From 'OITNB' to 'Lady Dynamite': TV's Mental Health Revolution

How a handful of bold TV shows are breaking new ground in how we talk about the C-word — "crazy"

Uzo Aduba in 'Orange Is the New Black' — one of a handful of TV shows that are making viewers rethink notions of dealing with mental illness. Credit: Netflix

In most episodes, Netflix's women-in-prison Orange Is the New Black plays like a series of deftly observed short stories, exposing how the females locked in Litchfield Penitentiary lived on the outside and landed themselves in the clink. And in the recently dropped new season, showrunner Jenji Kohan devotes one of these deep-dive tangents to a formerly minor inmate named Lolly (Lori Petty), a paranoid schizophrenic who catches a fellow inmate in a compromising position and promises to keep quiet. Though she'd previously been a source for punch lines and/or pre-violence tension, her highlight episode takes the time to get to know the interiors of this woman, showing how misunderstandings and good intentions shuffled her into a system geared to fail her. By the end of the hour, the show has explored Lolly's condition and accepted it as a part of her identity. It steadfastly refuses, however, to allow her disability to define her.

Orange Is the New Black has broken small-screen ground in representing class, gender, sexual and racial lines — but one of its unsung virtues over its four-season run is its deliberate sensitivity regarding mental illness. Whether affording Lolly a listening ear or treating Uzo Aduba's MVP character Suzanne Warren as more than the sum of her tics and her nickname ("Crazy Eyes"), Kohan's show has aligned itself with a heartening surge of TV standouts championing the cause of anyone with neurochemistry deviating from the norm. At long last, there are a host of TV characters that are safe to admit that no, they're most definitely not doing OK.

Progress in this particular small-screen front had been a long time coming. As the medium slowly got hip to urgent social matters like race and sexuality over the last decade or so, it lagged behind on progressive portrayals of what have recently been termed "non-neurotypical" people. The dreadful Monk operated under the assumption that obsessive-compulsive disorder turns a man into something like an adorably neurotic superhero, one who's granted the observant insight to magically solve crimes. Mega-sitcoms like Two and a Half Men and Entourage kept reinforcing the tired, unsavory archetype of the hysterical woman, with their endless parades of one-dimensional conquests that morph into screeching harpies at a moment's offense. Other approaches are insultingly simplistic — Glee, for one, trotted out a phony Very Special Episode in which a character spontaneously develops and triumphs over an eating disorder in 48 minutes flat. And this was when shows bothered to mention such conditions at all.

But now a host of series, mostly starring women, seem to be making up for lost time, lending complexity and humanity to their afflicted protagonists — and more daringly, supporting their healing while frankly displaying their unsightly reality. The CW's brilliant Crazy Ex-Girlfriend consistently broke down its title's tired trope, dispensing no-bullshit wisdom about chronic melancholia and anxiety along the way. Rebecca Bunch, the whirling cyclone of dysfunction portrayed with heroic self-effacement by co-creator Rachel Bloom, fantasizes about a "Sexy French Depression" full of longing stares and tasteful ennui. Back in the real world, she's spent 24 hours on the couch subsisting on junk food and reality TV. Suffocating unhappiness doesn't make her tragic-in-a-hot-way; it mostly just makes her self-destructive, messy and lethargic.

Meanwhile, over at FX, the network's outstanding You're the Worst decided to reveal its heroine, Gretchen (Aya Cash), had suffered from chronic depression since childhood; soon, she was sneaking away from her boyfriend in the middle of the night to sob in her car and acting out self-destructively when she's able to leave her house at all. Later she confesses to her boyfriend that she's not just experiencing a temporary funk but the symptom of a lifelong battle — and no amount of sympathy or smiles on his part is going to magically fix her. (One imagines a nation's worth of young women who've found themselves in similar situations nodding along in agreement.) And even Lifetime's behind-the-Bachelor-scenes satire UnREAL dared to speak depression's name aloud – a seemingly small gesture, but using the word nonchalantly and openly in a way that normalizes it as a fact of life rather than an exotic malady.

It's almost surprising that it took this long for network heads to realize that there's a wide demographic of viewers clamoring to see someone like themselves represented on screen, coping with their same struggles. The National Institute of Mental Health states that anxiety disorders affect over 40 million American adults, approximately 18% of the population, and 14.8 million live with Major Depressive Disorder, making up 6.7%. The days in which a woman could be shipped off for barbaric electroconvulsive shock therapy with a case of "nerves" have mercifully passed, but plenty of people still look down on those willing to confess that they're receiving treatment or in need of help. Putting depictions of functional therapy processes in high-visibility spaces like TV can do wonders to clear out the remnants of this close-minded thinking.

You can credit this sea change to, among other factors, a rapidly changing TV marketplace. The expansion of unsettled territory that accompanied the diversification of media platforms has freed up room for providers to experiment with material that might've been declared too risky a decade earlier. When Netflix has approximately twelve gajillion dollars to throw around, why not pick up Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a series about a woman processing her post-traumatic stress in the Big Apple, after NBC passed; or greenlight BoJack Horseman, a shockingly dark character study of a binge-drinking, has-been cartoon horse who's bottoming out?

This movement has paved the way for Lady Dynamite, Netflix's newest critical darling and perhaps the single most honest depiction of mental illness in TV's relatively brief history. Portraying what we assume is a moderately fictionalized version of herself (we have no way of knowing for sure whether she can hear her pet pugs' thoughts), stand-up comic Maria Bamford fashions an unflinching, absurd sitcom centered partially around her experiences with bipolar II disorder. She speaks openly about her thoughts of suicide and time spent in a recuperative facility following a total breakdown; a third of the narrative takes place at a Duluth, Minnesota institution and gets into the nitty-gritty of mental rehabilitation like a loopy, gender-flipped One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. She embraces the cloudy nature of recovery, accepting that improperly administered medication can be a fate worse than the disease, and that there's no quick fix.

And like these other shows, Lady Dynamite doesn't just mine dark, intimate material for laughs; it performs a vital public service by removing the mystique from problems many affected parties still don't feel comfortable discussing. One hopes that such thoughtful, insightful, 360-degree looks at such afflictions aren't considered a passing fad so much as a first step. It would be great to think that, with every passing pilot season, the other C-word — "crazy" — gets that much closer to retirement.