Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: What is the best TV show — former or current — that handles mental illness well?
Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), TVGuide.com
“Bojack Horseman,” especially Season 4, is almost peerless when it comes to a raw, honest portrayal of mental health. His depression and anxiety aren’t deployed as plot devices like we’ve seen plenty of times elsewhere; they’re just part of him and none of it is rubbed in your face. He’s allowed to be, break down, self-destruct, and the show never offers quick fixes or easy answers. “Stupid Piece of Sh*t” is a brutal depiction, even if you don’t suffer from depression or anxiety, of a self-loathing inner voice that may never go away.
Eric Deggans (@deggans), NPR
So many recent TV series have tackled mental illness or featured characters struggling with such issues, that I think the answer to this question often comes down to which shows an individual critic likes. Top of my list, is the first couple of seasons of “Homeland,” in which Claire Danes’ CIA agent Carrie Mathison struggled with bipolar disorder she was trying to keep hidden from her superiors at the agency. Later, the series would take this struggle to a ludicrous extreme, but it was compelling early on to watch her try utilizing her mania to be productive and effective without completely losing control…as she eventually did. My next favorite series to handle such issues, “Marvel’s Jessica Jones,” gave a us supremely damaged heroine suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and the aftermath of continual sexual assault. The show’s unfolding narrative was a brilliant take on a super powered person fighting mightily to survive the ultimate abusive partner – with all the depression, drinking, self-destructive behavior and anger we see in real-life cases.
NBC’s “This Is Us” has done a wonderful job depicting Randall Pearson’s mental breakdowns and the toll they have taken on him and his family; USA’s “Mr. Robot” has presented the ultimate unreliable narrator in Elliot Alderson, who fools himself with elaborate delusions. But I’m most struck by FX’s “Legion” – a TV show which tried to render visually what it would look like to be inside the head of a severely delusional person, who just happens to be a super-powered mutant with a sentient parasite living inside his mind. Each week, the visuals and depictions of the world inside the mind of David Haller grew trippier and more adventurous, as director/creator Noah Hawley offered a mind-bending take on mental illness from the perspective of a person who can force reality to follow his mercurial visions.
Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter
I’m not sure from “mental illness,” so I’m approaching this question from a “mental health”/”mental wellness” perspective and I feel like I want to, as usual, mention a lot of shows that do things well in this arena. “The Sopranos,” of course, did a spectacular job of dealing with the reasons people go to therapy and the personal understanding therapy might have even for people in the most extreme of situations. “Hannibal” was a dark and twisted glimpse into the mind of somebody falling apart for a variety of reasons and “Twin Peaks,” in its finest moments in both of its runs, did something similar, namely capturing how it feels to be inside an unsteady head and psyche. Maria Bamford’s “Lady Dynamite” does something similar on the comedic side, as did Mike White’s increasingly superb “Enlightened.” “Rectify” was a sublime look at coping with trauma, looking for outlets and avenues of release, trying desperately to find healing through family and spirituality. “The Jinx” is non-fiction, but surely non-fiction should count as well when it does a job this astounding of glimpsing into the mind of a narcissistic sociopath?
OK, so for my actual answers, I’m going with one new and one slightly older: For the new, I’m amazed each season by the contrast “Bojack Horseman” achieves between puns and animal-driven silliness and a true respect for and honoring of clinical depression and its slippery slope. And for the slightly older, I believe I’ve given it as an answer for a different question in the past, but Dennis Potter’s “The Singing Detective” goes so deeply into an uneasy mind it almost makes “Hannibal” look quaint and conventional. Michael Gambon’s performance at the center of “The Singing Detective” is maybe the great TV portrayal of mental unrest. It’s astounding.
Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire
Right now, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is digging in hard on the story of Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) and her escalated depression, and it’s fascinating to see a show commit to this degree on the issue. Things are escalating to an intense degree following last Friday’s cliffhanger, and it’s unclear how the show will approach the next key steps. But for a show that features plenty of irreverence, it’s always taken Rebecca’s mental health incredibly seriously. Some have been turned off by the way it confronts the word “crazy” every week, but it’s doing a lot to challenge the way we think about that word, the stigma associated with it, and the millions of people around the world coping with these issues.
Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine
So many shows have tackled mental illness and gotten it right — “You’re the Worst,” “Party of Five,” “Mom” — while an equal amount have gotten it so wrong. Yeah, “Black Box” and “13 Reasons Why,” that shade is all yours. But the one that has snuck up on me is “The Magicians.” Early in the series (maybe the pilot?), Jason Ralph’s Quentin has just ended a stay in a psych ward before learning that his depression may be remedied by actual magic. So he goes off his meds, begins attending the enchanted Brakebills University and is supposed to be healed. That seemed, well, crazy irresponsible. But slowly, it became clear that no, Q was not going to be “fixed” by realm-jumping visits his favorite fantasy world, Fillory, or his budding abilities. He saw, and in turn so did viewers, that his depression and self-loathing and fears were all still alive under the surface. Even in a place like Brakebills, where he was surrounded by like-minded enthusiasts, Quentin still felt lost and at times worse than before once he realized that he’s not the best magician or the Chosen One. Poor guy can’t even been the star of his own story, and dealing with that was painful enough to land him back in the hospital. Since the first season, the facts of the character’s condition haven’t been as in the forefront, but they’re always there, in Ralph’s Eeyore eyes and the show’s ongoing reminders that magic is no easy way out of the darker corners of life.
Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), Uproxx
The best TV show ever made about therapy is one of the few to make that its primary subject: HBO’s brilliant, challenging half-hour nightly drama “In Treatment,” starring Gabriel Byrne as a therapist who would spend the bulk of each episode in session with a different patient, then at the end of the week would go to see his own shrink. But while Paul and some of his patients could perhaps be diagnosed with depression, “In Treatment” for the most part was less interested in mental illness than in seeing Paul talk his patients through their various problems, or seeing him fail to help.
So for the purposes of how this question was phrased, I’m inclined to name a couple of shows primarily about depression, one current, one past. The current one is “BoJack Horseman,” which — in the unexpected, surreal context of an animated showbiz satire about a washed-up ’90s sitcom star who happens to be more horse than a man (or more man than a horse) — tells painfully specific and honest and raw stories about clinical depression and all the ways it can lead one of its victims to hurt both themselves and the people who care about them. (Netflix’s “Lady Dynamite” is also terrific in how it marries absurd comedy with frank discussions of Maria’s bipolar disorder.) The past one is “The Sopranos,” which is about a whole lot of things, but is first and foremost about a guy going to see a psychiatrist for help with a crippling level of depression he inherited — by nature and by nurture — from his equally depressed mother. I just rewatched the entire series for a book project I’m working on, and the care and attention that show gives to tracking the impact of Tony’s illness on himself, his wife, his kids, and even the likes of Big Pussy and Paulie Walnuts, is astounding. The mob stuff was added to make the core idea more commercial, but it’s the way it grapples with his condition that makes it an all-timer.
April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics
“Legit” on FX with Jim Jefferies. Why? I interviewed the entire cast including the mentally disabled actor who played Rodney. The show dealt head-on with not only mental illness but all forms of disability. The show dealt with severe depression beautifully. Jim’s best friend’s Steve (Dan Bakkedahl) grappled with it, as did brother Billy (DJ Qualls) who showed the levels of frustrations dealing with severe cerebral palsy. Steve and Billy’s mother (Mindy Sterling) was also coping with her sons’ depressive illness. It was a raucous and wild comedy with complete heart, and I miss it terribly.
Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox
There are a lot of great comedies out there that deal with mental illness beautifully, in that sort of funny-sad texture that makes everything from “BoJack Horseman” to “You’re the Worst” to “Lady Dynamite” worth your time. Weirdly, dramas have had a harder time with mental illness. I actually like the portrayal of Carrie on “Homeland,” for the most part, but in later seasons, it too often feels like the show hauls her mental illness out in order to get Claire Danes awards nominations. I also love the work of Hugh Dancy on “Hannibal,” but it’s hard to say he has a “mental illness” when his condition is entirely made up and sort of an all-purpose stand-in for every mental illness. “UnREAL” would be another great candidate, but for its mess of a second season, and “Mr. Robot” would perhaps be my choice for its beautiful portrayal of talk therapy.
But then I saw the words “beautiful portrayal of talk therapy” and realized it could be only one thing: “In Treatment.” This is not a series that deals in flashy mental illnesses. No, it’s a story about how hard it is to grind your way through psychiatric sessions, how having a breakthrough can sometimes be a setback, how your therapist might not be listening to you after all. The series’ unconventional airing schedule — for its first two seasons, it aired multiple nights per week, with half-hour episodes each night — has kept it from finding the wide audience it might have, but at its best, the series was like observing a tiny, one-act play, with great, great actors at its center. (I still stan for Mia Wasikowska because of her work in the first season.) And anchoring everything was Gabriel Byrne with one of my favorite TV performances ever, a quiet, still pond amid the thicket around him. In Treatment was like no other show I’ve seen before or since, and I still hope all involved find their way back to making another season.
(Bonus points for “Enlightened,” another series that was a little vague when it came to psychiatric diagnosis but that absolutely captured the feeling of tipping out of your own brain and into some unfamiliar territory. Plus, it’s another HBO entry!)
Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire
Though seconding (or fifthing) the praise for “BoJack Horseman” and “In Treatment,” I think I’ll use the majority of my space to discuss “You’re the Worst.” What struck me so deeply about Gretchen’s Season 2 arc wasn’t that the comedy had the courage to tackle something so serious (impressive, to say the least), nor that Aya Cash’s performance so deftly blended the humorous and horrific aspects of clinical depression (Emmy voters be damned); it was that Stephen Falk’s series didn’t present an easy fix.
In Season 4, Gretchen isn’t cured. She’s still dealing with her disorder daily. The show knew what it was taking on with this subject and didn’t cast it aside after a season-long arc. Jimmy (Chris Geere) “staying” at the end wasn’t a magical cure, but a romantic recognition. With the help of a tremendous (but grounded) therapist (played by the tremendous and heavenly Samira Wiley), Gretchen has been given better tools to improve her life. But it’s still part of her life. Understanding mental illness is very much about accepting it, and “You’re the Worst” did a magnificent job of helping audiences grasp that understanding.
Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*
A: TIE: “Better Things” and “Star Trek: Discovery” (three votes each)
Other contenders: “The Mayor,” “Mr. Robot,” and “The Rundown With Robin Thede” (one vote each)
*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.