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.