. In the classics, this friendship is made quickly and is usually leading the protagonist towards one of the love interests. “You’re not crazy, and you’re not stupid. You’re in love” Paula tells Rebecca (Season 1, Ep 1). Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) wrote several complex love triangle in his 1865 novel Can You Forgive Her?. One of my absolute favorite “fast friend” pairs is found in this novel. Protagonist Alice turns down the healthy choice of John Grey after being convinced by her cousin Kate Vavasor that he was wrong for her. Kate wants Alice to get back together with her brother George, so Kate arranges a tour of Switzerland where the pair can rekindle the romance.
Trollope writes that Kate “was determined that they two should be married, even though neither of them might be now anxious that it should be so. The intrigue itself was dear to her, and the success in it was necessary to her self-respect” (Trollope Ch 14). Paula’s obsession with Rebecca and Josh has a similarly obsessive undertone. Although it begins with an honest desire to see Rebecca happy, when Rebecca questions if Josh is actually the one for her, Paula refuses to accept it. “‘You can’t give up on Josh right now, you are so close! You can not give up, you have traction!’” Paula begs Rebecca (Season 1, Ep 16). Both Paula and Kate believe their conniving is for the greater good, but it is also partially for their own amusement and fulfillment. Kate complains to George, “‘I am moving heaven and earth to bring you two together!” while George claims he wishes she’d “leave heaven and earth alone” (Ch 45). Similarly, in a conversation between Paula and Rebecca, Paula says, “after everything I’ve done for you-” which Rebecca punctuations with “- which I didn’t ask for!” (Season 1, Ep 18). That scene goes on to have Paula sing out a list of things, from bribery to breaking and entering, which she has done in her efforts to see Josh and Rebecca together.
Kate and Paula’s desire to see their friend set up means they have to work against the competition. “I have long thought that Mr. Grey could not make you happy,” Kate writes to Alice. “It is no use saying that he is good and noble, and all that sort of thing. (…) He was not suited to you” (Ch 14). She truly does believe Alice would be better without Mr. Grey, that the life he could give her was not enough. Paula is similarly deadset against Greg for Rebecca throughout the whole love triangle. “‘I’m sorry, but you two are not good for each other’” Paula tells Rebecca (Season 2, Ep 4). This prejudice that the friend holds against the third angle of the triangle can be seen as very reasonable; Kate has a very convincing case against Mr. Grey. “There is a kind of nobility which is almost too good for this world,” she says of John Grey, who refuses to accept when Alice tries to reject him (Ch 14). “No woman wishes her dearest friend to marry a man to whom she herself is antipathetic” (Ch 14). Similarly, Paula fears that Greg’s personality is not good for Rebecca. “I like the guy, but he’s (…) completely shut down” (Season 1, Ep 17). Paula worries that Greg drinks too much, while Kate worries that John Grey spends too much time cloistered off. Both men are just a little too desperate to get the girl – a quality that Kate and Paula both pick up on. John Grey does “not take her [Alice] at her word” while Greg’s motif for half a season is “settle for me” (Ch 14; Season 1, Episode 4). Although the tactics which Kate and Paula use to manipulate the love triangle are questionable, they are also able to identify certain flaws that the protagonist can’t always see.
Though to be fair, the fast friends is too forgiving of the man they are trying to champion. Kate’s brother George can’t commit to a girl and parties too much. Josh cheats on his girlfriend and is easily manipulated. Both are sweet men who have a lot of growing up to do. Kate and Paula can’t see those flaws clearly – they are too blinded by their mission. In the end, Kate Vavasor sticks to her mettle, while Paula begins to see past the love triangle. But both burn some bridges before they can rebuild their friendships. This fast friend trope can be found in Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, as well as some other classics. There are many iterations of the best friend character in today’s novels and movies as well, but with a 313,411 word count, Trollope was able to give Kate the breathing space to be a woman in her own right. She has her own stories – in fact, half the novel is dedicated to her adventures apart from Alice. Similarly, Paula is also given her own full existence to deal with (recently, even an abortion storyline). It’s this complexity of character that is hard to find in the “friend” tropes of the 21st century.
