(Netflix)

Can Mental Illness Be Funny?

This essay discusses the plot and characters of the most recent seasons of the TV shows You’re the Worst, Lady Dynamite, and BoJack Horseman. Spoilers ahead!

In the era of “Peak TV,” there are many shows that are breaking the mold of what viewers may expect to see on the small screen.1 While in the past, hour-long dramas and half-hour sitcoms were the norm, the massive expansion of scripted programming on networks, cable, and streaming services has allowed for the blurring of these lines and a mixing of genres. More and more programs are fitting into a hybrid category of “dramedy” – highlighting the humor in dark situations or the serious themes under comedy. One theme that has exploded across the medium is mental health and mental illness. A number of recent shows have explored mental health concerns, showing how people living with such issues are affected in their daily lives.

I have already written here about the musical-comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, in which a young woman throws her NYC life away to chase a high school boyfriend to California, set to a soundtrack of witty musical numbers. I’ve also been fascinated to see the theme of mental illness developed in shows like FX (later FXX)’s You’re the Worst, as well as Lady Dynamite and BoJack Horseman, both on Netflix. These shows have focused on the effects of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and bipolar disorder on their characters with very different approaches.

You’re the Worst

You’re the Worst is a darkly funny show focusing on Gretchen and Jimmy, who meet at a wedding reception. They are drawn together by their worst characteristics; both are selfish, narcissistic, and have substance-abuse issues. A one-night stand becomes a relationship, and the show is built around the core quartet of them, Gretchen’s best friend Lindsay, and Jimmy’s roommate Edgar, a veteran of the Iraq War with PTSD. Now in its third season, You’re the Worst has taken these awful people and dived into what has shaped their personalities. In season two, Gretchen falls into clinical depression and spends the main arc of the season unable to pull herself out.

Gretchen "self-medicates" as friends look on in You're the Worst. (FXX)
Gretchen “self-medicates” as friends look on in You’re the Worst. (FXX)

Jimmy has to come to terms with being unable to “fix” his girlfriend, while Gretchen struggles with simply getting out of bed in the morning. It is one of the most honest depictions I’ve seen of both sides of a relationship struggling through one partner’s mental illness. Jimmy wants to help, but can’t figure out how; Gretchen tries many methods of coping (including cocaine and Adderall) but nothing helps. By the end of the season, Gretchen has promised to seek professional help, but it’s clear that the issue won’t just disappear. Unlike many sitcoms of the past, this isn’t a problem that will be solved neatly in one half-hour episode.

In the third season, currently airing on FXX, roommate Edgar too begins to spiral. His control over his PTSD has always been tenuous, and in the beginning it was often used to comedic effect. A serious girlfriend makes him weigh the benefits of the cocktail of drugs that help him cope with the accompanying sexual and emotional side effects. He, unfortunately for his mental health, decides to stop taking his 11 prescription medications cold turkey. The fifth episode “Twenty-Two” narrows in on this decision. While most episodes of YTW have the common structure of an A, B, and sometimes C storyline, “Twenty-Two” retells the events of a previous episode through Edgar’s eyes. While Gretchen takes Jimmy about town hoping to help him cope with the sudden death of his father, it turns out that Edgar has been spiraling into insomnia, paranoia, and suicidal thoughts.

Desmin Borges as Edgar in full spiral on You're the Worst. (FXX)
Desmin Borges as Edgar in full spiral on You’re the Worst. (FXX)

A consultation at the VA does not go well — when he tells the doctor that he has stopped all his medications, she refuses to enroll him in a promising virtual reality study that could help him better cope with his trauma. Edgar begins drinking alone, hanging out for hours by the side of a highway, and it is only a chance encounter with another veteran that stops him from possibly doing more harm to himself. This man encourages him to find whatever helps him cope, giving examples of friends who have turned to yoga, hunting, or his own use of a therapy dog companion. Edgar seems more hopeful at episode’s end, though I am sure that the writers are not done exploring his journey to mental health and happiness.

