2015: The Year Television Figured Out How to Present Mental Illness

TV has always featured crazy characters. Now, however, television writers are finally being allowed to present mental illness as it really is. Could the Dark Ages when sufferers were depicted as either still or evil be over at last?

illness

by Alison Herman

Television’s defining trait as a medium is its length. We spend anywhere from four to 24 hours a year with our shows, which breeds both intimacy (hence, “our shows”) and inevitable frustrations. It’s no coincidence that we refer to so many of the shorter, pricier series found on cable and streaming, and the more deliberate visual style they allow for, as “cinematic” TV; we still think of the perfunctory direction that comes with cranking out episodes as the price we pay for weekly entertainment. It’s also no coincidence that TV’s greatest leaps forward involve using the platform’s extended, open-ended nature to its advantage. 

That advantage often lies in characters — our investment in them, our knowledge of likes and dislikes, phobias and foibles accrued over years spent in their company. Mad Men, one of the finest shows in recent memory, ultimately spanned a decade in its protagonists’ lives, covering any number of breakdowns and breakthroughs while maintaining its unhurried pace. Yet it’s not Mad Men I turn to when thinking of the shifts 2015 has brought to the medium, but a cluster of shows that are just beginning their runs and the unlikely theme that unites them.

I remember the exact moment I was sold on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the best new show of the year and the only network debut this fall to leave a lasting impression. Our antiheroine, Rebecca Bunch, has just abandoned her high-paying job as a New York corporate attorney to chase her former summer camp beau Josh, and the idea of blissful simplicity he represents, to West Covina, California (just two hours from the beach!). Cringe comedy is a hard sell for me, even when done well; though I trusted creator-star Rachel Bloom enough to resist judging her show by its title, I felt ready to relegate it to the Veep-topped pile of shows I’d catch up on when I had the stomach for it.

And then it showed us Rebecca defiantly flushing her meds down the sink. Huh, I thought. That’s such a casual way to mention she’s on meds. No overblown reveal or anything. How nice! 

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