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How crazy ex-girlfriend re-met Greg

Rachel Bloom (left) and Skylar Astin
Photo: Robert Voets (1965)

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has never been seen to acknowledge the fact that it's a TV show. In fact, the artifice has been "peeling back the curtain of awareness" in a crowded toolbox. It's yielded a seemingly endless supply of recurring bits, self-aware title sequences and theme songs, breaks with convention, direct addresses to the audience, and all that it mentions.

For Crazy Ex-Girlfriend 's meta streak, but no longer. With "I'm Not The Person I Used To Be," the series reintroduces Greg, a central character from the show's early seasons. When last we saw Greg, he was headed off to school, and played by Santino Fontana. Skylar Astin ( Pitch Perfect ).

Showrunner Aline Brosh McKenna, co-creator Rachel Bloom, and the Rest of the World Greg's new face. Instead, they are so adept at the beginning of the story, using the recasting as a jumping-off point to explore themes or personal growth, perception, the evolution of relationships, and more exploring. The A.V. Club spoke to McKenna about Greg's return, what the future for him and Rebecca, and Astin's ability to wriggle his way into the Thanksgiving and escape-room outings of a tight-knit cast.

The A.V. Club: At what point did you know that Santino Fontana leaving the show did you decide that Greg would return?

Aline Brosh McKenna: Greg left the show earlier than we had intended, obviously, because Santino wanted to go back to New York. While we had always planned for [Rebecca and Greg’s] thing to go amiss when it did, we had not really ever planned to have his character leave entirely. And so our best to really wrap up the first part of their storyline in a satisfying way.

Then we were planning to leave this last season, we started thinking about that character again, and now it's a season where we left, we started talking more and more about him. Since version of him, could we bring back a different version of him? And if we were going to bring a different version of him, it [would be] Because the show plays so much with perceptual things, with the way Rebecca sees the world-it's a very first-person show-it's started to be fun and exciting.

At first it was just a notion. Rachel and I work hard on the show in between seasons, and then we got captivated by it, and then we got excited about it again.

He's been gone for a long time time, and he's been in recovery for two years. So he would be different in certain ways, so much.

AVC: Skylar and Rachel went to college together-when you started thinking about who might play the role, what did Skylar always have someone in mind or what was a broad casting process?

ABM: When we thought about it, he was like our dream person. We thought, "Wow, if it could have been that, it would be great, and would work great!"

AVC: How did you take a new actor step into the role change the writing process for Greg's character? Does it feel like it's coming from the same place, or is it a different experience?

ABM: He's still Greg-y, and he's still the same person. Your personality does not change because you get help. So we wanted to make that point. Later on, you'll see that she expects him to be so completely different, and he's not. He's in many ways, still the same sarcastic, self-deprecating person.

But at the same time, in many ways, he has changed. He spent two years in recovery alongside people who've been through difficult things. He's been through difficult things [himself]. So, I think it's been expanded to his humanity.

ABC: Well, she thinks it's because he's changed because she's changed to Rebecca because he's changed because she's changed, or some combination of both? changed and then at the end of the episode, he's the one who discovers, "Hey, maybe we've both changed, and that's why you see me differently." And for all we know, he sees a slightly different person , although he does not seem to identify it that way. But I think it's really that they've both changed.

It was a really fun opportunity, or it turned out to be a fun opportunity that we didn do not realize [was possible] at the time [Fontana left the show]. Just to recast the character and really deal with someone so different. When you run into an ex, they seem so incredibly different as to unrecognizable. And that was something we thought was funny off the bat.

Rachel Bloom, Skylar Astin
Photo: Robert Voets

AVC: There's a long history in film and TV of roles recast, but I've never seen it integrated into the plot quite a direct way, both in terms of the actual action of the episode, and so what's going on thematically and emotionally.

ABM: That's what got us excited about it!

AVC: Do you imagine that inside Greg's head, Rebecca is played by Evan Rachel Wood or somebody?

ABM: [Laughs.] Oh, no. No, I do not think she looks different to him. I think that she looks different different to him, but not so much that she actually looks different. You know, he's in this recovery process, so I think he's used to people metamorphosing.

AVC: What is it like to hear a new actor read that character for the first time?

ABM: Oh, it was really fun. I mean, he knows Rachel Gube [who plays Father Brah on the show, in addition to writing and producing]he knew a bunch of people on the show. I have to say, for a show that's in its fourth season. He just got blended right in, just mixed with the group, and pretty soon was having Thanksgiving with people, and going to escape rooms. Socially, it was something seamless.

AVC: What would Greg's story have looked like without that early exit?

ABM: Well, we would not have had go into recovery, and realize that [he needs help] so quickly. It almost happens that he realizes that he's in an alcoholic and needs to get treatment. We did that over four episodes. We had originally conceived that would happen over [the course of] season two.

Rebecca revolves around her own personal growth and experiences with Josh and Nathaniel.

AVC: Like Josh going to therapy.

ABM: We've been we've been loving Josh since [he and Rebecca] broke up at the end of season two. So, you know, our plan is always Greg, and his evolution, and his relationship with Rebecca, and their friendship. We had imagined that he would get into treatment at the end of season two, and then in season three, they would become friends. And so we kind of shortened the first part of it, and then return to it here.

AVC: So pretty similar, but with a dramatically different timeline.

ABM: Exactly. Santino had a one-year deal, but I think he hoped that things would work out [with] him. Greg and Rebecca break up, but they are going to take a little longer.

AVC: The big subplots in this episode are about people missing things-Valencia and Father Brah missing their window, Josh missing out on a big part of the high school experience, Paula missing those texts. Should we look for those subplots in Greg and Rebecca's storyline here?

