Storytelling With “Tres Horny Boys”

I originally had a much longer and very different post planned for this week. It was going to be more or less a follow-up to last week’s post addressing an example of a piece of media that I think does the depiction of mental illness and suicide well.

However, to be frank, the topic was too huge to tackle for a second time on a more specific level in the limited time I ended up having this week. So instead, I decided to discuss something a little lighter.

See, a while back I talked about how obsessed I am with “My Brother, My Brother, and Me,” a podcast by Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy. Definitely go back and read my review of it and check them out because that podcast is still one of the most genuinely funny pieces of content the internet has to offer. But recently I’ve fallen hard for another McElroy podcast product… “The Adventure Zone.”

“The Adventure Zone,” or TAZ, as I’ll refer to it for the rest of the post, is a podcast chronicling the Dungeons and Dragons campaign of the McElroy brothers and their father, Clint McElroy. It’s DM’d by Griffin and it’s honestly and truly a masterpiece in its own right. And because I always like to take a deep look at things I love to determine why it is I love them so much, I want to take a look at why this podcast gels so well with me and with so many others.

Now, I went into this podcast with high hopes, of course. I have made no secret of my love for the Brothers McElroy and their brand of comedic genius. And, on top of that, I adore Dungeons and Dragons. I’ve, admittedly, not played nearly as much of it as I’d like, but I hope to change that going forward.

See, Dungeons and Dragons is unique in just how, well, unique it is. There’s no other game quite like it, that can so easily appeal to so many different kinds of players. Every D&D campaign is usually unique in one way or another, some focusing on minute details for those who are picky and analytical, some focusing on action or character development for those who enjoy that. I’ve heard of honest-to-god D&D strategies! People who play it like a real competitive game, creating characters not for their intrigue but rather for their stats. And that, for me, is something to get excited about.

Because with a game that lends its players such flexibility, it becomes a powerful tool for building some really creative and diverse worlds with fascinating stories and compelling characters. Or not! And that’s the beauty of it.

So what kind of world does Griffin use D&D’s powerful world-building tools to create? Well, one that’s surprising and comical and beautiful and so obviously McElroy.

Their campaign is an interesting one, for sure. For one, Griffin makes it clear right off the bat that he doesn’t want it to drag on the small details. He refuses to focus on how adventurers Magnus Burnsides (Travis), Taako Taaco (Justin), and Merle “Hitower” Highchurch (Clint) eat, sleep, or travel on any of their adventures. They literally are shot out of a cannon to each new journey, and are given free rein to focus on the story and the story only.

And while this method was at first a bit novel to me, since my few forays into the world of D&D tended to focus on the “journey” aspect of the adventure rather than the episodic structure TAZ employs, it quickly became clear that it was the perfect method to tell the story Griffin wanted to tell.

For one, he knows his tools. And in this case, the “tools” are his family members, the main actors in his story, Justin, Travis, and Clint. Knowing their penchant for goofing off and getting distracted, Griffin constructs a world that simultaneously keeps them focused but also gives them some material to play with.

Griffin sheepishly berates himself in several episodes for “railroading” his players into doing what he wants them to, but honestly as a listener I’m glad he runs his campaign the way he does. Personally, I think he does a wonderful job at balancing free choices and unchangeable story beats to the point where it’s really not noticeable which are which, especially to the players and the listeners, which is the most important part anyway.

And if it’s not obvious at this point, I really want to commend Griffin in this post. It’s not easy at all to be a Dungeon Master, especially one overseeing the frankly sometimes flaky playstyle of Justin, Travis, and Clint. Yet Griffin pulls off his duty with grace and a good sense of humor, as well as, and this is most important to me, a lot of passion.

I think this is also what makes TAZ work so effortlessly for me. In the first few episodes, when the boys are just feeling everything out for the first time, some of the situations are funny, sure, but the plot doesn’t really get compelling until Griffin’s vision for the campaign as a whole begins to take shape. When the passion and effort he clearly puts into the campaign becomes apparent, that’s when TAZ really starts to shine.

And… I love that. I love that TAZ’s success hinges so heavily on its creator’s love for it. That’s something that resonates strongly with me, as a creator myself.

Not, of course, to diminish the role of the three main actors in the story. The “Tres Horny Boys” are certainly unconventional heroes, but they’re so genuine in the way they’re portrayed that they’re hard not to root for.

I think if Griffin succeeds in the balancing act of free choice and railroading, then Justin, Travis, and Clint succeed in the balancing act of playing their characters seriously and humorously.

I mean, it’s clear that all three main characters were conceived in a slightly joking manner. I mean, “Taako Taaco?” Magical wizard elf chef? You know, Taako, from TV? Magnus Burnsides, with magnificent sideburns, a ridiculously tragic backstory, and a vehicle proficiency? Or Merle Highchurch, a cleric who doesn’t know how to cleric and knows way better how to “ZONE OF TRUTH?” They’re all silly… and yet…

And yet, they’re played with a sense of reality. Despite their ridiculous names and roles in the story, the campaign more or less takes them seriously. They’re treated as incredible heroes in their world, and they are! And that’s inspiring, and endearing, and really easy to care about. And even as the boys crack jokes about their characters, at the end of the day it’s clear that there’s care and… well, passion, in this story.

So, whatever you do this week, consider putting on the first episode of TAZ. It starts a little slow, but trust me, once it hits its stride you’ll be hooked. You’ll be carrying your listening device around your house like a fool, hanging onto every word, laughing and crying along with the Tres Horny Boys as they fumble their way through Griffin’s beautiful and intricate world.

(I know, because it’s what I’ve been doing.)

Listen to the first (condensed for ease of listening) episode here!

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All the Bright Reasons Why YA Can’t Discuss Suicide Meaningfully

Okay, okay, old topic I know. I’m late to the party. But allow me to take a side on the raging debate. Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why does not do an effective job at discussing suicide or mental health in a positive manner. And I could sit here and reiterate all of the reasons why this is, but honestly, a million and one people have already done that. Just do a google search, really. So today, I won’t be talking about 13 Reasons Why… or at least, I won’t be talking about it specifically. (This is partly because I haven’t watched the series, and partly because I’ve only read a bit of the book.)

