'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend' & 'Jane The Virgin' Are Killing The TV Love Triangle By Putting Their Protagonists' Needs First
Are you Team Edward or Team Jacob? Aidan or Big? Do you prefer Peeta or Gale? These pop culture love triangles have long divided fans, whether it’s Spike vs. Angel, Eric. vs. Vampire Bill, or Piz vs. Logan (as if there was an actual case for Piz). Even the Brontës got involved in the love triangle business — in Wuthering Heights, Catherine is torn between her passion for the dangerous Heathcliff and an advantageous marriage to the wealthy Edgar Linton. The tradition has continued well into present-day television, but finally, series like Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are subverting this trope, and hopefully, putting an end to it.
There’s a reason that love triangles continue to be time-honored staples of popular entertainment: At their best, they generate genuine romantic tension to build suspense about the protagonist’s eventual choice. But too often, love triangles are nothing but played-out tropes that hamper more interesting character development — especially when it comes to female leads.
That’s why it’s so refreshing to see a new crop of TV shows retire the love triangle in favor of a more organic exploration of their central characters’ personal lives. The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is proving to be one of the biggest surprises of the fall season with how expertly the freshman show is handling its central romance.
The pilot set up the hour-long musical comedy to be a Felicity retread with a few twists: a young woman who doesn’t know what she wants moves across the country to be near a guy she has a crush on. In Felicity Porter’s case, the object of her affections was Ben, a popular jock she went to high school with, but she was also drawn to Noel, a nerdy NYU resident advisor whose torch burned brightly for her.
The endless back and forth between Noel and Ben was easily the worst part of Felicity. The once promising WB show painted itself into a corner so violently that (really old spoiler alert!) the writers staged a magic time-travel plot (thanks to the help of witchcraft, I’m not kidding) to kill off Noel, bring him back to life, and then get Felicity back together with Ben — who, pre-time travel, was planning to move across the country with her former best friend-turned frenemy.
But Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is quickly learning from Felicity’s mistakes. After introducing a love triangle between Josh (the protagonist’s former summer camp boyfriend) and Greg (Josh’s bartender best friend), the well-reviewed comedy is slowly indicating that neither is the right choice for Rebecca, played by the amazing Rachel Bloom (who also serves as writer and creator).
Greg (Santino Fontana) was quickly set up as the safe “nice guy alternative” — perfectly underscored by “Settle For Me,” above, one of the show’s best songs to date — while Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III) is cute but incredibly dumb. Whereas Rebecca has her degree from Harvard Law, Josh’s dream is to work at a chill electronics outlet named after a luau. It's not exactly Romeo and Juliet.
In the episode ""My Mom, Greg's Mom and Josh's Sweet Dance Moves!" Crazy Ex-Girlfriend killed the love triangle by pairing Greg up with Rebecca’s perma-deadpan neighbor, Heather (played by scene-stealer Vella Lovell). That move smartly allows the show to focus on its more important themes. The ever-meta series acknowledges in its very title song that the romantic plot isn’t it’s raison d’etre, as Rebecca sings, “And so I decided to move/To West Covina, California … It happens to be where Josh lives/But that's not why I'm here.”
The show isn’t about love; Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is about a troubled young woman being pushed to find herself after taking a huge risk. What drives Rebecca isn’t her affection for Josh per se, but what he inspires in her — a desire to be happy after years of accepting misery.
Another CW show, the Golden Globe-winning Jane the Virgin, is also allowing its female lead to explore life outside the boundaries of the Either/Or. The second season of the acclaimed dramedy, about a woman who is artificially inseminated after a hospital mix-up, has all but blown up its central love plot. Jane’s options are Michael, her jealous ex-boyfriend with an increasing violent streak; and Rafael, an entitled jerk in a complicated relationship with his ex-wife, who impregnated herself with his sperm without his knowledge.
Twitter might be torn between #TeamMichael or #TeamRafael, but Jane may not want either one.
As a tongue-in-cheek take on telenovela plot conventions, Jane the Virgin purposely adds these complications, but a romantic subplot can only get so convoluted before you have to throw in witches and a TARDIS to keep amping up the drama. Instead, the show has gone completely in the opposite direction, breaking up its star-crossed trio of leads — and let's hope for good. In doing so, Jane the Virgin acknowledged the dangers of going big just for the heck of it.
Jane, who is balancing motherhood with graduate school, receives some less than helpful advice from a potential advisor about a recent story she submitted for class that can be applied to the series as whole. “Turn up the volume!” her advisor suggests. “Just make it all more sparkly!” Glitter is nice, but it’s clearly not gold. The season’s most dazzling moments have been when Jane the Virgin steps back from its love triangle to focus on what Jane wants, which is to not let the demands of parenting stop her from pursuing her dreams of being a best-selling romance writer.
As a result, Jane the Virgin has offered a refreshingly realistic portrayal of motherhood — even devoting an entire episode to the challenges of breastfeeding a newborn. If Felicity unfairly reduced its lead’s entire life to who she’s going to end up with, Jane the Virgin reminds us that women’s stories are more complex than even the most tangled love triangle.
Viewers of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane the Virgin may expect those shows’ protagonists to eventually pick a side — even if that’s the sexy college professor Jane's writers have planted as a potential love interest for the future. But sometimes the best choice is no one at all.
After years of a Logan-Jess-Dean love quadrangle, Gilmore Girls did something quietly radical by having Rory Gilmore pick her career over a future in San Francisco with her son-of-a-billionaire boyfriend. In the series’ penultimate episode, Rory and Lorelai pack up her apartment. The stark emptiness of her room is a melancholy but hopeful image of a future that’s wide open with possibility.
I hope that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane the Virgin have the courage to follow the same path by choosing to define happiness on their protagonists’ own terms. There’s nothing wrong with finding love, but no character as excellent as Jane Villanueva or Rebecca Bunch should have to settle.
Images: Greg Gayne (2), Patrick Wymore/The CW