In the opening scene of the pilot episode, we learn something about Rebecca and Josh’s families while they are being picked up from summer camp. Both of Josh’s parents come to get him – they get out of the car to welcome him, and he gives his mother a hug. Rebecca’s mother picks her up, but she doesn’t get out of the car. The audience doesn’t even see her face. Rebecca is an upper-class only child with divorced parents. Josh is middle-class with two sisters and loving parents. Although there is less emphasis put on it these days, to marry is to marry into a new family. In love triangles and love affairs of old, there was no separating the romance from the family. In Jane Austen’s (1775-1817) Sense and Sensibility (1811), family was of utmost importance to Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars. Edward had dreams of being a country parson, but his family had bigger plans for him. While discussing Edward’s future, Elinor’s mother jokes, “But how is your fame to be established? for famous you must be to satisfy all your family” (Austen Ch 16). Rebecca Bunch faces similar family pressures, with a mother who cares more about her career success than her daughter’s well-being. “I hope this isn’t like your little suicide attempt,” Naomi Bunch says to her daughter in a voicemail when she realizes Rebecca had turned down a job promotion (Season 1, Ep 1). Edward and his parents “never could agree in our choice of a profession” and the church “was not smart enough for [Edward’s] family” (Ch 19). Half of what draws Edward to Elinor, and Rebecca to Josh, is their family.
At the start of Sense and Sensibility, Edward is engaged to a Miss Lucy, a rather silly woman with a good family but no family money. He regrets his engagement to her but can’t break it without scandal. The engagement is a secret since his family would disapprove, though Lucy hopes to be “intimately connected” with them soon (Ch 22). Edward regrets his engagement not because Lucy is poor, but because she is not the family he wants to have. Lucy does not want to be the wife of a county parson. In Elinor’s close relationship with her mother and sisters and in her desire for a simple life, Edward sees something he has always craved. Edward feels close to all of the Dashwoods. At the end of the novel, once Edward has successfully gotten rid of Lucy and married Elinor, Austen writes, “Elinor’s marriage divided her as little from her family as could well be contrived” with “constant communication” (Ch 50). Edward is happy to abandon his family for Elinor’s, and finally is able to enter the church. It is this dream of simple family love that draws Rebecca Bunch in when she reconnects with Josh Chan. Rebecca’s parents are “super divorced” (Season 1, Ep 1). So are Greg’s. More of the same does not interest Rebecca. She wants what Josh has. Rebecca finds herself especially drawn to Josh’s mom, Lourdes Chan, who is completely charmed by Rebecca. “You’ve been such a good friend to the family,” she says, when Rebecca gets asked to be a bridesmaid in a family wedding (Season 1, Ep 16). Edward is similarly drawn into the Dashwood family not by Elinor but by her mother. Mrs Dashwood is just incredibly kind – something almost foreign to Edward. During a visit she says, “Know your own happiness. You want nothing but patience—or give it a more fascinating name, call it hope. Your mother will secure to you, in time, that independence you are so anxious for; it is her duty” (Ch 19). It is this kindness that Rebecca sees in Lourdes Chan.
Early on in Rebecca’s plan to steal Josh from his girlfriend Valencia, Rebecca identifies his family as her way in. The musical number “I Give Good Parent” shows Rebecca trying to use her Harvard degrees, her upbringing, and her career as leverage against Valencia, who works as a local yoga instructor. On Thanksgiving Rebecca sighs to herself, “Would I like to be surrounded by the unconditional love of a hundred Filipinos? Of course I would!” (Season 1, Ep 6). Rebecca and Edward Ferrars both have good social status on their side, as well as natural charm. While Edward is just blissfully happy to be enveloped in the Dashwood family, Rebecca tries to use her prestige to her advantage. “Valencia, you’re zip zilch and bupkis” Rebecca sings (Season 1, Ep 6). CXG does not shy away from firmly planting their characters into socio-economic groups, which complicates the story in a very 19th century way. Education and social mobility are main themes through the start of the second season. Although Rebecca is proud of her education and social status among the people of West Covina, what she wants are the relaxed comforts of a loving middle-class family. She’s just trying to use that education to get into the family – the “Chan fambam.” Of course from Josh’s parents’ point of view, Rebecca is a dream future daughter-in-law and definitely a step up from a yoga instructor.