I don’t feel exactly qualified to speak about 13 Reasons Why, but I can speak on another YA book I read that deals with a lot of the same themes. A book which, I think, is an excellent example of why so many YA books fail so spectacularly so often at discussing mental health and suicide for teenagers.

This book is called All the Bright Places and it’s by Jennifer Niven. A few years ago, it was marketed pretty heavily in our local Barnes and Noble as the “new John Green!” (This, by the way, is a really common way bookstores market books by local authors around here since John Green lives in Indy. Basically any book about teenagers by a local author also set in Indy gets touted as the “new John Green!” and it’s only sometimes true.)

Still, I picked it up because I thought the cover was cute and the concept seemed neat, and honestly I really like supporting local authors. And I read it.

And it was bad.

No, no, not just bad.

Disappointing.

Which, in a lot of ways, is even worse than bad.

Because if it were a bad book only, I could have put it down and returned it to the store before getting too invested. But because it was a disappointing book, I was engrossed from page one, legitimately enjoying the characters and the story line, right up until I was completely betrayed at the end.

The following post will contain major spoilers for the plot of All the Bright Places. If you plan on reading it, for gods’ sake, don’t. Just read the spoilers. Read this post instead. I promise it’s not worth your time.

So, because you definitely won’t be reading this book, let me tell you about it. All the Bright Places is about two teenagers, Violet and Finch, both of whom struggle with mental illness. Finch has been battling his illness for basically his entire life. His family situation is rather unhealthy, and suicidal thoughts have been something he has had to face for years and years. In order to get past this, Finch makes it a point to find some reason, one reason everyday to stay alive. This is immediately established as one of the most important aspects of his character – this constant mentality of finding that one reason to keep going.

It was this part of Finch’s character that really, really endeared me to him right off the bat. I’ve never seen a character with mental illness so central to his character simultaneously be so positive. Normally, characters with mental illness in YA are either constantly gloomy or negative. Finch is not that at all. He’s a surprisingly realistic teenager who just so happens to also deal with suicidal thoughts.

Violet, on the other hand, is rather new to her illness. After the sudden and tragic death of her older sister, Violet’s once happy life is completely destroyed, and her suicidal thoughts appear as a result.

The beginning of the book sees Finch at the top of his school’s bell tower, a place he often goes to calm down and think through things. While he’s up there, though, he runs into Violet, clearly contemplating jumping off the tower to her death. Finch talks her down, and brings her safely to the ground. From there, the two form a shaky acquaintanceship until a school project brings them together. Their project sends them across the state of Indiana, reporting on various famous landmarks.

As YA standards would dictate, Finch and Violet become close friends and eventually fall in love. Their shared experiences in mental illness becomes a way they connect to one another and they help each other through the tough times and come out stronger for it.

And then, with no build-up whatsoever… Finch commits suicide.

Okay, yes, there is a little build up to it but… the way the book presents the timeline of events, Finch’s suicide comes out of really nowhere. The book would like you to believe that the reasons for his death come from two separate incidents. One, an argument with Violet over… something or other (I can’t actually remember right now, if that speaks to how insignificant it was.) And two, his visiting of a mental health support group and their subsequent suggestion that he consider taking medication for his mental illness.

Putting aside the problematic notion that medication somehow changes or harms people with mental illness, Finch’s death makes absolutely no sense. And not in a “suicide is a senseless tragedy”-kind of way, although it is, but I mean as an ending to his character arc.

As I established up above, Finch’s defining trait from the beginning of the novel is that he looks for a new reason to stay alive every single day, no matter how difficult it might be. Despite the struggles he deals with, he remains positive. He fights through his illness. And yet, his death comes with no struggle. We don’t even see it happen. We’re just told it happens. I honestly didn’t even believe it when I first read it – I expected it to be some sort of mistake.

And with his disappearance also goes all the potential of his character.

And I know what you’re thinking. “But Gillian, what if that’s the point? What if it’s a message on how suicide makes it so people can’t come to a meaningful conclusion of their life? What if it’s symbolic?”

To that I say… I wish. Instead, Finch’s death is only symbolic in the ways that make it more tragically beautiful. He drowns himself in Blue Hole lake, one of the landmarks he and Violet visit. And the way his body is described floating upon that beautiful depth of water… it made me sick. Really sick. Actually sick.

Because if Niven truly wished Finch’s suicide to make a statement on how suicide makes it so people are never able to reach their full potential, she wouldn’t have made his death so endlessly “meaningful.”

And this is the problem with how YA depicts suicide. It strips the realism out of a very real, very terrible problem and makes it into some sort of martyr’s sacrifice.

See, death in fiction is a really dramatic choice for an author to make. It takes a major player in the storyline out of the story completely. If done wrong, it can make a character seem pointless, and can make an audience feel like they cared about a character for no reason.

So, most authors give their main characters meaningful deaths. Those characters who die, do so for a purpose. They die to save others, or to motivate others, or in service of some sort of theme the author hopes to convey. Sometimes, their death fulfills their character arc. For example, perhaps a character whose main flaw is that he is selfish dies saving someone else, thus proving that that character grew up enough to overcome their prior selfishness.

And this is all fine and dandy when the deaths we’re talking about aren’t self-inflicted. It’s okay to glorify deaths that come from courageous acts, or emphasize the beautiful tragedy of a terrible accident. There’s no danger of inspiring real people to go out and die that way too since, mostly, they don’t have any control over that.

However, when we’re talking about suicide, the glorification becomes a real problem. A character committing suicide is a character death just like any other character death, and so authors feel the need to justify them – make them meaningful and beautiful, make them fulfill some narrative purpose.

Here’s the issue though – in real life, suicide doesn’t do any of that. It’s not meaningful. It’s not beautiful. It’s terrible and awful and sad and it never fixes anything.

When characters commit suicide in books, authors peddle the lie that suicide is a death that can solve problems. A death that can teach lessons to other people. For Finch, Niven peddles the idea that suicide is a beautiful end to a beautiful boy’s life, because to depict it as anything else wouldn’t fit the story she was trying to tell. For Hannah in 13 Reasons Why, Asher peddles the idea that suicide can somehow teach her bullies a valuable life lesson.

