Television is continually evolving. Once created as a simple leisurely pastime, more and more it’s becoming a medium of message and change, commenting on social structures, addressing current issues, asking thoughtful and thought-provoking questions about the world. And yet stories and characters dealing with mental health issues on television are archaic and problematic, when they even get told at all. One in five adults in the United States experience mental health challenges in a given year. It’s not a secretive thing that happens somewhere else, it’s a reality for so many people living day to day. But mental health on television is relegated to perps and victims on cop shows, or one-off patients on Grey’s Anatomy.
That’s why this year’s influx of television shows that dealt openly with mental health, whether they named the character’s diagnosis or not, is so impressive. From exploring depression on BoJack Horseman to ideas around happiness, anxiety, and life choices on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, television has found ways to tell stories about people living with mental illness that don’t see them just as their struggle. Beyond simplistic “very special episodes” and shock value stories, television is really exploring various experiences with mental health, showcasing living with a mental health issue as just another part of life, like accidental artificial insemination, or high school.
In its second season, BoJack Horseman, Netflix’s first animated show aimed at adults, delivered a profoundly sad meditation on living and coping with depression. It’s an odd vehicle to tell this story, as BoJack Horseman‘s world is colorfully populated with talking animals who co-exist alongside humans, but the animation and lightness of the comedy (plenty of overt and background animal puns to be found here) provides a great contrast to the heavy emotional material. The show centers around a washed-up ’90s sitcom actor who is deeply unsatisfied with where his life has gone and starts writing a book in the hopes that he can regain the feeling of happiness he felt at the height of his popularity. He also happens to be a horse, an actual horse, which is somehow less important than it seems. The second season of BoJack Horseman found the titular character in a positive place: he had landed his dream role, playing his idol Secretariat in a biopic, his memoir had been well-received by the public, he even was dating someone new. For all intents and purposes, BoJack seemed happy. And yet he still experienced and talked about a sadness so deep and overwhelming it felt like it would never end, a sadness so innate to the way he moved in the world that his mother even called it a “birthright.”
BoJack Horseman is not an easy show to like. BoJack himself is not an easy character to like, as he bounces from one bad decision to another, the height of his self-destruction (and the show’s best installment) displayed in “Escape From L.A.,” the penultimate season two episode. But this cartoon horse is so human in the way he deals with things, or doesn’t deal with things, running away from problems and hiding in nostalgia and fantasy. BoJack isn’t someone to aspire to when looking for television role models of living with a mental illness, and yet his openly vulnerable engagement with sadness and anxiety and fear, that’s something worth celebrating. In the second season finale, an exhausted, out-of-shape BoJack takes up running, and meets a friendly fellow jogger in his neighborhood who offers him some free advice. “Every day it gets a little easier, but you have to do it every day: that’s the hard part,” the jogger says, and then keeps running, a message for BoJack as he attempts to make better choices for his physical and mental health, as well as a message overall for those living with a mental illness. It is every day, but every day it gets easier.
And then there’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which dances around main character Rebecca Bunch’s diagnoses, but without minimizing her struggles with mental health. Rebecca in the pilot is in a deeply anxious, unhappy place in her life as a successful New York lawyer, and an emotional crisis coupled with a serendipitous run-in with her ex-boyfriend Josh prompts her cross-country move to West Covina, California. This past week’s episode, “I’m Going On A Date With Josh’s Friend!” saw Rebecca at the height of her self-sabotage as she made one mistake after another in her relationships. After agreeing to go on a date with Josh’s friend Greg and enjoying most of an enjoyable outing, she and Greg have a fight, prompting her to leave the date to have sex with someone else. Greg finds out, of course, and when he confronts her, Rebecca retreats into a corner, actually physically backs into a corner in her living room, and tries to explain to Greg the myriad of things she’s feeling.
Rebecca is a mess—she says so herself in “I’m Going On A Date With Josh’s Friend!” and in other episodes—but there is something so true about the way creator Rachel Bloom plays Rebecca, who gets to be charming and confusing and make big, epic mistakes, struggling with sadness and anxiety and questions about her life choices. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is all over the place, tonally, and it’s still very much in the process of finding out exactly what kind of show it’s going to be, but the way it engages with Rebecca’s mental health is strong and clear. Bunch is reclaiming the word “crazy” with every episode of the show, as she writes Rebecca in the midst of her struggles in an endlessly honest way.
Television still has a long way to go in portraying mental health and characters living with a mental illness as more than their diagnosis, but shows like BoJack Horseman and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, not to mention You’re the Worst, iZombie, Mr. Robot, Manhattan, Please Like Me and others, are helping that process along. Getting to the reality of mental health is where the power of these shows’ stories resides, creating mirrors for actual people’s experiences so they are reflected in all their diversity and complexity. Beautiful, broken, or a bit of both, television continues to positively evolve as it tells true stories surrounding mental health.