It is rare for a show about adults to have so many parents with prominent roles. But Rebecca’s feelings of paternal abandonment are a recurring theme, which makes the parents all important characters. In a song from early season 1, the lyrics read, “We’ll help you understand the reasons why your mom made you sad / and why every man you date is just a stand-in for your dad” (Season 1, Ep 4). Rebecca doesn’t just want a boyfriend. She wants a family. Recently, when Greg decides to move from California, Rebecca uses the same language which she uses when speaking about her father. “Greg abandoned me! […] No, he did!” (Season 2, Ep 4). Greg’s father, Marco, also complicates the situations by disapproving of Rebecca. “You’re poison for each other. […] You have to know that” (Season 2, Ep 3). Through Rebecca’s relationships she is unable to see just the man (Greg or Josh) without her desire for security and love clouding them. Those dreams don’t quite line up with Greg’s small and sad family, but after being caught in the act of sabotaging Valencia, Josh’s dreamy family doesn’t quite accept her. To take it back to Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? for a moment, Alice finds herself in a similar situation, drawn to Kate and George Vavasor and the warmth that would come with marrying into that family she already loves. But John Grey’s quiet family gives Alice as a chance to begin again, and to start a family of her own with no ties. Alice ends up in John’s simple but well-bred family, leaving the smothering Vavasors behind. Edward Ferrars leaves his cold mother and snotty brother behind for the large and loving family of the Dashwoods. Whether the simplicity of the Serranos or the vivacity of the Chans will win Rebecca, we have yet to see.
Enough about families. There is more to love than that. What about sexually attraction? What about matching wits? Although there are many arranged marriages in 19th century literature, the best stories are still love stories. Despite the constraints on Victorian authors, many talked about sex as much as they could while still being decent. In Thomas Hardy’s (1840-1928) Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) sex is as present as possible for the time period. I fell in love with this novel from Hardy after being sorely disappointed by the sexist bullshit of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. As far as love triangles go, Far from the Madding Crowd is iconic. Bathsheba Everdene inherits a small estate and farm, and is completely determined to run it herself as mistress. In the opening chapters she meets Gabriel, a sheep farmer with a lot of land, from a slightly lower class. He proposes after only about a week’s acquaintance and she turns him down. They continue as neighbors, as she is courted by two other men – one the older and obsessive William Boldwood, the other a young flighty Sergeant Frank Troy. It’s a classic love triangle because each man offers something enticing – but none of them quite offers all three. Gabriel is a match to Bathsheba’s wits, they are equals and friends. William is older and more settled, so he can offer her the comforts many women of that time desired. Frank Troy offers sexual exploration and gratification. To spoil the novel quickly, Bathsheba marries Frank impulsively because he’s hot and nice, but he is a horrible husband. He dies not long after. As a widow she almost marries William, but in the end, of course, marries Gabriel. In our comparison to CXG, the character of William Boldwood is not really relatable. He was a product of the Victorian era, and it would be strange to see a modern woman almost marry a man simply for “security.” What I do see is a beautiful comparison between Greg and Gabriel.
Gabriel and Bathsheba get off on the wrong foot when she flirts with him and he takes it the wrong way. She offers him her hand after he does her a small favor. “’But I suppose you are thinking you would like to kiss it? You may if you want to.’ ‘I wasn’t thinking of any such thing,’ said Gabriel, simply; ‘but I will.’ ‘That you won’t!’ She snatched back her hand. Gabriel felt himself guilty of another want of tact. ‘Now find out my name,’ she said, teasingly; and withdrew” (Hardy Ch 3). Throughout the whole novel they have a fun repertoire that keeps the reader rooting for them. Rebecca similarly starts her relationship with Greg off on the wrong foot, by almost giving him a blowjob while crying, which I guess is the 21st century version of hand-kissing. She agrees to go on a date with him as a way to get closer to Josh, but it backfires. When Greg asks her out, he says the party would be, “like a date, cause you’re pretty and you’re smart and you’re ignoring me so you’re obviously my type” (Season 1, Ep 1). From the beginning they have chemistry. “He’s the sarcastic messed-up bartender who calls me out on my stuff, and I ignore him, but we have undeniable chemistry…” (Season 2, Ep 3). They’re intellectual equals, though Greg put his MBA dreams on hold for his father while Rebecca is a practicing lawyer. CXG plays with the differences between smarts and education in the dynamic between Rebecca and Greg. Similarly, Bathsheba and Gabriel are equal in many ways, but when turning down his initial marriage proposal she adds a rather rude “I am better educated than you” as a reason why they wouldn’t suit (Ch 4). Greg and Gabriel are good matches for Rebecca and Bathsheba, but their current life situations have forced them into a slightly lower class. Gabriel actually begins working for Bathsheba, helping to manage her farm, after he loses his livelihood. They remain intellectually but not socially equal. Bathsheba has yet to realize that they can be, and that she can share the burden of her responsibilities without betraying her independence.
