As far as I’m concerned, I think it goes without saying that we all have our fair share of qualms with the way mental illness is portrayed in the industry – from the way it is romanticised, made out to be more dramatic for plot purposes, and in some cases, made out to be a joke or a punchline – this all feels like someone from the writer’s room throwing darts and landing on one of them and go, “We’ll make this person who suffers from an apparent case of schizophrenia to become murderous and starts kidnapping people!”
All that is to say, it’s actually kind of disappointing and frustrating that we do not have the luxury to mindlessly pick a TV show, sit back and enjoy the ride – because in return we will get the likes of 13 Reasons Why or Skins in return. This seems like a minor detail in retrospect, but it explains a lot about how these show writers and producers are so out of touch with any mental health issues (or they just don’t really care) that I have always expected them to mess up in one way or another or inaccurately portray something. The bar is below the ground at this point.
I’m not here to go into a tangent about how bad or ‘problematic’ portrayals of a topic or subject matter – I think all of us can enjoy a TV show or movie without endorsing or agreeing to its message. We are responsible towards the media we choose to consume, and I believe this entails knowing enough about what you have signed up for before watching it.
What I’ve done in this article is list down 5 TV shows of which, in my opinion, do a pretty good job in addressing, handling, and portraying a mental health issue or things related to psychology. The idea is for this to be educational and enlightening, but also: to have fun along the way. It’s safe to keep in mind that these are just for illustration purposes only, it has its merits in being educational in certain aspects but it is a show after all, and things are always made to be more dramatic to “make for good ratings.”
So, without further ado,
Widely known and marketed as a show for people’s morbid curiosity of serial killers, this show fictionalises the accounts of two retired FBI agents from a book titled, ‘Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit. The show depicts how two FBI agents – Agent Ford and Agent Tench – interview imprisoned serial killers to understand how they think, hoping to use this knowledge to aid them in solving ongoing and future cases. Throughout this show, it asks the question of, what drives the murderers to commit these crimes and what can be done to predict and prevent them?
I’m sure we’re all aware of, and are probably sick and tired of the many portrayals in shows where they try to reason or justify a serial killer’s motives with a “he’s mentally ill” excuse. But on this show, I think it’s incredibly neat that they don’t fall into the trap of glorifying their actions, instead choosing to explore this side of criminal psychology where they asked the question of why they did what they did in order to form a coherent pattern where they could have a chance of stopping it from happening in the future. These people had committed countless serial crimes, and all it took was for someone to question if they all shared similarities in some manner for the start of criminal profiling.
Personally, one bit that is especially interesting is that we were tagging along with the agents as they conduct the interviews with the serial killers. Throughout the entire show, the more interviews they did with more criminals, little by little, we can see how these killers slowly got into their heads; and how it then influences the way they interact with their loved ones and the people around them. I think this is an interesting take for a show to explore with the materials they have, as one could only imagine how could you ever stare right into darkness and not have it stare right back.
#2. BoJack Horseman
Imagine a horse. No, a horse, but with human legs. A man-horse. Oh, a Horseman! Right, BoJack Horseman in the flesh. His name is so on-the-nose that I feel says something about the show. This show moves like a comedy; satire, if you will, but more often than not it deals with some heavy topics. BoJack, star of the show, lives with his fair share of issues: depression, anxiety, unresolved trauma from his childhood, and many more. We start off this show with him as a washed-up actor, still clinging to his fame from starring in a TV show back in the 90s.
What I enjoyed the most is also how the show explores BoJack’s dysfunctional relationship with his friends like Diane, Mr. Peanut Butter, and Todd, and his manager, Princess Carolyn. Nowadays, people on the Internet are all about establishing or enforcing something along the lines of ‘purity culture’, like if a character steps out of line in their interactions with another character, they’re immediately deemed abusive or cancelled. I think that’s useless, and I don’t watch TV shows to ensure my moral compass is aligned with the majority of people on the Internet. I enjoy complexities and multitudes in a character, and how those complexities interact with each other to give us…a person, not something that is to be met with a purity test check.
