2015: The Year Television Figured Out How to Talk About Mental Illness

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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!

And then, two seconds later, Rebecca’s overbearing mother drops a bombshell from offscreen. “I hope this isn’t another stunt like your little suicide attempt in law school,” she snarls.

It’s a special kind of joke: the kind that knocks the wind out of you, that makes you catch your breath before you’re even physically capable of laughing. And Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is full of them. As we spend more time with Rebecca, we come to know her as someone who is anxious, depressed, and to paraphrase her co-conspirator/confidante Donna, pathologically lies to herself. She’s also a badass attorney capable of informing us that “crazy” is a dismissive term for a whole host of issues — even if she’s doing so in the form of a hallucinated Dr. Phil.

She is, in other words, a fully realized person, one whose mental illness is fundamental to her character without defining her and hilarious without being the butt of the joke. Musical numbers sound like yet another ball to throw into the juggling act, but they end up giving Bloom and her collaborators exactly what it takes to pull the whole thing off. They’re how Rebecca expresses her delusions, and how Bloom makes them as real to us as they are to her character. Love interest Greg isn’t literally asking Rebecca to settle for him; Rebecca’s mother isn’t really berating her in a constant, catchy barrage. But that’s how they feel to Rebecca, so it’s also how they look and sound to the audience.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend also makes it clear that Rebecca isn’t the only person in West Covina duping herself, just as real life isn’t neatly divided into those with a clean bill of mental health and those without. In an interview with Vulture’s TV Podcast, Bloom described non-Rebecca songs as other characters becoming “infected with her madness.” Widening its perspective from anxious, depressed Rebecca to the coworker living vicariously through her or the crush struggling to find himself is the smartest move Crazy Ex made over its first season, one that clearly demonstrates Rebecca isn’t a punchline or even an anomaly. She’s going through something normal, if extreme.

Historically, television isn’t very good at this. Even though, as I argued, it’s uniquely equipped to explore a character’s subjectivity over time, it’s also prone to using mental illness as a prop — or, worse yet, a plot device. Girls faced this accusation with its sudden reveal that Hannah Horvath is obsessive-compulsive; more recently, Starz’s Flesh and Bone deployed what was essentially a schizophrenic version of the Magical Negro trope, while Empire used Andre’s bipolar disorder to stir a pot that didn’t much need it.

This was a year, however, when some shows that were already among television’s best began to reach, or at least approach, their full potential. And many of them accomplished this by doing what Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has right out the gate: exploring its characters’ psychoses thoroughly, gradually, and empathetically.

You’re the Worst has been widely, and rightly, praised for its depiction of its central couple’s struggle with clinical depression: Gretchen with how the disease is doing possibly irreparable damage to her job, her friendships, and for the first time, her serious relationship; Jimmy with beginning to understand depression, including how and whether to support a loved one who has it, at all. BoJack Horseman, too, buckled down on its surreal mixture of a devastatingly bleak portrait of intractable unhappiness with… animal puns. And while Rick and Morty avoided putting a label on Rick’s whole host of issues, or even addressing them directly, “depression” seems like a good word for the genius’ total alienation from everything and everyone around him — and attempts to overcome it through wacky adventures, substances, and a suicide attempt alike.

All of these shows present depression as a natural extension of characters we already know. Their plot lines feel organic and game-changing, all at once: BoJack’s brief step forward leads to a massive slide back; Rick’s manic, reckless streak gives way to the existential boredom that lay underneath it all along. None of these series would be able to do this to their characters, in other words, if we hadn’t already spent hours at those characters’ side.

All three of these comedies, in their own way, were watershed moments for TV’s ability to take on depression. But television is more varied than ever, and so are its depictions of a once-niche topic like mental illness. In a year when sexual assault and consent continued to dominate the public discourse, then, it’s not surprising that two new series took on trauma and its psychological aftermath.

The more direct of these is Marvel’s Jessica Jones, the second collaboration between the ever-expanding comics behemoth and the ever-expanding streaming service. Its title character is a private eye with super-strength recovering from an event that manages to be both a metaphor for and a literal example of rape and abuse: six months of mind control at the hands of Killgrave, a villain who never outgrew a child’s desire to have whatever he wants, whenever he wants it because he never had to.

Jessica Jones set off a conversation about PTSD from the moment it hit the Netflix homepage, and with good reason. As played by Krysten Ritter, Jessica is haunted by flashbacks and near-dependent on Wild Turkey, her coping mechanism of choice. But it wasn’t the first new series, or even the first new series on Netflix, to follow a heroine’s path to recovery in a New York that’s hellbent on placing obstacles in her way. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, as Emily Nussbaum noted in the New Yorker, doesn’t address sexual violence directly, nor does it give its protagonist’s hangups a formal diagnosis. But Kimmy hasn’t entirely left her time in the bunker behind her; allusions to the terrible things she experienced there are littered across the show, all the funnier for their distinct undercurrent of sadness and anger.

Both Kimmy and Jessica eventually vanquish their foes, leaving the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne in jail and Killgrave dead on the docks. Both Kimmy and Jessica also face their internal demons on the way to confronting their external ones. And as audience members, we watch each woman slowly, steadily get her agency back, one episode at a time.

In retrospect, much of television’s current Golden Age — though at 15 years and counting, it’s not so much an age anymore as a fact of life — was the result of creators recognizing, and exploiting, what television was equipped to do best. First, there was the Difficult Men era, which picked apart American masculinity one extended character study at a time. Now, with our culture’s heroes sufficiently deposed, we’ve moved on to a wider range of protagonists with a wider range of problems. It’s no coincidence, I think, that the only characters discussed in this piece who aren’t women are cartoons. Expanding our parameters for which characters deserve empathy also means expanding our ideas of which experiences deserve to be treated empathetically. That means mentally ill characters in general; that also means transgender characters (and gender dysphoria) or women (and PTSD) or any number of identities traditionally relegated to the margins.

Television’s new interest in mental illness sees many of the same tools that built earlier masterpieces applied to new subjects. Chief among those tools is time: time to develop both characters’ pathologies and their lives outside them; time to give a thorny, oft-mishandled topic its due. Early in their runs, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Jessica Jones show all the signs of using this time to their advantage, just as this year’s bumper crop of second-season comedies have already done. There’s still plenty of ground left uncovered: How will Jessica Jones move forward without Killgrave, the walking allegory who made its first season so successful? How can You’re the Worst transition from addressing depression head-on to making it part of the background without dropping the subject altogether? But together, these series show a marriage of medium and material that’s as successful as it is unanticipated. And in every case, true to the format, there’s more to come.

This piece is part of Flavorwire’s series of essays on 2015 in culture. Click here to follow our end-of-year coverage.