Here’s the reality. Suicide can’t do that. Suicide is a meaningless loss of life. It is not beautiful, and to depict it as anything else than ugly and meaningless is incredibly dangerous.

Because unlike a glorious death on the battlefield, or a tragically beautiful accidental death via disease, for example, suicide is something that a real person could make the choice to inflict upon themselves. And when they see these suicides in books and other media depicted as beautiful and meaningful, they might think of it as a viable option for themselves.

They might look at Finch, optimistic Finch who just wanted to keep living, and see that there’s no chance for them. That even if they work hard to stay alive, they will ultimately fail. They will see that the best option for them is to die in a beautiful way, so everyone can remember them as the beautiful person they were in life.

They might look at Hannah, who was bullied and mistreated, and see that the best way to teach the bullies a lesson is to kill themselves – to stick it to ’em, teach them a lesson. Show them that their actions have consequences.

And you can stick as many suicide hotline numbers at the end of these narratives as you want. At the end of the day, the message society overwhelmingly clings to is clear. If you struggle with mental illness, or bullying, or anything, and the possibility of suicide rears its ugly head, might as well just go with it. Hey, it’ll be tragic, but it’ll be beautiful and meaningful.

If Niven wanted to actually help real teenagers who struggle with suicidal thoughts, Finch wouldn’t have died. He would have remained alive, as a real and honest example that people with mental illness can fight their battle and win. His choice to remain alive would not only have been more meaningful for his character arc, it would have also been more meaningful for the real people reading the book who were maybe just looking for a sign. Looking for a character like them, who made the brave choice to stay alive, despite everything.

But the problem is, YA (and most media) too often focuses on the story instead of the real people. It desperately tries to carve meaning out of everything. And that’s why they so often fail these real people. They sell them lies. Beautiful, meaningful lies, but lies all the same.

“Okay Gillian, fair,” you say, “But how, then, do we discuss topics like mental health or suicide without the danger of inspiring real people to commit suicide?”

Easy. Let characters like Finch and Hannah live. Don’t shy away from depicting their struggle, of course, but also let them live. Let them be the example that life is always more beautiful and meaningful than death. Always. Let their character arcs end in triumph over the darkness. Let their readers see that there is a hope. Let them see the reality of the situation, not the sensational tragic fantasy.

Because for this issue, we don’t need cautionary tales. We need heroes. We need examples. That’s the only way we can discuss this terrible problem in a healthy and positive way.

And that’s the truth.

(A/N: After writing this all out, I went on Google Images looking for a header image of All the Bright Places and learned that a movie adaptation will be released later this year. I didn’t really intend this post to coincide with that and… I don’t think it needs to be said, but don’t see this movie. Don’t do it. Don’t buy into this.)

Character Spotlight: Owain, Hero of Ages

Defining an all-time favorite anything is not an easy task. I know this to be true from experience. Picking a favorite song, favorite book, favorite movie, favorite artist, etc etc etc is nearly impossible. The pool is too big. I love too many songs and books and movies and artists and etc to choose just one that is, all around, the best.

However, there is one category for which I can pick one definitive favorite without a hint of hesitation.

My favorite fictional character ever in anything is Owain from the Fire Emblem series.

That’s a bold statement, I know. Even if you’re not familiar with the character, you may be wondering how he can be so good that he is the definitive best in any series. How can one character possibly rise above so many other great characters I love to claim the throne as the best?

Well… that’s a complicated question, and one I hope to answer in this post. So come with me and let us explore what makes humble Owain, hero of ages, such a fantastic and deep character.

Meet Owain

Owain first appeared in Fire Emblem: Awakening, the revival of the near-dying Fire Emblem series. His role in this game is pretty small. (In fact, his role in both games he appears in is small.)

Owain is one of the many future children the player is able to unlock over the course of the game. He is available for recruitment once the player marries his mother, Lissa, to any one of her potential marriage candidates. He starts out a myrmidon with a slight affinity for magic from his mother, but nothing about his recruitment or role in the game sets him apart from the rest of the recruitable children.

He’s completely unnecessary to the plot of the game. The player could, feasibly and easily, go through it without recruiting him at all.

Now this isn’t terribly uncommon. Only one of the recruitable children is required to finish the game, and that’s Lucina. All the rest are simply add-ons, fun little rewards for playing with the support system in the game. And yet, for Owain, this detail is incredibly important to what makes his character work so well. Keep it in mind.

From first impressions, Owain is a ridiculous character. He’s over-dramatic. He yells dumb catchphrases and pretends he’s an unstoppable and legendary hero. He gives weapons flashy and superfluous names. He claims to have an “unquenchable bloodlust” and a magical sword hand that constantly aches for battle.

The game makes no secret of the fact that Owain is delusional. Other characters treat him like a joke, and he constantly fails to do the things he claims to be able to do. For all intents and purposes, the audience is encouraged to consider Owain a comic relief character and to not take him seriously.

This too is not unusual for Fire Emblem. Fire Emblem is a game that requires a lot of unique characters for the game mechanics of assembling and commanding an army of heroes to work. And in order to ensure the player is able to remember details about as many of these characters as possible, they tend to all have some sort of memorable schtick and not much else to their characters on the surface. This is a topic I’ll probably end up going into in more depth in another post, but basically Owain is just a weird quirky goofball in a whole army of weird, quirky goofballs.

Yes, Owain is completely ordinary for Fire Emblem. Like all the other filler units in the game, he sticks to his schtick. He’s got some decent fighting stats but he’s overall unnecessary to completing the game.

So what makes him special, exactly?

He’s Not Special…

There’s some other information about Owain I didn’t tell you and it’s this – Owain, no matter who his mother Lissa gets married to, is of royal blood.

This is not a shocking statement. His mother is a princess, the younger sister of the main character and eventual king, Chrom. Because of this, he is also a member of the Exalted bloodline, the bloodline around which the story revolves.

Both Chrom and Lucina, (that one child I mentioned earlier who is necessary to complete the game) have character arcs that rely heavily on the fact that they are of Exalted blood. It makes them royal, but it also gives them special story powers – the ability to slay the Big Bad™, Grima.

