BARNHART

The CW's I Ship It Proves Musical Numbers Make Almost Anything Better

The network that brought you Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has a new musical rom-com
  •  Ella (Helen Highfill) is an office worker who dreams of working on her favorite TV show in I Ship It. (CW)
    Ella (Helen Highfill) is an office worker who dreams of working on her favorite TV show in I Ship It. (CW)
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    Sometimes I’ll watch a show and I think, “This would be better as a musical.”

    There was a stretch about 15 years ago when every program this side of Law & Order was staging a musical episode. Everyone remembers the Buffy one, “This Time With Feeling.” It tops all the best-of lists. My pastor even devoted a chunk of one of her recent sermons to it. But Scrubs, Daria, Community, Futurama, Grey’s Anatomy, Oz (?!?) and many others did sing-a-longs as well.

    But I'm not here to talk about musical episodes, I’m talking about an entire series here, replacing half the dialogue in every episode with musical numbers. Not just for the hell of it, either — it would be an intervention to save a show that has obviously gone off the rails, taken itself too seriously, hired mediocre writers … for whatever reason the show is not living up to its potential, and it’s obvious that all the talent would be much better off just singing and dancing. I mean, there’s no way Four Weddings and a Funeral could be any worse than if it had been turned into an Anglicized Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, right? Also, characters who occasionally burst into song would be more appealing and likable, though I’m not sure that was Mindy Kaling’s goal.

    I Ship It's Ella (center, played by Helen Highfield) loves nothing more than watching her favorite show "Superstition." Also photographed: Riley Neldam as Tim (left) and Jazz Raycole as Winnie.(The CW)

    While you ponder that, let’s talk about the CW, where Crazy Ex recently ended its run. (It lives on at Netflix as well as this nearly bottomless YouTube playlist featuring all the songs without any of that annoying dialogue.) This week marks the CW network premiere of I Ship It, another musical rom-com seemingly designed to cherry-pick the Crazy Ex audience.

    I Ship It has one of the longer farm-to-table stories of any TV show in memory.

    Originally a 20-minute film short from self-described “lady director” Yulin Kuang, I Ship It was turned into a web series on the CW’s digital platform CW Seed in 2016,. Now it’s making the leap to actual television, and to use Kuang’s own description, the show's second season debut on The CW is “stand-alone.” Meaning that you do not need actual knowledge of Season 1 to enjoy or understand Season 2.

    In its original series incarnation, which is still available on CW Seed and still very much worth watching, Ella (Helen Highfield) and Tim (Riley Neldam) are roommates and co-workers at a boring, nondescript office. One day Ella is dumped by her boyfriend, and when she discovers that said boyfriend (a) has a new honey and (b) has formed a rock band with her, Ella plots the only revenge acceptable in a musical-comedy format: teaming up with Tim and defeating her ex in a battle of the bands.

    For Season 2, Kuang admirably started over with something better suited for 22-minute episodic TV. Tim and Ella are in a new situation now, one that lacks the predictable musical tie-ins of Season 1 (or for that matter Glee). They no longer work in a warren of cubicles but at a logistics company called I Ship It. (Conveniently enough, the  phrase “I ship it” has a second meaning in the world of millennial fandom.)  A third regular character, Sasha (Yasmine Al-Bustami), has also returned from Season 1.

    Ella (Helen Highfill) lives a fangirl's dream come true in <I>I Ship It</I>. (The CW)

    Tim and Ella are still lovers, a carryover from Season 1 — but they aren’t roommates anymore. They live in adjoining apartments and do sleepovers now. Also, Ella has become obsessed with a TV show called Superstition, so much so that she spends copious amounts of office time writing fan fiction featuring characters from the show. That Superstition bears certain passing resemblances to the long-running CW franchise Supernatural is probably just a coincidence.

    One day Ella decides to throw caution to the wind and get herself a job at Superstition, and since this is a Hollywood musical, one is practically waiting for her when she arrives. From there she quickly gets up-close and personal to her heartthrob Luke (David Witts), and just like that we have a love triangle.

    It takes gumption to move two characters across three different platforms — indie film to web series to network — but Huang, a Chinese national who once lived in Kansas, seems very comfortable rolling with the changes. The songs are bright and clever, and the visuals reflect the show’s slightly bigger production budget, e.g., a simple animation that turns the office copier into a flip book.

    The central tension in both seasons of I Ship It, though, is the same: Ella loves the rush of being in show business, but she doesn’t want gratification to come at the expense of what really matters, namely, her relationship with Tim. And so, at some point in the season, she will have to choose. And she’ll probably belt out a song just before making her pick.

    Will you be watching I Ship It in its CW debut? Weigh in on our forums.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star. Follow him on Twitter at @tvbarnagain.

    TOPICS: I Ship It, The CW, CW Seed, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Helen Highfield, Riley Neldam, Yulin Kuang