“You can’t fix me.”
That’s what Gretchen (Aya Cash) tells her boyfriend Jimmy (Chris Geere) when she reveals to him that she is clinically depressed in the sixth episode of the second season of You’re the Worst. It’s matter-of-fact; Jimmy has known something is up for a while, having caught her sneaking out of their bed in the middle of the night. After a season and a half of watching two emotionally stunted people slowly feel out something resembling a normal relationship, it’s already heart-breaking to think that their relationship might already be compromised by something as fickle as infidelity.
But the reality is so much more devastating than that. Gretchen has been sneaking away and driving to a clifftop overlooking Los Angeles, simply so she can cry somewhere (while playing Snake on a burner phone) away from where she can be seen, judged or pressed for explanation. For a show centred on a group of extremely damaged people – including Edgar (Desmin Borges), a maladjusted veteran with lingering post-traumatic stress, and Lindsay (Kether Donohue), a narcissistic, lonely woman newly separated from her husband – it may surprise the uninitiated that this is, in fact, one of TV’s best sitcoms and not a dreary, didactic drama.
It’s not as though portrayals of mental illness are entirely new to the sitcom form. Perhaps the most memorable, the finale of M*A*S*H – watched by upwards of 100 million people in the United States alone – featured Hawkeye’s retelling of his encounter with a refugee woman with a chicken on a bus, which turned out to be a deeply repressed, tragic memory.
Mental illnesses have often been utilised on television as plot devices, convenient justifications for psychopathic behaviour, or loosely understood medical terms applied to a serial killers of the week for the sake of a juicy twist. But in recent times, the scope and depth of these depictions has seen a shift from the blunt force of crime procedurals into the relatively light, if sweaty touch of the sitcom. Where portrayals of mental illness even in more serialised shows like Homeland or Empire are not necessarily bad, they are also very much secondary to broader plot machinations in a manner which comedies are able to avoid by focusing more narrowly on the human element.
Netflix’s Bojack Horseman, about a washed up ‘90s family sitcom star in a parallel Hollywood populated in part by animals, is one of the best current examples of how the unique form of the sitcom can be used to not just portray mental health issues, but demystify them as well. In the stellar season two episode, “Let’s Find Out,” Bojack finds himself on a game show and confronted by its host Mr. Peanutbutter, a former rival star who is now married to the woman for whom Bojack has buried feelings.
Bojack’s confrontational nature has consistently isolated him from others throughout his life. When Mr. Peanutbutter asks him, rain pouring down as orchestrated by the show’s producer J.D. Salinger (don’t overthink it), “You’re a millionaire movie star with a girlfriend who loves you, acting in your dream movie. What more do you want? What else could the universe possibly owe you?”
Bojack responds, “I want to feel good about myself. The way you do. But I don’t know how. I don’t know if I can.” Bojack’s cantankerous nature and cyclically self-sabotaging ways have complex roots, stemming from an unhealthy upbringing and toxic relationships, but it’s impossible to deny his character’s depressiveness and the pitch-perfect emotionality it brings to a gloriously silly show. The cliché of laughter being the best medicine is exactly that, but it’s impossible to deny that one of human beings’ most effective coping mechanisms is our ability to laugh through the pain.
The show providing the best rendering of people with mental illness, however, is Australia’s own Please Like Me. Josh Thomas’ dramedy, rooted in the autobiographical, has placed a cadre of characters living with mental health problems at its centre. Josh’s (played by Thomas) mother in the series, Rose (Debra Lawrance), was admitted to a facility to seek care for her depression in season two, and following the suicide of a fellow patient Ginger (Denise Drysdale), Rose and Josh retreat to rural Tasmania to escape the heaviness that hangs back home.
In the episode, “Scroggin’,” Josh and Rose have length discussions about Rose’s previous suicide attempts, and the effect on Josh of growing up with a mother struggling with depression in a manner that is frank and gorgeous in a way few other shows have managed. It powerfully recalls the dearly departed Enlightened, the Laura Dern-starring dramedy which tackled mental health and addiction with perhaps the deftest touch television has yet seen.
The third, currently airing season sees Rose in a lighter place, though she is now living with Hannah (Hannah Gadsby) who is grappling with the effect of medication on her personality. “I can’t wait to be beige again,” Hannah says having realised that she can’t function without it. “You take medication to get yourself out of a dark hole, but you end up just in a display home on an empty street.”
And all of this occurs while Josh falls for Arnold (Keegan Joyce), whose anxiety requires Josh to grow up a great deal to get a handle on. As their relationship develops, Arnold has difficulty not letting his condition get in the way of what might be there, and as of yet it’s unclear exactly how much success he has had. Please Like Me takes a different, if similar tack to You’re the Worst, which all too accurately shows how difficult it can be to help someone who can’t even really explain their own sadness.
But anyone who has lived with a mental illness, or loved someone living with one, will know the power in these stories. They show that the punishing daily test of confronting your – or their – emotions is a manageable one, and they also offer the ability to see our own experiences reflected in a context which helps us to see the brighter side, too.