Lissa’s character also revolves around her Exalted blood. Almost all members of the bloodline get a characteristic birthmark somewhere on their body. On Chrom, it’s on his tastefully exposed shoulder. On Lucina, it’s in her eye. On Emmeryn, Chrom and Lissa’s elder sister, it’s on her forehead. However, Lissa never got hers, and her anxiety over this fact is an important part of her character, and something that is brought up as a point of self-consciousness for her.

Although it’s apparently not unheard of for a member of the Exalted bloodline to never get their brand of the Exalt, for Lissa it means she’s unsure of whether or not she is actually a legitimate royal. For all she knows, she could be a bastard child. The only way for her to know for sure is to hope that one day her descendants inherit the mark.

And thus, lo and behold, enter Owain. If you’re wondering, yes, he does have the mark of the Exalt on his arm, proving definitively that Lissa is actually a member of the royal bloodline. This fact is established early on as one of the reasons Lissa is so close to her son. His very existence proves her legitimacy and puts one of her worst fears to rest.

So that’s cool and all, and it’s definitely one of the reasons why I like Owain so much, but there’s something else about Owain’s blood that makes his character so deep and fascinating.

…Yet Special-ness Flows Through Him

So this Exalted blood, right? It’s a big deal. Like I mentioned before, the two mainest of the main characters have their special main character powers because of this bloodline they belong to. And as the son of the now-proven-legitimate princess Lissa, Owain also shares this blood.

And yet… Owain is not even close to a main character.

He has the blood, he has the brand, but Owain is the only member of this bloodline to not make it into the main cast of characters.

So, think about it. You’re Owain. You’re a prince. You belong to a bloodline of incredible warriors, warriors with the power to slay a giant dragon made of malice and pure evil. Your very existence proves to your mother that she belongs to this bloodline as well.

And yet, you don’t play a main role in the slaying of the Big Bad™ at all.

Don’t you think that would be a little disheartening? To know that your mother, your cousin, and your uncle all played a huge role in the slaying of a legendary beast and the saving of your world because of the very same blood you also possess and yet you aren’t a part of it at all?

Wouldn’t it make you want to be a part of it?

And Thus, Theatrics.

So, taking all this information into account, let’s take a look at Owain’s personality, his schtick, one more time.

He’s overdramatic. He’s a ham. He demands attention. He’s delusional. He pretends to possess a great and unique power, one he can barely control. Well, you don’t have to even wonder where this behavior comes from. As the one member of the exalted bloodline not to play a direct role in the plot of the game, it makes sense why he puts on such a show.

His entire family is composed of legendary heroes, and so Owain pretends to be one.

With this connection, everything about Owain’s character makes perfect sense. Of course he would have a reason to put on theatrics constantly. He has an entire bloodline to live up to. It even works on a more meta game level. Not only in-universe is Owain not a “main character” but he is also literally not a main character in the actual game. His character works both in-universe and out-of-universe and that is cool.

But Wait! There’s More

But of course, Awakening wasn’t the last time we saw Owain. He made another appearance in Fates under the moniker “Odin.” Once more, Owain was not a main character, but he was a normal unit this time, with his own child unit, Ophelia.

I think of the three Awakening kids that got teleported into Fates, Owain got the most interesting character development. While, yes, he’s still the goofy comic relief character from Awakening, there’s a certain maturity to his character that wasn’t there before.

There are two reasons for this slight growth of character. The first one is that Owain, for the first time, is special in regards to the game. He was teleported into this new world for the express purpose of helping them. He and his companions are the only characters with this duty, and while they don’t ultimately end up playing that huge of a role in the plot of Fates, I think the idea is that Owain, for the first time, is a special hero. A hero of time, sacrificing his home and family to help a group of strangers. It’s definitely a reason for him to feel for the first time that his charades might have some actual heroic backup to them.

The second reason is his daughter, Ophelia. Ophelia shares a lot of similarities with her father in that she too has a theatrical personality and likes talking about her secret hidden powers. But unlike her father, Ophelia is not really pretending when she talks about her legendary abilities – she believes in them wholeheartedly.

Where Owain was aware of his normalcy and used theatrics to hide his embarrassment over it, Ophelia only knows her father as a legendary hero, and as an extension, only knows her bloodline as one of magic and heroics. Ophelia is like what Owain would be if he was a main character, or at least was unaware of his relative unimportance as compared to his family members.

So, in that way, their interactions become very fascinating when taking a look at Owain’s character. It does a lot to confirm what I already suspected about his mindset in Awakening. He seems reluctant to crush Ophelia’s dreams, and goes along with her tirades with the same enthusiasm as she, but when it comes to telling her about his actual home, he seems sad and unusually reserved. It really adds a level of depth and growth to his character that I appreciate.

In Summation

Owain is just… a really excellent example of how a side character can be given depth without having to go into too much explicit detail. And that’s why, I think, I can so easily call him my favorite character. I’ve always been attached to side characters, and too often I see them pushed to the side and not given the depth and development they deserve.

And while, yes, I don’t think Owain’s development is probably entirely on purpose by the people behind Fire Emblem, regardless, I believe he stands as a lovely example that side characters can work on multiple levels.

And with that, I leave Owain. For now. But who knows when my analysis hand will twitch again…

Taking a Holiday

Maybe this is just my experience, but graduating high school has made me nostalgic like nothing ever has.

I guess it’s because graduating high school is the first huge change I’ve ever had to deal with in my life. I’ve graduated from schools before – twice, actually – but elementary school into middle school and middle school into high school wasn’t that huge of a change. School was still school, and the people were mostly the same, as was the place. My role in the world stayed pretty constant as well.

But now, leaving behind high school, I also leave behind the majority of people I know, the place I grew up in, and I’m taking on more personal responsibility than I’ve ever had before. I’ve been an “adult” but never before have I had to prove that by living independently.

I’m thankful I have the summer as a transitional period – I feel like it’s helping a lot, believe me – but there’s still a really loud, huge part of me that takes joy and comfort from turning away from the very real, very scary future staring me down and clutching onto the places and things I loved in the past.

After all, the past is done. It’s already happened. I don’t have to deal with the struggles and the hardships of the past anymore, now I can just focus on the good things that are past. It’s easy and comfortable.