Though Bathsheba can match wits with Gabriel, when she meets Frank Troy she find herself drawn to him in a primal way which leads to many foolish decisions. He flirts with her from their first meeting. “’And I would rather have curses from you than kisses from any other woman; so I’ll stay here.’ Bathsheba was absolutely speechless” (Ch 26). Bathsheba is so blinded by her attraction to him, that she marries him on an impulse. Their marriage is overshadowed by a secret in Frank’s past (which I do not need to get into) and the match comes to a bad end. In our 21st century CXG, no one is getting married on impulse, but Rebecca is drawn to Josh in a way that surpasses common sense. Josh is sweet (and to be fair, a better man than Frank Troy) yet he is no match for Rebecca. He doesn’t keep up with her the way Greg can. Still, she absolutely adores him, and there’s no accounting for common sense there. “Your skin glistened in the sunlight/all your moles a constellation on your chest” she sings to Josh while trying to win him (Season 1, Ep 10). Rebecca and Josh don’t have a long song together, but they do have one which goes, “we should definitely not have sex right now” while they continue to have sex (Season 2, Ep 1). One thing that bothers me a bit about CXG is how dumb Josh really is portrayed to be. It is played up for jokes, but sexual attractions aside, it is difficult to believe that a Harvard educated woman who collects trivia about the Triangle Waistshirt Factory fire and reads Roxane Gay would be content spending the rest of her life with a man who doesn’t know who Harper Lee is.
What Far from the Madding Crowd shows is that there is more than one way to be attracted to someone. When Bathsheba finally marries Gabriel, she does not do it with a lack ofenthusiasm. In fact, she needed the sexual awakening that Frank provided to help her understand her complex feelings toward Gabriel. In George Eliot’s (1819-1880) Middlemarch (1872) we see a slightly more complex version of this struggle with Dorothea Brooks. Dorothea marries the old Reverend Casaubon because she believes he will challenge her intellectually. She thinks, “here was a man who could understand the higher inward life, and with whom there could be some spiritual communion; nay, who could illuminate principle with the widest knowledge a man whose learning almost amounted to a proof of whatever he believed!” (Eliot Ch 2). But the marriage is a failure. There is implied to be no sex to speak of and Casaubon is a dull husband, providing none of the intellectual wit that Dorothea longed for. During her marriage she meets Will – a young relative of her husband’s – and in Will she finally finds her sexuality. Conveniently for Dorothea, Casaubon dies, and her love triangle is resolved without too much scandal. Dorothea has to learn that there is more than one way to be intellectually challenged. She wanted to be educated by Casaubon, but a relationship with man more her equal both in age and intelligence turns out to be much more rewarding and challenging. In CXG Josh and Greg both offer Rebecca something enticing. In early season 2, she even tried to find a way to have them both. But you can’t have two men. And though Frank and Casaubon conveniently died on their wives, I doubt Greg or Josh will go down that easily.
Many modern love triangles make their mistake when the relationships in question are resolved without any consequences. If a love triangle is a relationship between three or more flawed people, then there is even more room for bad behavior and miscommunication. Often within a traditional 19th century love triangle, one character is either postured as a villain or as a flawed hero, a pitiable mess of a character. Jane Austen loved resolving any triangles of hers by writing one character off a villainous man, inappropriate for her heroine. In Sense and Sensibility we see that with Elinor’s sister, Marianne and her rogue Willoughby. When her lover turns out to be “bad,” the overly romantic Marianne gets to “settle” for Colonel Brandon. CXG tries to bring more nuance into the love triangle by giving flawed hero status to all the characters. Rebecca, Greg, and Josh suffer from some fatal flaws that cause them to continually wreck their relationships, romantic and otherwise. Since CXG is trying to showcase mental illness in many different incarnations, it complicates character interactions and leaves a really wonderful ripple effect.
If you begin to peal the comedy away and really evaluate her actions, Rebecca is selfish and spaced-out. The show confronts this in the song “I’m a Villain in My own Story” in which Rebecca realizes what her actions look like to an audience, as well as in her anthem “You Stupid Bitch.” “These shards are metaphor for my soul / won’t stop the self-pity cause I’m on a roll. / Yes, Josh completes me but how can that be / when there’s no me left to complete” (Season 1, Ep 11). Overall, the show forgives her manic behavior because it falls under the umbrella of comedy. But Rebecca is the worst sort of romantic, so blinded by her conceptions of love that she can barely see Josh Chan for who he actually is. Marianne from Sense and Sensibility suffers from a similar blinding love brought on by an excess of romantic feelings, though she is significantly less manic than Rebecca. When Marianne first meets her first love Willoughby, she thinks, “his person and air were equal to what her fancy had ever drawn for the hero of a favourite story, […] Every circumstance belonging to him was interesting” (Austen Ch 9). Her love for Willoughby was all encompassing, and assisted by her overflowing personality. “Marianne spoke inconsiderately what she really felt” (Ch 18). Rebecca similarly can not praise Josh enough to anyone who will listen. “God, Josh is so nice [..] He was so warm and kind and understanding – I love him so much” (Season 1, Ep 9). But where Marianne is simply the victim of circumstance when Willoughby leaves her, Rebecca is capable of pulling out a much darker angle. It’s rare in classic literature for a heroine to become conniving in the name of love. One good example is in The Way We Live Now by Trollope, which I spoke about in my previous essay “Free to Be.” CXG goes there with Rebecca, refusing to allow her hyper-romantic personality to be passive. Instead, she breaks laws and other people’s relationships as she fights for her dream romance. Marianne is, by virtue of her personality, a hot mess, but Rebecca borders upon villainous. It’s a fun subversion of a traditional stereotype, and one that the show is obviously very proud of.
