The Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Pilot: Our Take on The Show’s Story Engine

February 15, 2023

“To be clear, I didn’t move here for Josh, I just needed a change
‘Cause to move here for Josh, now that’d be strange
But don’t get me wrong, if he asks for a date
I would totally be like, “That sounds great”

Lyrics from “West Covina,” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend 

What’s a successful young New York City attorney to do when she’s about to make partner but bumps into an old camp boyfriend?  She packs it all up and moves to the place where “dreams are made” – WEST COVINA, CALIFORNIA!  (Only two hours from the beach, in traffic.)

The Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Pilot: Our Take on The Show’s Story Engine

A character throwing it all away and starting anew is a classic TV pilot trope.  Over the course of 60-plus episodes, the hour-long comedy-drama Crazy Ex-Girlfriend explores the unique world of Rebecca Bunch as she juggled life, love, a career, and her mental health.  In fact, Rebecca’s battles with depression were a recurring theme the show did not shy away from.  It deftly explored this serious side of Rebecca, one not easily resolved by her finding Mr or Mrs. Right.  

And did we mention this show was a MUSICAL?  From its opening number of teenage Rebecca singing South Pacific’s, “I’m In Love with a Wonderful Guy,” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend moved to its own unique, original voice for multiple seasons. 


At the center of the show is Rebecca, an Ivy League-educated attorney who was at her happiest as a high schooler in summer camp with her boyfriend Josh. But at summer’s end, Josh dumps her and Rebecca spends the next decade unhappily succeeding in school and career. Not the “blues” of a traditional romantic comedy, but a heavily medicated deeper depression. This all comes to a head when she bumps into Josh for the first time since camp and decides to chase after him to West Covina. 

Like the entire cast, Rebecca shares her thoughts in song as she navigates her journey to finding true happiness. In the pilot, she might come off as impetuous and hanging on to her sanity by a thread, but over the next 60 + episodes she’ll learn, grow, dance, and sing her way to a more promising future…. though not without her share of false notes and missteps.

Rebecca is surrounded by a strong ensemble of characters, but this series hinges on her POV.   Even when one of the main characters was recast, the writers addressed this by having Rebecca explain how our perceptions of others change with time.  Now that’s how to write out of a problem.

crazy ex-girlfriend pilot
via Elle

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World Building

Worldbuilding necessitates a show’s creators to set the tone/mood/style and establish the “rules” and “stylistic devices” of the narrative.  Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is clearly Rebecca’s world, and the whole ensemble is living in it. The pilot fully takes off when Rebecca first moves to West Covina and she sings about the (not-so-beautiful) beauty of her new urban playground.  

“See the sparkle of the concrete ground
Hear the whoosh of the bustling town
What a feeling of love in my gut
I’m going faster than the middle school’s music program was cut.” 

Rebecca is not in the Big Apple anymore, yet she treats her new suburban home as its own rollicking, Applebee’s-adjacent musical adventure.  The other characters in the show follow suit with their internal monologues also playing out as musical numbers.  Perhaps most impressively, the songs and the dances do not take away from the show’s more serious themes.  

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Story Engine 

All TV pilots need to include a “story engine” which can provide countless possibilities for future episodes. 

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a hybrid show, a mix of procedural problem-of-the-week and season-long serialized storytelling.  Since Rebecca’s a lawyer, she often must deal with an unusual client or case (the bread and butter of legal procedurals since the days of RADIO).   

There are the personal elements of the story engine including Rebecca’s relationships with her co-workers, her romantic interests, and most importantly – HERSELF.  As the butter ads in the pilot episode state, “When was the last time you were truly happy?” The pilot is Rebecca’s somewhat ill-advised first steps to finding that answer… an emotional odyssey that will take her through four seasons, dozens of episodes, and her share of love interests. 

Perhaps the most original part of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s story engine is the music itself. Each episode includes a series of songs to convey what Rebecca and the cast are thinking, feeling, or facing.  With titles like “The Sexy Gettin’ Ready Song,” “Don’t Be a Lawyer,” and “Life Doesn’t Make Narrative Sense,” Rebecca and the cast use every genre of music to seek the answers to their lives.  Or at least figure out what to wear on a date.  

Learn How to Write a Television Pilot at NYFA

Learning how to write a pilot that is memorable and engaging is one of the most important skills an aspiring television writer can develop. In the screenwriting programs at NYFA, students learn fundamental concepts and techniques for writing a pilot and television, such as structure, formats, story engines, dialogue, themes, season arcs, show types, WGA format, subtext, and much more. To learn more about our programs, please visit our Screenwriting School page.