ABM: Definitely, definitely. The theme of the episode is changes over time, and what people have perceived, and what the characters have perceived with the passage of time. So we've deliberately put [Greg] in an episode where everybody deals with what happens when time goes by, and things have changed, and so we have two storylines echo, a little bit, the same dilemmas from different lenses.

AVC: It sometimes seems as though Rebecca's connection with Greg is the most traditionally rom-com-esque in the show, and here's a song about a series of meet-cutes.

ABM: You know, we tried for three traditional ones. Nathaniel is sort of the unattainable, Mr. Perfect, James-Spader-from-the-'80s, sort of untouchable perfect guy that you're in love with. Or even like a Richard Gere in Pretty Woman type. Sort of the cold, shut down, unattainable rich asshole. So he's a trope, too. Greg is sort of a sad sack, best friend, "friendzone" guy. Then Josh is the high school quarterback, hometown hero type. Paula's a sidekick, and Darryl's a goofy boss-and-sort-of-things really live inside those characters. So he's one of the tropes, but with the love interests, we're always conscious of exploring the tropes that already exists in rom-coms.

Rachel Bloom, Gabrielle Rodriguez, Vella Lovell
Photo: Robert Voets

AVC: Are Valencian and Heather right about Greg's role in Rebecca's life?

ABM: Well, I do not know! Oh my god, thank god "And you had no idea. It really did not work, but they never voiced it because they did not want to be rude, and they were pursuing relationships with other people. That's a good question [to answer] after your last question: He is the one that would seem, [Heather and Valencia] most like endgame, because they are cut from the same cloth in a way. Nathaniel is sort of a prince charming, and Josh and Rebecca definitely did not sit at the same table in high school. Rebecca and Greg are the most externally matched.

AVC: Yeah, it seems like all of Rebecca's love interests reflect different aspects of her persona. Like if Nathaniel is sort of the parts of her, and maybe the "wow, you're really broken" and "holy shit, your parents" parts-

ABM: And she's a little snobby, too

AVC: Exactly. Josh-

ABM: And Rebecca is definitely both of those things.

AVC: So, what about Rebecca is reflected in Greg? What makes them cut off the same cloth?

ABM: I think they're smart in the same way. Kurt Vonnegut, you know, I think they have the same-apart from musical interest and rom-coms-references. And I think that Greg got up in an environment where he felt like a weirdo because he's an intellectual, offbeat guy who listens to Pogues records or whatever. That's why I say "external." I think when they go to the bookstore, they go to the same section. They have an intellectual connection which is sincere, as opposed to intellectual connection with Nathaniel, which is mostly based on snobbery and stuff like that.

AVC: Were there any conversations with Santino about the recasting of the role, and where the character is headed?

ABM: We let him know we were doing it. When we decided to bring [Greg] back, we let him know.

AVC: What, if anything, does Skylar Astin bring to Greg Santini's brought to the role?

ABM: There's a little sense, and there's nothing wrong with that. He knows that she's in love with somebody else, and he pursues her, not [in spite of it]but child of because of of it. He's a bit of an emotional masochist. So he found someone who did not really care about him, what's up with him, and now he's evolved. He's been confronted with these tendencies in himself. So he's more aware, and I think he's a warmer, children's person.

And this is less about the actor, and more about the character. I think the character is a warmer, more connected, evolved person who understands when Rebecca tells him what happened to his dad, even though he is understandably disgusted and upset. So he has been in a lot of meetings where he heard a lot of people, [who] do too much meth and wind up in ditches. And he knows, with somebody who's struggling with their mental health, he knows the sort of extremities that they can end up with. So I think his compassion and humanity when she tells him all that. That's a different guy. The guy we knew before was really excited to punish. But that's how we got the character. That's not indicative of the actor.

Skylar himself has a warmth to him which makes him, I think, a natural fit for the recast. His instincts are naturally very warm and kind and connected.

AVC: Would this Greg ever sing "Settle For Me "

ABM: Well, he'd know that's pathological. He'd look back on that and say, "Wow, that's what I thought of myself. That's what my opinion was. And that's what shit says, "Because he was at his self-loathing with her. So he might have the same impulse-I mean, you do not go into recovery, or go into therapy, and all of a sudden do not have the impulses. But you can check them. You can examine them, which is what she's doing. Right?

I mean, this season, she sees the rabbit holes she is using to eagerly bound down, and she's starting to get fucked down, but she's doing what she's doing. Tucker down the hall, dressed as a busboy, and she's going, "Wait, this is a good idea, but I have a good reason for you it. I

AVC: Progress!

ABM: Yeah. So she has an understanding of what she's doing. An awareness, which is really kind of all you can ask who's struggling with these issues. And he's the same. So I think he has a lot of the same impulses, but he's now ready to sort of healthily reflect on them. So I urge to sing "Settle For Me," but hey look in the mirror, and say, "You know what? I could not wait to tell this girl she could treat me like shit. That's probably not the best thing. "

AVC: Well, they're going to spend."

Well, they're going to spend more time together and get to know each other. And so it's going to get a lot of other characters on the show, too. That's been tremendously fun. And in fact, the next episode could've been the kookiest, craziest episode we've ever done. I mean, it's bonkers. That's so fun to make. And I just want to say-slight spoiler for that episode-Greg spends most of his time with Nathaniel. So that's another thing on bringing him back: We can mix and match him with the other folks, and that's been great. Especially he and Scott Michael Foster, [who] bonded instantly.

But he and Rebecca are going to try and figure out what's there, and what's left, and is there anything. I think you can see this episode and episode nine, there's a strong connection there. What do you do about that?

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