And so… Holiday World.

For several summers in my childhood, my family made it a tradition to go with a few other families to Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana. We would camp at the park’s official campsite, Lake Rudolph, and spend one or two days in the park while spending the rest of the time cooking meals over the campfire and enjoying “nature.”

That tradition more or less fell to the wayside with the arrival of marching band, and the fact that all of the families got busier and busier as their kids got older, but it was enough of a monolith of my past that it remains one of my favorite places in the whole wide world.

It was Holiday World where I rode my first roller coaster. It was “The Raven,” the smallest of Holiday World’s three major wooden coasters. I was goaded into it by my friend, and I prepared by watching first person ride videos and talking nervously and incessantly in line to distract myself. I enjoyed the ride, but felt that I had fulfilled my quota of big rides and didn’t ride any others for the rest of that trip. I vowed to take on the next two biggest coasters in the following two years, but I enjoyed the middle-biggest coaster “The Legend” so thoroughly the next year that I also took on “The Voyage,” the biggest and baddest.

Now, I love roller coasters and thrill rides. They fulfill a need to feel brave in a controlled and almost 100% safe environment.

It was at Holiday World that I first got a taste of independence. By the time I had been to the park two or three times, my parents decided I was old enough to wander it with my friends without their supervision. I was probably only in middle school then, possibly even younger, so it was the first time ever I was allowed to dictate exactly where I wanted to go and when and how without my parents. It was liberating.

So I guess, in that way, it makes sense why I approached the summer after my senior year of high school with the desire to go back. Holiday World was a place of childhood fun and innocence, but it was simultaneously a place where I grew up and came into my own. It was, in a way, like dipping my toe into what independence feels like, into what courage feels like.

And now I’m going again with two friends. One was the one who goaded me into taking that first ride on “The Raven,” while the other isn’t too fond of roller coasters herself (but who knows, Holiday World has a habit of changing people’s minds on that topic, as I know firsthand).

I will, for the first time, be able to drive the golf carts around the campsite since I now have a drivers’ license. Now, that independence I felt in the park will be available to me at the campsite too.

Now, I’ve got the keys and the license to go wherever, whenever. I’ve got decisions to make, and thrills and dangers around every corner. So I suppose while it is a place of nostalgia and childhood happiness for me, it’s also feels a little bit like a microcosm of the world I’m living in now.

(Well, except for the free soft drinks and sunscreen. That’s not, in my experience, something that happens in your adult life too much.)

“In Flesh and Blood and Self-Hate” – Top 20 “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” Songs

On recommendation from two different friends, I recently sat down and watched the CW’s TV show, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and… let me say, it quickly became one of my all-time favorites. It’s basically everything you could want in a show – funny and dramatic with a cast of diverse, well-rounded characters who develop and change. Plus it’s a musical! I couldn’t recommend this show enough, but in lieu of an actual review, I decided I’d count down my top 20 favorite songs from the show. I thought it would be a fun way to talk about the show as a whole by focusing on arguably the best aspect of it – the music.

This was… a difficult list to say the least. There’s a lot of fantastic songs in the show, and I made some cuts from the list that honestly broke my heart. So I wanna do a quick shoutout to the songs that didn’t quite make the cut: I Have Friends, Research Me Obsessively, Ping Pong Girl, (big spoilers for the last two and nsfw language on the last one) Rebecca’s Resprise, and It Was a Shit Show. I also want to say that some of these songs will contain spoilers for the show. If you plan on watching the show, (which, oh my god, please do, it’s on Netflix, do it), I would advise overall to skip this post and just go watch it, since I can’t promise even the non-spoiler songs will stay clean when I get to talking about what makes them great. In addition, I’ll tag all nsfw content, including language and sexual content, you know, for the kiddies.

Without further ado, my personal Top 20 songs from “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”!

20. Where’s the Bathroom

I think one of the strongest aspects of this show is its characters. While there are a lot of characters with… ahem, flaws, every character in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is relatable and understandable. There are no true villains.

Still, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” spends a lot of time hyping up Rebecca’s mom before we even see her, mainly through Rebecca’s own perspective. For a while, I expected her to be the villain. After all, before even offically meeting her, we learn she was a controlling, overbearing presence in Rebecca’s life, who accepted nothing less than perfection from her daughter. She’s a pretty negative force in the show, even before the audience meets her, so when the episode rolled around that introduced her it only made sense that she would have a spectacular entrance. And… yep, she did, with this boisterous, hilarious song.

I think Rebecca’s mom is one of the underrated characters of this show. While she never really gets a redemption for her role in Rebecca’s past trauma (nor, arguably, does she really deserve one), her role in Rebecca’s current life is fascinating. I think this song does a great job at reflecting her well-meaning but ultimately jarring and misguided attempts to help her daughter. It also works so well in this incredible episode, the one that establishes the rocky but ultimately positive present relationship between Rebecca and her mother.

This song is hilarious, introduces a really fascinating character incredibly well, and maintains that, I guess, Jewish flair that I’ve come to expect from Rebecca’s family whenever they’re involved in musical numbers? It’s all very charming.

19. Love Kernels

Warning: Kind of spoilery, very light sexual references

This video is kind of astounding in its quality. I mean, the video even jokes about how much production budget was spent on this one number… but holy crap is it ever worth it. This video is beautiful, and nails the genre it’s trying to parody. I love the mix of absurd and serious imagery in this video.

Speaking of that, though, I think one of the strengths of this show as a whole is its ability to seamlessly mix comedy and tragedy. It’s one of the greatest examples of dark comedy I think I’ve ever seen, and while I don’t think this song is the best example of this, it certainly could be categorized as such. Rebecca is so earnest in her joy over her relationship with Josh, and yet it’s clear to the audience that she knows deep down that he’s not as into the relationship as she is. And that’s… tragic. To think that Rebecca puts all the effort and optimism into it anyway, even knowing that it’s mostly not reciprocated… well, it makes this song hurt a bit.

This is not by any means the most tragic song of the bunch either, but enjoy the beautiful aesthetics and slight heart tug this song provides anyway. Also… the song is just great overall. It just sounds really polished and… yeah, this is a good song.

