Last year while watching too many shows for my own good, I came across a line-up of comedies including You’re the Worst, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Bojack Horseman. While their premises varied from anti rom-coms to musicals and character studies, all of them featured their main characters either going into therapy or focused on mental health in general. And the therapy wasn’t a joke the way it has been in shows such as in Black Books and The Big Bang Theory where two characters in conflict with each other talk to a statuesque therapist who nods along with every complaint and self-discovery.
This rather simplistic view of therapy and mental health as a whole is changing. It is becoming outdated with more shows enabling more discussions about mental health, removing the stigma surrounding the subject and changing how the stories of comedies are told while at it. Addressing mental health forces writers to no longer be complacent in addressing why characters act the way they do and refusing to let them simply have eccentric quirks. Taking characters into therapy and taking that situation seriously means that characters can change and evolve more overtly than before – and as they change, so do the shows around them.
Taking characters into therapy and taking that situation seriously means that characters can change and evolve
This comes with a great deal of risk. If the writers for a series do not know where to go with a character’s mental development they risk having a show either spin its wheels and refuse to come to any conclusions or worse, come up with an easy fix for their problems such as a love interest. It’s therefore important that mental health be a part of the story that enhances the characters rather than be its sole reason for being, something which the shows mentioned above excel at. You’re the Worst is a deconstruction of romantic comedies first and foremost, one which tackles the difficulties of modern dating through its toxic leads Jimmy and Gretchen. Clinical depression is brought in halfway through its second season but by then the show has already gotten us to grips with our leads so that when it does hit, its effective, heart-breaking and compelling.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend doesn’t hide its desire to explore mental health at any point but it doesn’t diagnose its heroine until she has gone through a number of steps in her journey of love, self-discovery and dozens of beautiful musical numbers. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt similarly hints at freed mole-woman Kimmy’s mental state for over a season until she eventually lands herself in a therapy session and we see that the seemingly unlimited optimism of the character is far from unlimited and she does have issues which need addressing. And then of course there is Bojack Horseman, which admittedly doesn’t take its lead Bojack to therapy but still makes a focal point of its exploration of the celebrity about depression and self-destruction. These shows all have complex leads with issues to address and just as often they have a backing cast who are similarly struggling in ways we can understand. Lindsey’s breaking marriage and Edgar’s PTSD in You’re the Worst, every comedy stock character type being deconstructed in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Bojack’s world which is eerily similar to ours despite it being populated with animals – all of them resonate with us and make it easier to not only connect to the leads and their struggles but also the worlds they inhabit.
to best represent mental health, people need to be presented as complex, honest and complete
These shows all understand that to best represent mental health, people need to be presented as complex, honest and complete. They cannot simply be machines producing punchlines. They cannot simply chalk up their problems to their personalities, they have to be willing to, in some respect, try to find out more about themselves. It’s demanding for writers to keep a situation comedy going, coming up with new scenarios for characters over multiple seasons. To do so while also deconstructing them, the tropes of comedy and coming up with a new direction for an ever-changing premise is far harder. But these shows do it, because they put the work in, which is what therapy usually comes down to.
It doesn’t always work and sometimes shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend aren’t as satisfying to watch because they put realism over jokes, but this is a fair price to pay if it means more engaging stories which may end with some hope for our heroes. With shows like these being enjoyed by a variety of audiences we can look forward not only to mental health being taken more seriously but also therapy being a means not to lazy shorthand development but to genuinely launch actual self-exploration. The low-key but vital scenes in Rick and Morty (where boring therapy vs flamboyant self-destruction’s merits are weighed) is just one example of how we don’t have to sacrifice anything greatly affecting to reach further into characters we care about and can see ourselves in.