Mental illness is a tricky subject. It’s something that we still know relatively little about, even though it affects millions of people every day. Most of us have experiences with it, whether it be with ourselves, or someone we know, or possibly both, but those experiences can vary greatly, making it hard for there to be a specific “right way” to talk about it. So it’s not exactly a surprise that pop culture has routinely failed to find a way to talk about mental illness that feels true to anyone who has had a personal experience with it. Until recently, the large majority of stories about mental illness fell into three categories: dark, overly dramatic films that paint people struggling with mental illness as either dangerous or hopeless (think of old films like Psycho or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest); “Very Special” family sitcom episodes that would shed some superficial light on a specific condition before resetting back to the status quo (remember when DJ Tanner was anorexic for about 24 hours?); or “dark” comedies that make mental illness a silly quirk (such as the long-running dramedy Monk, which treated its protagonists’ OCD as a fun way to solve mysteries rather than the often-debilitating condition that it is). These stories didn’t get everything wrong, and at least they tried, but it wasn’t enough. Pop culture just couldn’t seem to figure out a way to properly discuss mental illness. Yet, over the past few years, there’s been a surprising rise of TV shows not only willing to deal with the subject of mental illness, but shows that deal with it and nail it. Surprisingly, most of these shows aren’t gritty dramas – they’re comedies. And the method they’ve found of dealing with mental illness is by simply making it funny.
To be clear, these shows aren’t making punchlines of mental illness, the way some misguided TV shows did in the past. What they’re doing is creating funny, likable, and relatable worlds of characters and gradually introducing mental illness as a key component of those worlds. One of the best examples of this can be found in FXX’s sardonic romantic comedy You’re the Worst, which revealed midway through its second season that Gretchen, one of its protagonists and half of its central couple, suffers from clinical depression. Gretchen’s condition began to deteriorate early in Season 2, when it was revealed that she spends several nights driving off in the middle of the night to cry alone, and in the episode of the season, entitled “There is Not Currently a Problem”, a day of binge drinking and running away from an oncoming depressive episode forces Gretchen to a point where she can’t hide her condition anymore. “Here’s an interesting you don’t know about me – I am clinically depressed!”, she reveals to her newly live-in boyfriend. “It’s been going on my whole life, so I’m actually really good at handling it. It strikes me whenever and I have no idea why, but it’s fine.”
This is a pretty groundbreaking scene for a few reasons. It’s rare that a television show actually gives a character a clear diagnosis of a mental illness (likely because that raises the expectations for dealing with it properly), and it’s even more rare that it features a character talking about their mental illness in the way people who have mental illness really do (downplaying it, trying to make it seem like it’s fine when it’s not, in fear of alienating the people who care about them). But what’s especially striking about this scene is that it takes place in an episode that is, by and large, overly comic. The scene and Gretchen’s struggle is treated with the dramatic weight it deserves, but the rest of the episode is an extremely funny bottle episode that strands the show’s cast in Jimmy and Gretchen’s living room thanks to a particularly bad day of LA traffic. Like most sitcom bottle episodes, it allows each character’s strongest traits and neuroses to shine, and pares them up against each other. Gretchen’s depressive spiral serves as the centerpiece, but it’s also an episode that features Jimmy obsessively trying to catch a mouse, Dorothy explaining her try-too-hard Vine series, and Lindsay failing to understand how the LA marathon works. These all contribute to Gretchen’s increasing anxiety about her mental state, but they’re also funny and entertaining bits in their own right, and ultimately cement the idea that mental illness doesn’t have to be a dark, dramatic plot point that the entire show has to stop for – it’s just a part of the show’s foundation. And the same is true for Gretchen herself. She is not her mental illness. She’s not someone who can only be relegated to a dark biopic or the centerpiece of a Very Special Episode or a quirky detective. She’s a funny, relatable, and likable comic character, and the fact that she’s depressed doesn’t change any of that.
You’re the Worst is perhaps the best example of this recent redefined look at mental health, but it certainly doesn’t end there. The Netflix showbiz satire BoJack Horseman, the CW musical comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and the latest Tina Fey-penned sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt all feature worlds so funny, bright, and bubbly that you might not realize that their central premises revolve around their protagonists dealing with issues like depression, anxiety, and PTSD. The absurd cartoon version of Hollywood found on BoJack Horseman (or, as it’s referred to on the show, Hollywoo) is both a hilarious, entertaining alternative universe where animals have developed human traits and a perfect contrast to the dark spiraling of Bojack’s mental state, which finds him constantly sabotaging himself and drowning his sorrows in drugs, booze, and cheap pleasures. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend may be a fun, bouncy musical, but it never forgets that those musical numbers largely take place in Rebecca’s mind, as a way of coping with her crippling anxiety and her inability to face her own demons. And while the version of New York presented in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is filled with vivid colors, larger-than-life characters, and endless positivity, it’s mostly because seeing it through that lens is how Kimmy’s chosen to deal with the trauma that continues to haunt her over the course of the series, evidenced by her recurring nightmares and her constant flashbacks to her time in the bunker.
Ultimately, the way these shows treat mental illness gets the closest to how those of us who struggle with these illnesses ourselves cope with them. People with mental illness aren’t just sitting in a corner crying, nor are their problems magically cured in 30 minutes, nor are they solving mysteries and saving the world. Their illnesses present them with obstacles, but that doesn’t mean their lives don’t have regular doses of humor and happiness mixed in with their struggles. Sometimes, they might even find humor from that very struggle, whether it be as a way to help cope with it or simply a reason to keep trucking through. People with mental illness don’t have to be defined by their mental illness, and it’s nice that a handful of bold, brave comedies have stepped up to the plate and said it.