Greg also showcases a subversion of a traditional stereotype. Through the first season he is often shown to be drinking or drunk. “I don’t leave if there’s whisky leftover” he says at a party, tipsy (Season 1, Ep 4). Since drinking is so frequent on television these days, it was hard to pick up on until the end of the first season, but by the beginning of season 2, Greg is attending AA meetings. Drunken lovers is a massive trope throughout classic literature. George Vavasor, brother of Kate, lover of Alice, wins the girl away from the respectable John Grey, but not long into George and Alice’s engagement he begins to gamble and drink heavily. He is a neglectful lover and a lazy one. He started off as a flawed hero, but quickly falls into villain territory. Similarly, in Far from the Madding Crowd, once Frank Troy actually marries Bathsheba, he too begins to show his true colors. Frank and George are given much softer falls from grace than Willoughby is given by Jane Austen, but they are all complete failures as lovers. Bathsheba pleads to Frank, “Only such a few weeks ago you said that I was far sweeter than all your other pleasures put together, and that you would give them all up for me; and now, won’t you give up this one, which is more a worry than a pleasure?” (Hardy Ch 41). Thank God, Greg does not fall down this path. Instead he leaves. “We have chemistry of course / but that’s a formula for divorce” Greg sings to Rebecca in an airport scene (Season 2, Ep 4). The trajectory of their affair was messy and dangerous, so instead of risking ending up like his parents, Greg straight-up leaves. “Life doesn’t happen to you, you make decisions” he says to her as she asks him to stay (Season 2, Ep 4). Greg was on the path many classic flawed hero are on, but he stopped mid-downward-spiral and chooses to recover. CXG is trying to be more complex than the traditional love triangle, which allows Greg to be a bit of each stereotypical male suitor- a bit of the destructive Frank/George and a bit of the upstanding Gabriel/John. Aline Brosh McKenna, co-creator of the show said, “In real life, at some point, if you don’t learn that this is not a good idea, you become not a smart person. […] It didn’t make sense, since he’s such a smart guy, that he wouldn’t be learning from his lessons” (TV Line). It’s a heartbreaking departure for the show, but it’s also a brave move.
That leaves our last hot mess, Josh Chan. To give him his fair due, we will need to switch gears to another Austen novel, Emma (1815). Josh Chan is one of CXG’s biggest mysteries. Throughout the first season he was seen almost exclusively through Rebecca’s point of view. Only now has be begun to emerge as his own person, and I am not always liking what I see. Josh falls into the “nice guy” category. We are told that he is simple, kind, a good friend. But I think that there is a point where nice becomes almost malicious, and Josh crosses that line. In Emma we meet Frank Churchill. We are told he is simple, kind, a good friend. He is described as “a very good looking young man; height, air, address, all were unexceptionable, and his countenance had a great deal of the spirit and liveliness […]; he looked quick and sensible” (Austen Ch 5). He is an attentive friend to Emma, and she develops a crush on him. Turns out, Frank was secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax the whole time. The reader is scandalized that he flirted with Emma while engaged and questions his “nice guy” status. In CXG Josh knows that his girlfriend Valencia is jealous of Rebecca, he knows that his best friend Greg is into Rebecca, and still throws her nice and flirty compliments which feed her obsession. “I’m just so happy that you’re in town” he confides to her (Season 1, Ep 9). “Now I know you’ve always believed in me, you always support me and know who I am,” he says in front of a campfire one night (Season 1, Ep 10). The audience wonders whether Josh can really be so blind to Rebecca’s affection for him. I believe that Josh knows, but loves the attention. In season 2, they touch on the fact that he can’t be alone in the song “Thought Bubbles” (Season 2, Episode 5). In early season 1, Greg yells at Josh, “you’re Mr. Popular, you charm everybody – finally a new girl comes to town and surprise! You’ve already Chan’ed all over her!” (Season 1, Episode 9). Josh is used to being the center of attention and doesn’t want to lose Rebecca’s attentions. He ends up kissing her and eventually loses Valencia because of it. He tries to date Rebecca, but he doesn’t really like her. He just likes the attention. Frank Churchill doesn’t lose his fiancee Jane, although he comes close as she tires of sitting by watching him flirt with Emma, unable to defend herself. Classic literature is swarming with “nice guy” characters, including Fred Vincy from Middlemarch, who is described as a “buoyant-hearted young gentleman” (Eliot Ch 23) and Edward Ferrars from Sense and Sensibility with his behavior which “gave every indication of an open, affectionate heart” (Austen Ch 3). But Josh Chan shares a mean-streak with Frank Churchill which is still unfolding in the show. His flaws aren’t as flashy as “alcoholism” or “obsessive stalker behavior” but his selfishness and inability to set himself aside for others (even his girlfriend and best friend) shows a darker underside that I am excited to explore.
