Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Is Over, But West Covina Lives On
James Toma was a West Covina city councilmember when he heard the rumors: there was a TV pilot in production that would be set, not in Hollywood, not in Beverly Hills, but right smack dab in the (almost middle) of the San Gabriel Valley, in a little city known for having a few malls, a medical center, and a really popular BJ's restaurant-- that is, by all accounts, a regular suburb.
Little did he know that the show, Crazy Ex Girlfriend, would put West Covina on the map, prompting a fandom wiki page for the city, a guide to local filming locations on SeeingStars.com and most notably, a Bustle article titled "Is West Covina a real place?."
Tonight, the show is saying farewell with a series finale after a four-season run. But Toma remembers the beginning of his city's claim to fame.
"I recall hearing that it was going to be a comedy," said Toma, who became the mayor of West Covina in 2016, "and that the general premise was that a big time lawyer from New York was moving to the hotbed of romance that is West Covina. So I figured it would be somewhat ironic."
"Hotbed of romance" isn't how most people would describe West Covina. It became an independent city in 1923, to prevent the City of Covina from building a sewage farm in the area.
"West Covina is like a throwback town," said Melissa Wood, a longtime resident. "We aren't tempted by Hollywood glitz and glamour."
It's that under-the-radar quality that gives the opening song in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend it's comedic bite. Star Rachel Bloom's character Rebecca Bunch twirls around a New York City Street in a blue dress, a la Belle in Beauty and the Beast, singing about her dream to move to the paradise of West Covina.
"In my soul I feel a fire, cause I'm heading to the pride of the Inland Empire!" she sings, with full Broadway bravado. It's actually the S.G.V., not the Inland Empire, but we forgive.
Instead of the classic Hollywood montage of the small town girl going to the big city to make it big-- Sunset Boulevard! Malibu! Fashion shoots!-- we get snapshots of a pretty regular place-- a corner meat market, an adult-only store, a dude tagging a wall and a lot of power lines. Despite this, Bunch is enthralled, possibly because she is, unbeknownst to her, struggling with an undiagnosed mental illness, which includes her unhealthy obsession with a guy from her summer camp... but you get the idea. The song ends with another West Covina shout out-- "Only two hours to the beach!" Later in the show, Bunch admits that it's actually four hours... with traffic.
Toma was worried that his suburb would end up being "the butt of a joke" in the show. But he was pleasantly surprised. "They poke fun of everybody, but it was always good spirited fun and everyone was in on it," he said. "I'm their biggest fan."
The city was so excited that they hosted a public screening of the show's premiere, complete with free pretzels (to honor Bunch's low key entrance on said pretzel) and lemonade. Soon after, the city council gave the cast and producers of the show the key to the city. Lead actress Bloom even roped Toma into singing an acceptance song with her after he told her that he was a super fan ("I am not proud of my singing voice at all and would not have agreed to it, had it not been done on the spot," he said).
The actual key was used in a later episode when the fictional Bunch receives a key from the fictional mayor of West Covina. And for the rest of the series, the real key lived in producer Aline Brosch McKenna's office.
But mostly, it gave West Covina name recognition.
"I had my 25th college reunion on the east coast," Toma said. "A couple of people came up to me and said, 'James I heard you are the mayor of West Covina.' I love that show!"
Busloads of tourists did not start descending upon West Covina, but Toma said there were a few people who came to see some of the top filming locations, like the baseball-themed sports facility called Big League Dreams that was used as a stand in for the bar in the character hangout, "Home Base" or the Lakes Mall, where the pretzel scene was shot. Most of the show was actually created on a soundstage, but locals say that Crazy Ex- Girlfriend did manage to capture the essence of their particular brand of suburban life.
"There's a lot they got right," Wood said. "It's like Rachel Bloom sat in my living room and asked me questions about what gives this city its identity."
She says even though no one who lives in W.C. (as she calls it) actually goes to Big League Dreams, the show did pay homage to Cameron Street, which is kind of like West Covina's main street, as well as two hours in traffic thing. Wood said that it's actually more like two hours to the beach with traffic (that's debatable), but that "everyone in the inland cities can relate."
But the show also got the West Covina lifestyle right, according to Wood and Toma, from the boba to the Filipino population (Josh Chan is played by Filipino actor Vincent Rodriguez III), to the mall hangouts and the big office buildings (the exterior of the law office where Bunch and other cast members work, Whitefeather & Associates, is also filmed in West Covina).
The show also managed to capture the diversity of the San Gabriel Valley, casting people of color in several main roles, including the pretty radical decision to cast the series' main love interest/ heartthrob as an Asian man (a big deal in a pre-Crazy Rich Asians world... and still a big deal) .
The show received mass critical acclaim, both for embracing that diversity and for its nuanced view of feminism and its honest portrayal of mental health on television. Bloom won a Golden Globe for her role in 2016, where she talked about the show being rejected six times by other networks before being picked up by the CW.
One day, a girl named Rebecca Bunch was working hard at a New York job when some writers dropped in from the sky and forced her to make some drastic decisions for the sake of a tv show. Tonight at 8/7c, you’ll see those writers leave her life. (1/2) pic.twitter.com/NJOKUhhhIa— Rachel Bloom (@Racheldoesstuff) April 5, 2019
For fans, the April 5 season finale marks the end of an era. And because it's hard to let go, the following two-hour special will also include a musical review called Yes, It's Really Us Singing, a concert filmed last month at the Orpheum Theater here in L.A.
And for West Covina it marks the end of a brief moment in the spotlight.
As for future TV fame? Woods said she doesn't expect West Covina to have be the setting for another show anytime soon. "The film shoots here are pretty few and far between," she said.
Toma agreed. He's sad to see the show go. Like all good things, it has to come to an end.
But it's probably a lot more nuanced than that.
The series finale of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend aired Friday, April 5 at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT.