TV has given us a lot of great stories to talk about, from extensive thesis of love to raw depictions of certain groups of individuals. Notwithstanding, mental illness had never been part of this particular interest before, until now.
2015, as I thoroughly explained before, saw the blossom of a new and greater TV era. Whilst characters, narratives and platforms improved subsequently their quality, with consistent achievements in their stories, actors, writers and producers sought for better and extraordinary ways to portray reality as real as possible.
Thus, we got down-to-earth trans characters like Maura on ‘Transparent’, Sophia on ‘Orange Is The New Black’ and Nomi on ‘Sense8’, flawed and broken families looking for better ways to communicate with each other like the Rayburns on ‘Bloodline’ or the Gallaghers on ‘Shameless’, and even simple individuals looking for some peace of mind in their lives like Josh on ‘Man Seeking Woman’ or Sharon and Rob in ‘Catastrophe’. Thereby, characters suffering from a mental illness -a topic so typically overused when it came to mock people on TV- hit last year right in the bull’s-eye with their magnificent performance.
Mental illness is nothing to laugh about, nor its depiction on a TV show. With more than 450 million people around the globe suffering from it, it was only a matter of time for (american) television to get their act together around their faulty representation they have been managing on their narratives for so many time before.
Long gone are those bipolar characters whose only purpose on the story was to serve as a comical relief, or the clinical depressive individuals who only made an appearence every now and then to remind the protagonists the dangers of self-medication.
Nowadays, we can learn about mental illness from well-constructed characters like Rebecca Bunch from ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ whose anxiety permeates and drives every aspect of her life (even in her show title), or Gretchen Cutler whose clinical depression merely cost her her job and love life in ‘You’re The Worst’, or Ian Gallagher whose bipolar disorder almost got him into jail on ‘Shameless US’.Yes, they suffer from a mental ilness but neither of them are limited by it or reduced to it in any kind of way.
When we first met Gretchen, in ‘You’re The Worst’, she’s a cynicall, carefree young woman whose only goal in her life is to get wasted every day. Indeed, Gretchen’s not a lovable character, she’s totally devoid of empathy and respect for others, something that, in a way, makes her even more real, that, later, on season two we learn about her mental illness and the ways she depicts it in her life. If ‘You’re The Worst’ were an entire different show, the writers could readily go with the easy way out and punish her actions with it, but, in this world, mental illness does not translate to some cross she has to carry, it’s really part of her life.
Gretchen’s clinical depression is that shameful aspect of her life that she has no control over, whatsoever. So, when it hits her, there’s nothing she can do other than embrace it and try to live through the end of it. She knows it’ll consume her, but she also realize that it doesn’t define her. She doesn’t want to be saved, she only wants people to understand the situation she’s in and, for that matter, she doesn’t wallow around feeling like a victim. Even when sadness pervades every aspect of her life, she doesn’t allow people to feel sorry for her. She had already overcame it before and she’ll certainly do that again.
Whereas Gretchen welcomes her illness in a very familiar way, Ian Gallagher denys it constantly, because they’re just in a whole different moments of their lives. Whilst we have the opportunity to met an already clinical depressed Gretchen we also have to witness the awful process Ian is in with his bipolar disorder. By being inherited, he does think his mental illness is a cross he has to bear and for a whole season we live through his suffering.
Ian Gallagher does not want to be ill and he doesn’t want people to treat him in that way or any special way, for that matter. As Gretchen, and everyone living with a mental illness, he didn’t choose to live with it, and he does everything in his hands to avoid reality, to extricate himself from his family and everything that constantly reminds him that he’s ill. Once again, we have a character who doesn’t want to be defined by his illness and who just wants to be himself. His old self. His sane self.
I could only imagine that Gretchen hadn’t had an easy time dealing with her depression, but the way we see Ian fight through it is just devastating. He can’t gloss over the fact that his bipolar disorder is, and always have been, part of his life and, by disclaming it, he’s not only running away from his problems, but stockpiling new ones too.
Finally, we have Rebecca Bunch, a.k.a The Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a character whose constant insecurities and over-the-top anxieties manipulate her life in ways she can barely understand. After all, she didn’t only move her entire life to her ex-boyfriend’s hometown just because it’s a great place -no matter how many times she repeats that to herself- she also ran away from her problems, her old self and her ‘stable’ life.
In a show where fucked up lives are core, and central, to the writers agenda, Rebecca’s illness is the best depiction of all. Thanks to the magic of the musical-style narrative, we get to see how her anxiety consumes her day by day. Either with a catchy song about ‘Sexy French Depression’ or with a glorified anthem for self-loathing like ‘You Stupid Bitch’, we have the opportunity to understand Rebecca’s anxiety levels.
Rebecca, above all things, is in constant denial. She doesn’t want to be seen as a crazy person -‘The situation is more nuanced than that’ she explains to us on the opening- and she’s continually reminding every single person that surrounds her, and, to some extent, herself, that she doesn’t have a problem, that she’s not ill and in any way ‘crazy’.
Each and every single one of this characters are on different stages of acceptance of their illness, but they certainly aren’t upstaged by them on no means. Yes, they suffer from it, but, at the same time, they’re looking for alternatives to cope with it, to deal with it.
In a world where representation and depictions on media are key to understand the world we live in, I found very refreshing the presence of this characters on their shows. Their portrayals are nothing but real and we must certainly ask for more individuals that people can relate to without that godawful feeling of being mocked.