So here we are. Greg has gone to get his MBA in Atlanta. Josh has recently moved on to a new girl. Now what? What can classic literature tell us about CXG’s future, and what sort of end has been set up by the dynamic between Josh and Greg? In an early episode, Greg is postulated as a “healthy choice” and Rebecca agrees to go on a date with him. This episode boasts one of the show’s best musical numbers, “Settle for Me” in which Greg argues his case. “I know there’s another guy, you fancy more. So, even though I’m not the one you adore, why not… Settle for me. Darling, just settle for me. I think you’ll have to agree, we make quite a pair” (Season 1, Ep 4). At first the love triangle is set up in a traditional way, with Josh as the romantic dream option, and Greg as a more boring, comfortable choice. But, in classic CXG fashion, they try to turn that on its head when Rebecca begins a short affair with Greg, making us wonder if maybe Greg isn’t the “safe” choice after all, but actually a more challenging and rewarding option. “You’re not second choice anymore,” she says to him, without knowing whether she means it or not (Season 1, Ep 16). Then, in the next episode she sings, “Is there an IUD that can stop the image of you and me / getting married on a hillside surrounded by ducks / And then we get into a rowboat… Oh my God, I think I like you” (season 1, episode 17). There is no doubt a huge amount of maturing is needed on both sides before a relationship could be a rewarding option, but if Frank Churchill is our Josh, maybe Knightley is our Greg here. Knightley leaves Emma after a fight, goes to London to forget her. “He had gone to learn to be indifferent.—But he had gone to a wrong place” (Austen Ch 13). During the absence, there is a settling of emotions for Emma. She can see her own feelings more clearly, and when he returns she is finally ready to try. “Tell me, then” he asks her “have I no chance of ever succeeding?” (Ch 13). When Knightley comes back, Emma is by no means settling for him. Instead, she is ready to settle down with him. The difference is that in Emma only she needed the convincing. Knightley had been waiting for her. With Greg trying to go back to school, stay sober, and recover from the whiplash of a relationship with Rebecca, he isn’t ready yet.
Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? resolves in a similar way. Once Alice is disillusioned with George and all she thought he had to offer – there is John Grey. While she was engaged to another man John moved on. But when she reappears, he can’t help but offer himself again. “Alice, nothing has ever yet been done which need to a certainty separate you and me. I am a persistent man, and I do not even yet give up all hope. […] My heart is yours now as it has been since I knew you” (Trollope Ch. 36). John had physically removed himself from the scene, but emotionally he never stopped being invested in Alice. Alice has a painful road back to John, but the reader is assured that she does love him – even if it against her nature to do so. “The memory of John Grey’s last kiss still lingered on her lips. She had told herself that she scorned the delights of love” (Ch. 34). Alice wanted more out of life than the country manor that John can provide. So, in a sense she does settle. Not for the man, but for the lifestyle. Compared to her other options it is her best bet at happiness, and she finally accepts John. She needed to experience a little hurt, a little more of what London had to offer, before accepting and settling into a country existence. But the difference with CXG still stands – Greg left. Like, the actor (Santino Fontana) left the show. He isn’t lingering in the background, Greg isn’t biding his time. It seems almost unrealistic that a young, wealthy man like John would have held out so long for Alice. Maybe CXG is actually telling a more realistic story. As much as Greg loves Rebecca there might never be that redemption. His last words to her are “I won’t forget, I won’t regret, this beautiful, heartstopping, breathtaking, life-changing…” And he gets on a plane. Rebecca followed him to the airport, chased him down in a typical sitcom fashion, but he still left.