18. Math of Love Triangles

Warning: Slight sexual references, kind of spoilery

I think it’s a hard sell to say one particular song in this show is the funniest, but this song made me smile at so many points. It’s really layered, so I’m gonna go into it all briefly. On the top layer, they absolutely nail the parody, as usual, because Rebecca looks and sounds just like Marilyn. The video itself is such a specific visual but it works so well – the striking blue of the background and Rebecca’s dress plus the obviously nerdy garb of all of the background singers… visually, it’s unique and memorable.

On the second layer, we have Rebecca’s delusions. A lot of songs in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” play with the idea that Rebecca is not always totally in touch with reality and this song is… overt. The whole humor of it is Rebecca is clearly not seeing the reality of the situation and is blinded by her excitement over her imagined “love triangle” with Greg and Josh. That’s symbolized by her exaggerated stupidity regarding triangles and her focus instead on making them into some sort of sexual symbol. It’s an odd metaphor, but it really works well in this context.

And finally, shimmering beneath the surface is that slight criticism of the idea that women are the most sexy when they’re dumb and naive. The baby voice, the obvious playing dumb, coupled with the really childish sexual language in this song makes fun of the idea that women are at their sexiest when they’re most childlike and innocent, and I’m super glad that’s being called out for how ridiculous it is.

Plus… puns. Gotta love those puns.

17. His Status is Preferred

Warning: Slight sexual references

I really love Paula, and I’m sad she didn’t get more songs that made this list, so I had to include my favorite of hers. Paula tends to go for the big showstoppers, but I love this one for her because it’s still got that showstopping quality but it’s paired with the smooth, jazzy instrumentals. Her vocals are gorgeous and I just love her.

The song is in reference to a one-off fling she has with a minor character, but I still think it has a lot to say about her character as a whole. It speaks to her boredom, and her longing for an adventure, for something more, something exciting, in her life. I think that longing is what makes her a lot more than a sidekick to Rebecca, and makes her a really relatable and wonderful character in her own right.

I don’t have much else to say about this song… it’s just good. It’s good and you should listen to it, and then watch the show. Watch the show.

16. Women Gotta Stick Together

Warning: Some swearing, sexual references

Ahh Valencia. How you play with the audience’s emotions. I know I said earlier that Rebecca’s mom is the first villain of the show if there is one, but Valencia also kind of is too. But also not? It’s pretty nuanced. While she’s clearly set up to be an antagonist of sorts – rival for Josh’s love for Rebecca, in the same vein, her first episode sets her up as a surprisingly sympathetic character.

It’s no secret that Valencia’s distrust of other women is based on her negative experience as a teenager with other girls tearing her down. Valencia has had no prior proof that other women will help her in any way, and that belief drives her negative behavior in the present.

So this song? It’s… well it’s kind of tragic, actually. You can read into it for it’s humor, and yeah, it’s funny, but it’s also really sad in a way? Even as she symbolically leads a crowd of women in song, it’s clear in the lyrics that Valencia doesn’t trust any of them. And considering how her character develops throughout the show, the show as a whole seems to take the stance that women are human – they aren’t saints, but they aren’t demons either. Valencia learns to overcome her mistrust and this song remains as a criticism of using either extreme as fact.

15. We’ll Never Have Problems Again

Warning: Spoilers

Remember what I said earlier about Rebecca’s delusions? Oh yeah, here we are again with the delusioniest of them all. Now, Josh is along for the ride! I think the disco genre is perfect for this song. It’s delightful and happy, yet the whole time you can tell that there’s anxiety beneath the surface.

That’s what I love about this show though. Nothing is just one thing… none of the songs exist only for the sake of songs. This song drives home Josh and Rebecca’s delusions and unhealthy belief that their relationship is invincible with every part of the video – the flashy set, the way too extra outfits, Rebecca’s really heavy makeup… it all comes together to tell the audience something about the characters and the situation.

Plus, it’s a catchy song. I keep saying that they nail the parody, but, I mean, they do here too. They always do.

ALSO that live fade out though.

14. I Gave You a UTI

Warning: Sexual references, like, a lot of them.

Okay so this song… this song is… okay, yeah, yeah I know. It’s gross. And it is the first Greg song on this list! Get ready to see a lot more of him in this list. I think this is kind of the wrong song to sing his praises, so I won’t since we’ll get to that, but… yeah I love Greg.

And this song had to grow on me a bit. It came across the first time as kind of just a funny, absurd song, and that it certainly is. It’s stupidly catchy too, and it’s really fun to see the normally cynical and sad Greg so happy and excitable. But there’s… a bit more to it than that.

First of all, I love Greg and his vocals and they’re on full display here. But I also think this song is characterizing. Like I’ve talked about with Rebecca a few times, there’s a note of delusion to this song. Even as Rebecca continuously lectures him on the fact that her UTI is nothing for him to be excited about, he’s excited anyway. That speaks to his insecurity – he wants some reason, any reason, to believe he’s in control and in power when in reality he’s always been the one chasing after Rebecca. Also, that toxic masculinity being pointed out and made absurd. Yep.

But… you know, all that being said, I’m happy to see him happy too. I wish I could say it was because of the deep metatext or the social commentary but gosh I just am glad to see that boy happy, dumb and slightly problematic as it may be, ha ha.

13. What’ll It Be

See, Greg can (and most often is) serious too. I sort of forgot all about this song when making this list initially, but I came across it again and it’s so earnest and beautiful I had to include it. Greg’s character is unique because – more or less – his arc is complete in the show as it is. He desperately wants to get out of West Covina, and he does. He escapes, and on top of that, is shown to be aware of and working on combatting his alcoholism.

Compared to all the rest of the characters of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” Greg seems to be the only one so far to actually address and really work to solve his problems. However, up until that point, he acted sort of as an audience stand-in. He’s cynical and aware of the absurdity of the situations presented in the show, yet he carries an admiration for Rebecca that even he admits is misguided. I think this song really shows that latent relatability to his character.

