By Charlie Monroe
I watch a lot of TV shows—not as many as I used to, but enough to fumble my way around the pop culture landscape in This, The Era Of The Streaming Wars. I have also been forced to grapple with a reasonable portion of mental health issues in my lifetime—making me, I would say, suited to the evaluation of mental health depictions in current media.
A lot of recent shows (and movies) have achieved a kind of notoriety for their embarrassingly slapdash and, sometimes, dangerously irresponsible writing around these subjects. I admit into evidence: 13 Reasons Why’s disastrous portrayal of suicide; Insatiable’s problematic framing of a bringe-eating disorder; Midsommar’s questionable use of the “violent bipolar” trope. Of course, writing good, nuanced stories about anything is hard. So, in light of all the inevitable mistakes that content creators have made across the decades, I have put together a list of four television portrayals of mental health that got it unexpectedly right—maybe not perfectly, and maybe not across the board, but good enough to be worthy of celebration.
Marvel movies tend to be loud, fun, epically scaled events designed to deliver big, bold punches, leaving nuance and deep character exploration to their TV spin-offs. While some of these shows struggled to find their footings (and some never did), Jessica Jones lets you know from its opening title sequence that it intends to break from the usual superhero mold, taking its gritty noir overtones very seriously. In episode one, we find titular Jones reeling from an emotionally and physically abusive relationship, which, despite having been over for quite some time, has left her paranoid and prone to sudden panic attacks. As the program unfolds, we plunge into the depths of the damage that this man has inflicted upon her psyche, in a way that never detracts from her overall agency and badass qualities, but certainly impacts her ability to function in her daily life, as PTSD tends to do when untreated. It’s a researched and authentic portrayal of the trauma that abuse leaves in its wake.
Gosh, who would have thought that Adventure Time—a show in which an evil talking lemon takes pleasure in administering lengthy prison sentences to pieces of sentient candy—would end its ten-season run as one of the most beautiful, emotionally grounded television series of all time? Part of Adventure Time’s enduring magic was to use its colorful, logic-and-physics-bending animated world to explore real issues of humanity, such as loss, love, relationships, and self-image. In one episode, a socially anxious banana takes them all on a journey to recover a missing porpoise but ends up confronting his inability to be comfortable in a social setting. In the superb miniseries Islands, Finn, usually the incorrigible voice of adventure, falls into a deep despair as he confronts the past he has never quite healed from, and must reconcile the fact that his happy-go-lucky attitude might be an avoidance tactic. Throughout the entire series, its characters exhibit a wide range of coping issues and maladjusted behaviors—no one more so than the Ice King, the lonely old codger in the ice mountain who constantly pushes people away with his neediness, anxiety, and inability to connect with people. All these characters are looked at with real empathy and compassion—particularly those who suffer from anxiety and insecurity. No character in Adventure Time is ever allowed to be relegated to the two dimensions that its aesthetics would suggest.
Moral Orel is another unlikely animated contender, a sort of stop-animated Trojan horse that pretends to be one thing before giving way to something entirely different. Throughout the first season, this irreverent send-up of 50s sitcoms explores the innocent antics of Orel, who often runs afoul of his stern, patriarchal father. While Orel’s many punishments are played for laughs at first, the show executes a shocking heel turn in its second season finale, showing the ways in which Orel’s physically abusive upbringing have left him angry and in pain. This episode sets up a superb third season that discards all pretenses of humor and explores, with subtlety and compassion, the ways in which alcohol and depression have slowly chipped away at the collective health of the Puppington household, leaving all its inhabitants, across many generations, grasping at straws just to survive. However, rather than condemn this family to permanent misery, the third season of Moral Orel shows us how people in such a situation are not beyond hope at all; how seeking help is an important first step toward long term recovery. The show is a tour de force for Adult Swim, whose programming isn’t exactly known for its emotional maturity.
SIX FEET UNDER
My second-favorite TV show—after The Americans, which is phenomenal, but doesn’t have anything in particular to say about mental health—is Six Feet Under. Screenwriter Alan Ball wrote the show as a wake-up call to a civilization driven by its fear of mortality to anesthetize itself, with all its cosmetics and fancy cars and consumerism, from a healthy acceptance of death. More concretely, Six Feet Under is a soap opera about a family who runs a funeral home. Every episode begins with a death and takes us through the particular grieving process of the bereaved. Creed, culture, religion, history, circumstances of the relationship—there are myriad factors that change how a person can grieve. In its five-season run, Six Feet Under pretty much explores them all, with an almost fanatical dedication to capturing the tiny, day-to-day details of the entire grieving process. With insight into depression, trauma, and loss, you would be hard-pressed to find a show with more concern for the mental wellbeing of humanity.
Reader, we want to hear from you! Which TV shows or movies do you think do an excellent job accurately and compassionately depicting mental health and mindcare issues? Write to us at [email protected] to share your thoughts!