Far from the Madding Crowd ends like a romcom in the best way. When Gabriel proposes for the first time it goes like this: “But I love you — and, as for myself, I am content to be liked.” “Oh Mr. Oak — that’s very fine! You’d get to despise me.” “Never. I shall do one thing in this life — one thing certain — that is, love you, and long for you, and keep wanting you till I die.” (Hardy Ch 4). The novel only works because Gabriel very quickly accepts that Bathsheba is not interested in him, and he lets it go. Despite a dramatic declaration of never-ending love, he doesn’t mention it again. He doesn’t propose again. Bathsheba marries, she is widowed, and she almost married a second time and he keeps his mouth shut. Eventually Gabriel realizes it is time to truly move on, once he is sure she is secured and financially stable. He resigns from his position working for her. Before he is able to leave, they run into each other. “‘The fact is, I am thinking of leaving England — not yet, you know — next spring.’ ‘Leaving England!’ she said, in surprise and genuine disappointment. ‘Why, Gabriel, what are you going to do that for?’ ‘Well, I’ve thought it best,’ Oak stammered out. ‘California is the spot I’ve had in my mind to try’” (Ch 56). I like to think Gabriel was heading to West Covina, but that’s beside the point. When Rebecca finds Greg at the airport she cries, “Stop! Where are you going?” “I am deciding to move forward with my life,” Greg replies. “It got confusing and bad for both of us” (Season 1, Ep 4). The previous day, before Rebecca chases Greg down at the airport, they almost have a dramatic rendezvous at scenic bridge. “What about Josh?” Greg had asked her, skeptical that she had truly gotten over her obsession with him. “Josh is done, that was nothing, it’s done I swear” (Season 2, Ep 3). We want to believe her. But we can’t. When Greg goes to meet her at the bridge there is a gorgeous leitmotif of “Settle for Me” playing and you want him to go to her… but he doesn’t.
When Gabriel decides to leave Bathsheba, Hardy writes, “He who had believed in her and argued on her side when all the rest of the world was against her, had at last like the others become weary and neglectful of the old cause, and was leaving her to fight her battles alone” (Ch 56). There comes a point where you just have to leave. Gabriel should leave. But he doesn’t. Bathsheba comes to him – a 19th century version of a dramatic airport chase. “If I only knew one thing,” he says to her. “Whether you would allow me to love you and win you, and marry you after all – if I only knew that!” (Ch 56). The book ends with this gorgeous line: “Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other’s character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality” (Ch 57). Bathsheba does not settle for Gabriel. She finally, at last, after years of knowing each other’s “rougher sides” settles down with him. If Gabriel had gone to California and come back, that might have been a better, or at least more realistic story. But he didn’t. The trope tells us Greg will come back, except CXG doesn’t always follow the trope. I am pretty sure that Rebecca won’t be settling with Josh. That ship has sailed for many reasons, and I don’t see it coming back. Josh could have stuck it out with his Jane Fairfax in Valencia, but that ship has sailed too. With Greg, I still see a possibility that after all of his “settle for me” motifs, he could be the one to settle with.
I don’t know where CXG is going. Since Greg’s left to get his MBA, the love triangle has taken a backseat. Other love interests may be introduced, though it would be hard to convince the audience Rebecca is ready. Right now Rebecca is trying to focus on rebuilding her friendships, which is what she needs. And that’s what makes this show so incredible – it can live on with the love triangle on pause. Still, I don’t want to downplay the importance it had. The triangle was a beautiful and complex aspect of the story. Love triangles in our books and tv shows do not have to be constantly justified. When Greg left the show, the creators spoke of “completely demolishing” the love triangle (TV Line). But they are stories worthy of being told. I’m still rooting for Greg’s eventual return. Whether or not he “gets the girl,” I don’t think his story is finished. When I look at the lengthy history of love triangles behind CXG, Greg seems like the right choice for Rebecca, no matter how necessary his leaving was. It would be sappy but it would be a hopeful end, because it would demonstrate the importance of personal growth. In Far from the Madding Crowd and Middlemarch, our Bathsheba and Dorothea had to actually marry the wrong man before they found the right one. In Can You Forgive Her? John Grey had to lose, leave, and move on before he could come back to win Alice.