While I doubt most of us have been stuck slinging beers to “soccer MILFs” in a town near but not that near to the California coast, I’m sure all of us have had moments where we felt the world had failed us. I know personally I think all the time about how the world is a game that seemed constantly rigged against me, and this song perfectly reflects those frustrations and those longings to break free and find something more.

It’s beautiful, powerful, and sung by one of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s” best vocalists in my humble opinion. What more do you need?

12. JAP Battle

Warning: The video says explicit for a good reason, and also some sexual content.

I know I have a problem with admiring songs for my deep interpretations of their inner meaning, but I promise the top of this list has some just… purely fun songs here too. Like this one!

I really, really like Audra Levine. She doesn’t show up very often and gets more mentions than actual appearances, but she’s a really interesting foil to Rebecca in the fact that while Rebecca was off chasing her “California dream,” Audra lived the life that the audience could suspect Rebecca would have lived had she stayed in New York. And Audra is… well, certainly proud of that life, but the show seems to suggest that there’s something missing.

Sure, from a societal standard, Audra is more successful than Rebecca. She works for a more prestigious law firm, she’s engaged to another successful person, and she ultimately wins the court case in this episode. But it’s heavily suggested that Audra’s outward happiness does not equal inward fulfillment.

But all that aside – this rap battle is hilarious. It’s filled with clever wordplay, it’s engaging and exciting. I think if you want to jump into any of the songs without having seen the show first, this one is a good one.

(Also, mad shout-out to the West Covina crew behind Rebecca during this whole video. That one part that Josh scoots past on the rolling chair… and Daryl basically, like, the whole video. Just, Daryl.)

11. The Sexy Getting Ready Song

Warning: NSFW Language, some sexual content.

This song is one of the first in the entire show and it was this song that really convinced me on the show’s philosophy and format. I had never never seen the process of a woman getting ready depicted in such, honestly, gory realism. (Literally, in some cases). I mean, the backup dancers and Rebecca are shown dancing in spanx! Honest-to-god spanx. Have you ever seen spanx shown on mainstream television ever?

For real though, this song is hilarious. It’s so real, so relatable. It’s clear in this song – and, really, in the whole show – that the best and most realistic stories about women are written by women. Plus, they can be enjoyed by everyone, not just women.

Soapboxing aside, this song is catchy, smoothly written and has a great music video to match. (Especially the scene with Rebecca awkwardly dancing in her undergarments while the rapper freaks out about her getting-ready process.)

10. I Could If I Wanted To

Remember how I talked about how great Greg is? Well… a lot of what’s good about this song is due to what I’ve already said about Greg. His struggles to be something beyond a bartender in the town he grew up in conflict with his inherently lazy nature and his alcoholism, and this song addresses that conflict. It explains a lot of Greg’s mindset, and in an honestly super entertaining way.

I’m pretty sure I don’t have an actual name for the genre this song is parodying, and yet I enjoy this parody of that genre anyway. It’s honestly hilarious. My friends and I like to quote the part with the dad to each other all the time. Plus, that final comedic beat… “You’re an idiot.” This song doubles not only as a comedic part of an already hilarious show, it’s also a character study.

Works on multiple levels? Yep. Memorable and amusing? You bet’cha?

Clear bias for Greg? What-

9. We Tapped That Ass

Warning: NSFW language and sexual content (…obviously). Also, spoilers.

There’s a pure and simple reason why I enjoy this song, and there’s a deeper reason. I’m gonna start with the deeper one, just because.

As I’ve talked about a few times, one of my favorite parts of this show is the balance between dark drama and comedy. This song represents a really dark part of Rebecca’s life. It’s also right before she literally burns her apartment down. You couldn’t tell that just by listening to this song though – it’s gleeful, hilarious, and upbeat. And yet this song hits on a very specific type of self-consciousness. A gleeful, joking, inward sort of self hatred that manifests at your lowest point. It’s the act of laughing at how terrible you feel you are.

This song is the epitome of that feeling. In the depth of her self-loathing, Rebecca imagines the ghosts of her mistakes and is unable to mistake their gleeful “tap-dancing” all over her house.

That’s the deep reason why I enjoy this song. The simple reason, though, is because of Greg and Josh. While they’re not actually *there* in the context of the show, it’s still a joy to see them sing together because they never do in the actual show. Watching them sing and dance together is a rare treat and one I sincerely enjoy. Even if the humor is crude.

8. West Covina (Josh Reprise)

The original “West Covina” was the first song in the entire show, and it’s a delight, but I really, really love this reprise of it. It’s a turning point for both Josh and Rebecca. Before, Rebecca’s obsessive admiration for Josh seems one-sided and unlikely to ever be reciprocated. Yet, after her moment of coming clean to Josh and his friends, he is the only one to remain behind and relate to her longing for a place that is sunshiney and happy.

And, knowing West Covina, knowing Rebecca, the audience knows that both of their points of view are… well, they’re slightly over-optimistic. And yet it is this beautiful, hopeful reprise that makes the audience see their point of view. In a world that so often normalizes cynicism, it’s rare to see two spots of bright hope.

Are Josh and Rebecca in the right? Well, not entirely, and the show doesn’t try and depict them as such. Yet, their opinions, misguided or no, are shown in this song. Rebecca’s blind love of Josh and Josh’s blind love of West Covina… both are perhaps misguided, and yet they’re sincere.

7. I Give Good Parent

Warning: Explicit language, sexual content.

I’ve heard this song a million times at this point and I still couldn’t possibly explain to you what the title means… and yet this song is delightful. The music video is hilarious and such a well-done parody (as I… keep saying). The rap is hilarious and clever, and the chorus is so honestly and legitimately catchy that it gets stuck in my head.

Huge major shoutouts to Josh’s mom, who is just a riot in this song. Lourdes Chan is a lowkey fantastic character. There are so many visual and auditory gags in this video that I can’t even begin to praise them all. And honestly, I would love to, but it’s really better to just watch the video. Get the song stuck in your head. Join me.

6. I’m Just a Girl in Love (Season 2 Opening)

So listen up. Here’s my hot take. The season one intro is great. It’s charming. But it can’t even hold a candle to the season two intro. The season one intro certainly sums up the premise of the show well, in a very straightforward, no-frills kind of way. This intro takes it to a whole new level.