Lady Dynamite

Stand-up comedian Maria Bamford is not the type you’d think would be given the keys to her own television show, but thank goodness for Peak TV. Her comedy act is rooted in funny voices, a hilarious impersonation of her mother, stories about her pugs, and honest discussions of her struggles with bipolar disorder. Her Netflix show, Lady Dynamite, is a loosely autobiographical version of her life that exposes the before, during, and after of a bipolar episode that landed her in a treatment facility.

Lady Dynamite's Maria Bamford in manic colors, depressed blues, and her “normal” present. (Netflix)
Lady Dynamite‘s Maria Bamford in manic colors, depressed blues, and her “normal” present. (Netflix)

In each episode, you see Maria at all three stages, with each timeline differentiated by lighting and color. Bright colors highlight the manic tenor of her life before; her time spent at home with her parents in Minnesota getting help are all grays and blues; and the most natural look is saved for the “present day” as she is getting her life back on track. The show mixes her personal and professional problems. Before treatment, Maria was in a famous ad campaign (in real life, Target; on the show, “Checklist”); afterwards she struggles to figure out how to get back into acting. Her personal relationships — with her manager, romantic partners, neighbors, and friends — are all influenced by her mental state. Supremely weird, wacky, and hilarious, I feel lucky that we’re now in an era where there is room for a show like Lady Dynamite to explore such storylines and feature the strange and wonderful viewpoint of Maria Bamford.

BoJack Horseman

BoJack Horseman probably caught your eye because of its strange concept. The world of BoJack is one in which humans and anthropomorphic animals live side-by-side. The title character (a literal horse-man) is a washed-up actor who starred in a family sitcom in the 1990s and is now struggling to get back into the spotlight. In the first season, he works with a ghostwriter to pen his memoirs, while the second season focuses on making his dream project, a Secretariat biopic. The third and most recent season has BoJack traveling to promote the film and navigating awards season.

BoJack and Penny on prom night in BoJack Horseman. (Netflix)
BoJack and Penny on prom night in BoJack Horseman. (Netflix)

Throughout the series, BoJack, voiced by Will Arnett, struggles with depression and substance abuse. When the series starts, it has been years since BoJack has been a working actor. He is emotionally abusive towards his friends, struggles in romantic relationships, and is his own worst enemy when it comes to fixing his problems. Even when he finds success, he manages to mess up even worse. In season two, he lands the starring role in Secretariat, but much of his role is redone in CGI when he skips town to track down an old friend named Charlotte. He stays for months with her family in New Mexico and forms a friendship with Penny, her teenage daughter. But after Penny’s prom, when Bojack follows his worst instincts by coming on to her, Charlotte kicks him out of their lives. In BoJack, you keep thinking that he has bottomed out, yet the writers find ways for BoJack to hit new lows. In the most recent season, a weeks-long bender with one of his former co-stars ends in her death by overdose. It is hard to predict where the show will go from here, but I am always along for the ride.

Though I’ve focused here on the shows’ dramatic elements, You’re the Worst, Lady Dynamite, and BoJack Horseman are often laugh-out-loud comedies. They find hilarity in people’s darkest impulses, in their personality quirks, and in the situations they find themselves in, or more often, get themselves into. Both YTW and BoJack had funny storylines about characters getting into the cult-like culture of improv comedy; Lady Dynamite and BoJack each use stereotypes of Hollywood and show business for hilarious bits and characters.

But these series also show how differently mental illness can be used in comedic entertainment. The tragedy of BoJack’s depression and addiction issues is much darker than the way Maria’s bipolar disorder is portrayed. Edgar’s PTSD may have started out as another reason for Jimmy to bully him, but no longer. Yet the creators and writers of these shows have found a way to weave comedic stories around these very realistic and sometimes painful portrayals of mental illness. Mental illness is complex, and these tragicomic shows capture the darkness, absurdity, and yes, comedy of the experience. I hope that seeing these stories helps viewers to better understand mental illness and to perhaps recognize themselves in these characters. And I hope that their success helps future creators see how much we need to see such portrayals on screen.

Notes

  1. John Landgraf, the CEO of FX Networks, coined this term at the Television Critics Association press tour in 2015, a year in which there were more than 400 original scripted series. It is commonly used now by critics — both seriously and tongue-in-cheek — to describe the current TV landscape. Return to text.

About the Author

Share your Thoughts