CXG teaches us what the classics have for hundreds of years – love is more than a feeling. It is a series of actions. When Greg left, he was loving Rebecca as much as he could, and that decision has left Josh and Rebecca (and Paula, and even Valencia) with so much more room to breathe. Even if Greg never comes back or Rebecca finds someone else entirely, it was still a really excellent example of the trope. A classic triangle shouldn’t have an easy answer, it should be complex and a little unhealthy. One healthy relationship is hard enough to find, let alone two viable and healthy options. One (or both) is usually a complete shitshow. And that’s what CXG unpacked for us so beautifully. Sometimes, it’s the relationship that ends like Edward and Lucy, sometimes it’s a relationship that needs a lot of work, like Bathsheba and Gabriel. Sometimes it’s both. But it’s not a truthful story unless it’s a total shitshow. And that’s what Greg gets to sing to Rebecca before he leaves. “I love you, yes, and I’ll confess / the thought of staying is so enticing. […] But let’s get real, we know the deal. / So darling, let’s not tiptoe. / This thing we had was not just bad, / it was a shitshow” (Season 2, Ep 4).
That’s what makes it good storytelling. There’s been such high stakes involved. Greg had to get away for his own sanity and health, but look at me – still hoping it can be redeemed, like Gabriel and Bathsheba were, like Alice and John. That’s why love triangles are intoxicatingly fun to read about and watch, because a good one is messy and frustrating, but you still care so so much. Often they are badly written and badly structured, or worse, just completely unbelievable. Many of you have probably been burned by HIMYM or LOST or some other terribly handled storyline.But love triangles are memorable because we care about them way too much. While reading Far from the Madding Crowd, I was practically screaming at the book with frustration near the end. CXG is like that – so good it’s frustrating. One thing I am always reminded of when re-reading the classics is how relatable they can be, because love, obsession, alcohol abuse, complex families, social divide, mean moms, torn hearts, rough breakups… it’s timeless and real. Few people actually find themselves in a love triangle. I know I haven’t. But in every fictional triangle there are aspects that are identifiable, emotions that I recognize, situations that feel all too real to me. Not an episode of CXG goes by where I don’t have an intense feeling of secondhand embarrassment – because I’ve been there too. The age-old trope should be able to hold its head high, because when a complex love triangle is handled with care, they can be the realest stories of all.
- “All Signs Point to Josh… Or is it Josh’s Friend?” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, season 2, episode 3, The CW, 4 Nov. 2016. CW Seed.
- Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. 1811. Digireads, 2004.
- Austen, Jane. Emma. 1815. The Project Gutenberg, 2016
- Eliot, George. Middlemarch. 1872. The Project Gutenberg, 2008.
- Hardy, Thomas. Far from the Madding Crowd. 1874. Public Domain Kindle Edition, 2015.
- “I Hope Josh Comes to My Party!” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, season 1, episode 4, The CW, 26 Oct. 2015. Netflix.
- “I’m Back at Camp with Josh!” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, season 1, episode 10, The CW, 1 Feb. 2016. Netflix.
- “I’m Going on a Date with Josh’s Friend!” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, season 1, episode 4, The CW. 1 Nov. 2015. Netflix.
- “Josh Just Happens to Live Here!” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, season 1, episode 1, The CW, 12 Oct. 2015. Netflix.
- “Josh’s Sister is Getting Married!” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, season 1, episode 16, The CW, 28 March. 2016. Netflix.
- “My First Thanksgiving With Josh!” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, season 1, episode 6, The CW, 16 Nov. 2015. Netflix.
- Nemetz, Dave. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rachel Bloom on Greg’s Exit.” TV Line, 18 Nov. 2016, www.tvline.com/2016/11/18/crazy-ex-girlfriend-scoop-greg-leaving-rachel-bloom-the-cw. Accessed 21 Nov. 2016.
- “Paula Needs to Get Over Josh!” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, season 1, episode 18, The CW, 18 April. 2016. Netflix.
- “That Text Was Not Meant for Josh!” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, season 1, episode 11, The CW, 8 Feb. 2016. Netflix.
- Trollope, Anthony. Can You Forgive Her? 1865. Public Domain Kindle Edition, 2012.
- “When Will Josh and His Friend Leave Me Alone?” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, season 2, episode 4, The CW, 11 Nov. 2016. CW Seed.
- “Where is Josh’s Friend?” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, season 2, episode 1, The CW, 21 Oct. 2016. CW Seed.
- “Why is Josh in a Bad Mood?” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, season 1, episode 17, The CW, 11 April. 2016. Netflix.
Sarah V Diehl