It represents so many core themes of the show. On a surface level, love in popular culture, and how it’s so often used as a handy excuse for so many unhealthy behaviors. And then there’s mental health, the key word being “crazy,” and the all-too-common view that mental health issues are quirky or cutesy. And then, of course, there’s the delusions of Rebecca herself. Her own rationalizations of her behavior.

It’s multi-layered and represents the show perfectly. Plus, the video and song itself are fun and never get stale or tiring. Simple, effective, meaningful. That’s what you need for a perfect intro. And this intro is perfect.

*BLAM!*

5. You Stupid Bitch

Warning: I’m unsure whether or not this constitutes as spoilers so… better safe than sorry? Also, NSFW language, obviously. Look at the title.

It’s not often that you find a song that feels like the songwriter dove into your thoughts and plucked out a piece of your inner dialogue, so when you do, you gotta talk about it. Or, at least, I do.

And no, I don’t say that to illicit sympathy. I don’t think I’m alone in relating to this song. I think it’s a fairly common thing for one negative thing to set of a spiral of unrelated negative thoughts in people. And yet I’ve never seen this phenomenon represented so brutally and honestly in a TV show or… anywhere, really.

Rebecca is an incredibly real character. I think this song is one of the best examples of this. It’s in the little things – the song itself, of course, but also the way she wears the slim-fit dress even without the tiny waist that usually is seen as a requirement to wear that kind of dress. Or in her little interjections, the “Sing with me!”, the “Yes! I deserve this!”. I’ve met Rebecca. I am Rebecca. I know so many Rebeccas. I think we’re all a little bit Rebecca.

And that’s the beauty of this show. It takes a character who is so very flawed in so many dramatic ways like Rebecca Bunch and makes you see yourself, your own flaws, within her.

Phew, deep, right?

4. Santa Ana Winds

Warning: Big, big spoilers in the second clip onward. 

Best character in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is undoubtedly Santa Ana Winds.

Okay, I’m mostly kidding. Mostly. But the Santa Ana Winds episode is such a unique framing for an episode, and it only makes it more perfect that it’s “narrated” by the very winds that incite all the incidents in the episode.

Santa Ana Winds guy is so charming though. I love his dancing, his outfit, his weird little gait as he walks down the street, the way he plays the “prankster (tee hee hee hee)” role so well. It’s all so charming. Plus, the song is just… it’s so good. I feel bad not being able to say more about this song but… ugh. It’s just so good. It’s just so, so good. Words fail, and the wind speaks… and also makes things weird.

3. Friendtopia

You know… I think I praised this show before because I felt like all of the songs had really deep and important roles in the show and there’s no filler songs. But… this one kind of is a little bit. But you know what? I don’t care.

I love this show for how it depicts a range of female friendships between diverse and well-rounded women. I wish that wasn’t such a precious rarity, but it is, and so I must celebrate it where it exists. This song, I think, exemplifies the positive attitude this show takes toward female friendships, and that’s why I love it so much.

Plus, I mean, god, that Spice Girls reference. It’s so funny. So good. The clipped British accents, the prancing around in front of the camera, everything. And while I don’t really understand the “dystopia” reference in the context of the episode, I really enjoy it. It gives rise to such glorious lines as “We’re gonna braid each other’s hair, then cut each other’s braids, connect the braids to make a rope to HANG ALL OF CONGRESS” and “Squad Goals: Take control of the banks.” What could be better?

Also there was that one time White Josh stood in for Heather in a live performance of this song and it was beautiful.

2. Oh My God I Think I Like You

Warning: This song is about sex, and therefore is basically entirely sexual references. Also, spoilers.

I feel like I don’t have to make much of a case for why this song is so good. Are a lot of the scenes in this music video kind of ridiculous and humorous? Oh, totally. Completely. But watch it and tell me you aren’t moved. Go on, do it, I dare you. Bet you can’t.

This song is just so completely earnest and sweet. I feel like the two weeks of sex these two have in the show would be a really easy window for crude humor, and yeah there is plenty of that in this song, and yet it’s also sweet. This show makes a two-week sex marathon seem earnest and sweet just by framing it in a unique manner, showing Rebecca’s thought process throughout.

And it’s just brilliant. It’s incredible. It’s taking something that would be an easy road to a few sex jokes and turning it into a characterizing moment for Rebecca, a real turning point for her. Where once she was single-mindedly devoted to Josh, it’s a revelation that she might have feelings for someone else, and the show expects the audience to be right along with her in her amazement over this development. It really shows how the show prides the emotional connection between the characters and the audience, and I appreciate that.

Also, the song is just good. It’s radio-quality. A great pop song. 10/10.

1. Settle for Me

So, when I started writing this list, I had a really hard time picking the order of the songs. It was a painful process full of doubt and second-guessing, because so many of these songs are incredible and all deserve a number one spot on somebody’s list.

And yet, I knew in my heart from the very start which song would take my number one spot. This song comes super early in season one… episode four, I think. And yet, it’s remained with me for the entire show. It’s just a showstopper.

It hits all the checkpoints for me. Characterizing? Yup. For Greg, of course, it’s a thesis statement of his relationship not only to Rebecca but to his entire world. Of course Greg would approach his relationship with Rebecca with the same sort of cynical realism with which he proceeds to approach everything in the rest of the show. But for Rebecca, it shows her difficulty in seeing reason, the way she clutches tight to fantasy.

Technically well-done? Of course. The video is delightful. The choreography is wonderful, without even taking into account the beautiful, sweeping music. Lyrics? Perfect. Humorous and yet also bitingly tragic at times. Just the way I like ’em. Aesthetic? Spot-on. That black-and-white, those outfits, god, it’s all so perfect. Hint of social commentary? Oh yes, definitely. Greg’s masculinity is kind of one of his biggest issues, and this song makes that blatantly obvious.

It’s dark and funny and beautiful and you probably knew it was going to take my number one spot from the cover picture and title of this post alone, but I don’t care. I love this song. I’ll scream it to the heavens, repeat it as often as you’d like. It’s a triumph. Just like this entire show is a triumph.

Anyway, tl;dr, watch “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” It’s good and you won’t regret it. Season three comes out soon. Do it.