BoJack is not the best person to be around: he is selfish, narcissist, and carries around unresolved baggage of issues hoping that it will be resolved on its own. I would drop him at the drop of a hat – which is why I think this is effective in exploring such a character in a fictional setting. We see how his friends would try to help him, only to be turned down or humiliated time after time. Mind you, they didn’t even have to, but they’d try anyway because he’s a friend and that’s what friends do, they help each other when in need. BoJack Horseman taught me that a lot of the times, we’re not necessarily responsible for our friends’ baggage if we think it’s something we cannot handle, and just as there are boundaries in a relationship, the same applies to friendship. Some of us are not equipped to handle a friend whose family background and experience so widely differs from ours, and that’s perfectly fine. Even if that means we might have to make the hard decision to cut them off if we feel they’re dragging us down – something we see happening on the show. What happens after, you ask? You’ll have to watch the show and find out for yourself.
In my opinion, this show also does a fairly good job in exploring BoJack’s loneliness and arrogance, as well as how he’d resorted to drugs and alcohol in avoiding and dealing with stressful situations in his life. We soon find out how his childhood of neglect and emotional abuse from his parents had come to shape him and how he interacts with the people around him; how he’d adopted many of the traits his parents had. If you wanted to see how your family can influence you in ways you probably wouldn’t even realise, this is something you might want to check out.
Oh, this is going to be fun. This HBO series is all about rich people tearing each other to pieces, and I will not miss this for the world. On the surface, it’s easy to dismiss this as just another drama about rich people fighting other fellow rich people to the death, well writing that made me yawn. This show, with all its glamor packaging, is about family and power. It’s a fight to death, but make it family style!
Succession tells the story of a family-run media conglomerate that wrestles with the question of whether which sibling will take over the business once their tyrannical father, Logan Roy, eventually retires. The characters are so painfully unlikeable, when I was watching it I wasn’t even rooting for anybody to come out on top. And despite them being a family, they don’t even have it in them to root for each other. In my opinion, however unlikeable and far removed from reality these characters are (because, you know, they’re rich), it’s their dynamics that ties this show together. It’s a dysfunctional family after all, and nothing compels me more than watching a family dynamic grappling onto its roots in trying to make each other’s life miserable in fighting for the throne. It also depicts the ways in which all four of the Roy siblings have their own coping mechanisms to deal with their father, which adds much more nuances to this intricate interplay among all of these characters. It’s the little things that makes it all the more fun.
Many people have made the comparison to which I agree: Logan Roy is the modern day King Lear. The patriarch of the family sees his children as a threat and harbours resentment to them that slowly starts making sense towards the end of Season Two. He’s displayed countless times how reluctant he is at passing off his company into the hands of his children, but that he has to or else he’ll lose everything. He has also manipulated them all into thinking they’re the person to inherit all of what he’s built – only for them to be reduced into tears and nothing in latter scenes. The children see each other as a threat and work hard for a fraction of Logan’s attention and approval, it’s sad to watch such narcissistic parenting play out on screen. There is tension brewing between the Roy family, and they wouldn’t hesitate to throw each other under the bus if that meant they would get what they wanted. At this point it’s hard to imagine how things would end, and if said ending would constitute a ‘happy ending’, which makes it all the more to keep up with.
#4. Mr. Robot
Mr. Robot is like a breath of fresh air in a sea of many other TV shows that had come out the same year this show did. Right off the bat, we’re introduced to this vigilante hacker, Elliot Alderson, who lives with social anxiety disorder and dissociative identity disorder in a way that evokes empathy and at times, fear from the audience – and by audience I mean me. Mostly, Elliot’s isolation and loneliness is what drives him to hack people, and I would file this under him using the only way he knows how to form connection with people, which is sort of an irony of a twist because he is so alone, yet he is able to access people’s intimate details at the tip of his fingers.
