Film

First ‘Jane,’ Now ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’: The CW Is Winning the Age of Peak TV

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We’ve gotten used to the idea that the highest-quality, most innovative television lives on premium cable channels like HBO and Showtime. But two of the most delightful and inventive series to premiere in the past year have come from an unexpected place: the CW. Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are about — and in large part, designed to cater to — adult women. So what are they doing on a network aimed at teenagers?

The CW is the result of the 2006 merging of the WB and UPN networks. In the late 1990s, the WB was a breeding ground for fresh, funny, original series centered on young women. Between 1997 and 2000, the network premiered Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Felicity, and Gilmore Girls, groundbreaking shows that were at the time underappreciated because of their focus on, and targeting of, teenage girls.

Like Gilmore Girls, which was neatly split between the perspectives of its teen protagonist and her single mother, Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend straddle the divide between “young adult” and simply “adult.” In the former, Jane Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez, who won a Golden Globe for her performance, the CW’s first nomination) must learn to negotiate the unexpected surprise of becoming a young mother while maintaining her goal of going to graduate school and starting a career as a writer. She’s also never had sex: In the spirit of the Venezuelan telenovela that the series is based on, Jane was accidentally artificially inseminated. (It’s a long, soapy, hilariously self-referential story probably best to catch up with via the first season, now available on Netflix.)

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a TV musical, is a fluffy cupcake of a show laced with the bitter tang of regret. The series follows Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) through a quarter-life crisis as she turns down a promotion at her New York City law firm and moves to a small, post-housing-boom California town where her ex-boyfriend from summer camp “just happens to live.” Aline Brosh McKenna, who created the show along with Bloom, told the New York Times that she thought of pitching it to the CW after watching Jane the Virgin and discovering the network’s openness to unusual female leads and twists on storytelling conventions.

Each episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend features original songs, most of which skewer the impossible standards to which young women are held: The r&b slow jam “Sexy Getting Ready Song” splices together a fantasy sequence of Rebecca singing in a silk robe, surrounded by candles, with scenes of her waxing and plucking in a harshly lit bathroom. A rapper appears to deliver a verse but stops when he sees Rebecca’s sink, filled with the detritus of her beauty routine. “This is horrifying, like a scary movie or something,” he says. “Like some nasty-ass patriarchal bullshit. I got to go apologize to some bitches.”

The CW has reached this exciting creative moment by widening — and gently challenging — its target audience. When the CW launched, the WB’s main demographic was females aged 12 to 34, who tuned in for Dawson’s Creek, Everwood, and One Tree Hill. Then came Gossip Girl, in 2007, the new network’s first big hit that hadn’t been carried over from the WB or UPN. By 2008, with the addition of the popular 90210 reboot (which, by design, appealed to teens and nostalgic Gen X’ers), the network’s viewership in its most coveted demo — women ages 18 to 34 — was up by 25 percent.

Writing about the CW’s success that year, Bill Carter summed up the network’s output as “high school kids in expensive clothes.” Sure, the CW was flying high, but mostly by presenting teenage girls with a fantasy world that revolved around limo rides and drama in the Hamptons. We all crave a bit of fantasy in our screen pursuits; I spent many fruitless hours trying to convince a 12-year-old girl that the down-to-earth Gilmore Girls is better than the glossy Pretty Little Liars. (Her verdict after one GG episode: “This show sucks.”)

But Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend pull off a tricky feat. Neither is devoid of fantasy — pregnant virgins, real estate lawyers bursting into song — and yet neither shies away from the complexities of being a young woman in 2015. Both Jane and Rebecca struggle to reconcile their lifelong goals with the reality of their post-college lives, which haven’t turned out quite the way either expected. As the shows’ titles announce, both characters are failing to live up to the modern world’s expectations for women in their twenties — one has still never had sex, and the other, despite professional success, is a little unhinged.

In demonstrating that becoming an adult is a long game, these series dramatize a particularly female version of transitioning into full-fledged adulthood in a refreshingly unsentimental way. Earlier this week, Variety reported that Olivia Munn is developing a series for the CW about a young female sportscaster. That protagonist would be another welcome addition to the network, and a sign that it is returning to its roots as a destination for funny, complex, quality programming for young women — teenagers, adults, and those who are still working on bridging that gap.