What makes this portrayal of mental illness stands out on its own is that although what Elliot goes through is integral to the plot, it’s not a sole driving force. The way I see it, this is something of a slippery slope for any writer to handle, like how can we portray this mental health issue without overdoing it and running the risk of potentially subverting what the issue actually is, especially on a TV show. In Mr. Robot, we see how these disorders affect his daily life and how it affects the way he interacts with people. It’s for this exact reason that I feel makes him human – which I don’t think a lot of shows have managed to do; it feels personal and genuine somehow.
Ultimately, hacking people is Elliot’s way of coping with his loneliness and wanting to connect with people – this may not have been the normal (however our society perceives it) way to go about it, but given who he is, this adds more layers to an already-complex and multifaceted character. Shows that can incorporate a character’s mental illness and portray it to be a thing they’re living with and showing us just how they manage it will always be my favourite thing, and Mr. Robot already has a solid foundation to stand on.
Fleabag puts the ‘fun’ in dysfunctional, giving us a peak into the trials and tribulations of a single, thirty-something, guilt-ridden white woman trying to continue with her life after the sudden suicide of her best friend. The show makes you feel uncomfortable, sad, infuriating, and funny. There is also her signature style of breaking the fourth wall that makes you feel like you’re intruding on her life at times, and it was so cleverly used that in certain scenes you were genuinely scared to be ‘discovered’ by a character on the show – I think I almost fell out of my seat when that happened.
Up until this point, Fleabag has been unwilling to confront her problems, and regularly uses coping mechanisms to distract and detract herself or someone else whenever someone brings it up. One thing that hit me was though she may be quite vocal about certain aspects of her life – oh wait no, there’s only one part, which is sex – we surprisingly know very little of her. I think this plays off of the character very well, we think we know Fleabag because of how open and vocal she is on many occasions, but a lot of that is just her way of distracting us from the knowledge that we don’t really know much about her. In an interview, writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge says, ‘Fleabag is always performing on camera to distract both herself and the audience from her misery.’ I feel this perfectly sums up her character and also gives you an idea of the show.
With all its humour aside, it also deals with a lot of topics like depression, grief, traumatic loss, shame, and sexual etiquette. The writer and star of the show, Phoebe Waller-Bridge treats these as a significant subject matter and gives it the weight it deserves; never shying away from even the awkward or heaviest or ugly moments. All of these topics are intricately woven into its plot, and at times sits heavy on our shoulders – nothing is presented superficially, or only to be swept under the rug after each episode.
So, that sums up the TV show recommendations! This list is something I came up with if you want to learn more about psychology, whilst also having fun along the way! I think whether we like it or not, this kind of accessible media (*coughs* it’s all on streaming services *coughs*) is probably the easiest way for us to learn and absorb knowledge the way we would never have in classes – it’s by engaging the audience with the plot, characters, and character dynamics that make the most mundane things more fun to learn about. I hope, if anything, that you would gain something from any shows from the list you decide to watch, no matter good or bad. You may not agree with some of the things I said, and that’s okay too, we can all learn from each other.
With that said, it’s fun to learn about mental health via/through a show we enjoy, but it’s also important to remember that we should always take it with a grain of salt, and not the absolute truth. In my opinion, it’s not in our best interest to hold the shows and its writers onto a pedestal where they have to tick every checkbox in the purity culture list for that particular medium to be deemed ‘non-problematic.’ Shows and movies are made to be more dramatic for a reason, it’s not something inherently good or bad, it just is. What we can do at the moment is to go into a show or movie with zero expectations and learn from how they’ve depicted said mental illness. After all, there is always something to be learnt from, in fiction or not, even in the spaces we inhabit. ⬩
Be❦Live In Psychology is a mental health clinic at Ecosky, Jalan Kuching, Kuala Lumpur. Our services consist of therapy, assessment and training. WhatsApp us at +6018 – 206 7313 to make an appointment.
Xin Qi interns at Be❦Live in Psychology after graduating with a Bachelor of Psychology, and intends to pursue her Master's Degree in the future. She watches way too many films and TV shows for her own good and has a lot of opinions. Sometimes she shares it here, and sometimes she covers other topics of her interest.
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