Mental health has always been a sensitive topic in popular culture, where it is often depicted poorly and with little regard for the approximately 11.2 million US adults who experience a mental illness in a given year. In recent years, this has slowly started to change. Television shows such as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and You’re the Worst are proposing a radically different way of looking at mental health.
In this article, I’m going to look at what makes these two shows so revolutionary in the current mental illness landscape within popular media, and why we need to unpack their message and share it with as many people as possible in order to ensure its successful replication in years to come.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW, 2015-2019)
This is a show I’m extremely familiar with, not only because I’ve watched every episode at least 5 times, but also because I spent a fair amount of time dissecting it for my MA paper back in 2017. The fact that it is also one of the most under appreciated and underrated shows on TV makes my desire to write about it even more substantial.
I know people are skeptical of it at first because they’re put off by the title, which makes sense if you don’t know that it’s used to subvert the label of “crazy,” not to feed into the same old tired trope that people who suffer from a mental illness, in this case women in particular, are “crazy.”
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is also a musical, so from the get go, it doesn’t have many things going for it if we look at the current television climate. Still, let me put it this way: I used to borderline hate musicals before I started watching it, and now I listen to songs from the show on a weekly basis, and that says a lot. Not only are they catchy and genuinely good quality tunes, but they come with a message as well.
That message is often related to mental illness. Who can forget hits like “Sexy French Depression” and “A Diagnosis,” or songs that hint at the range of emotions people living with mental illness can experience, such as “You Stupid Bitch?”
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend takes Rebecca, its main character, and implicitly the viewer, through a complex and often gut-wrenching journey exploring multiple facets of mental illness. If in season 1, we see Rebecca being seemingly obsessed with Josh, the second season shows that there’s more to that obsession than meets the eye, only to have the third season drive that point home by finally giving Rebecca a diagnosis: Borderline Personality Disorder.
Now that season 4 has ended (what am I going to do with my life next?), we can look back at Rebecca’s journey trying to adjust to life with a personality disorder. In true Crazy Ex-Girlfriend style, this is not as easy as we might’ve hoped.
For a long time, Rebecca’s condition is not specified. As we come to care for her, we become as eager as she is to find out ‘what’s wrong’, in hopes that it might make some sense of the complicated mess that her life seems to be.
The fact that we don’t get to hear the diagnosis for a long while makes me eternally grateful to Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna (the show’s creators) for being willing to go to extreme lengths to avoid sacrificing a realistic depiction of mental illness over a quick fix. It may look tedious, but that’s how real life often is as well.
When we finally find out the diagnosis, it becomes clear that it does not provide an easy fix. Thankfully, this is not how the show rolls – labels don’t magically solve things. Rebecca still has to learn how to live with her condition, and this might prove to be even harder than her quest for a diagnosis.
She has a hard time accepting she has BPD, and she even goes to Google to try to find an alternative. This is a very important scene, one that shows she fears her diagnosis because it is a personality disorder, rather than a mood disorder, such as anxiety or depression. As she puts it, it is not something she has, it is something she is, and she cannot readily accept that.
We get to see many of the symptoms Rebecca experiences, from anxiety to depression, trouble sleeping, self-reproach, low self-esteem, the feeling of living in a dream, and more. I want to underline anxiety and depression here because they can be symptoms of BPD, and because Rebecca was misdiagnosed many times in the past due to that.
All of these symptoms make her character extremely relatable to people who’ve also experienced them, and who are also looking for an explanation. At the same time, the show makes a point of showing that Rebecca is not entirely incapacitated by her mental illness, which is a recurrent trope in movies and TV shows. She still manages to (more or less) live her life, make friends she genuinely cares about, and kick ass as a lawyer.
Her relationship with medication is another thing that sets off alarm bells as it explores the idea that drugs are a quick solution to mental illness, one that helps people get back on their feet immediately, which is obviously not the case. Rebecca’s character has a complicated relationship not just with medication, but with therapy as well. She avoids it for as long as possible, and this sounds all too familiar.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend also surprised me with its realistic depictions of breakdowns, which I must confess, hit a bit too close to home. On that note, maybe this is a quote you can relate to the same way I did:
My anxiety is so out of control that all I can think about is thinking about thinking about thinking about fixing everything I’ve ever done wrong and all of the ways I’ve already messed up my life beyond repair. (“Sexy French Depression”)
This song mocks the romanticisation and glamorisation of mental illness, illustrating common stereotypes such as the person being depressed looking miserable all the time or eating chocolate as if performing for an audience that expects her to do all of these things.
Rebecca is given a lot of depth as a character, and a very important factor that contributes to that is her backstory. We get to see her background and past traumas, as she struggles to cope with their ripple effect. The show also addresses extremely heavy topics such as suicide, and it threads that line extremely carefully.
I don’t really understand how Crazy Ex-Girlfriend still manages to be hilarious considering the subjects it explores, but it does, and it makes it easier for people to learn about mental illness and the stigma associated with it without feeling like they’re in a classroom. At the same time, it manages not to treat the topic lightly or diminish its importance.
Its final season did not disappoint either. It came as a wrap-up of Rebecca’s arc that managed to both satisfy the viewer and provide them with closure, as well as avoid reaching a certain finality that would imply Rebecca is all better now and she won’t ever struggle, and I appreciate that.
2. You’re the Worst (FXX, 2014-2019)
In the case of FXX’s You’re the Worst, we don’t just have one character suffering from mental illness but two, Gretchen and Edgar. While Edgar doesn’t get as much screen time as Gretchen, his PTSD is still explored in a groundbreaking manner, sometimes just as much as Gretchen’s clinical depression is.
You’re the Worst is another exceptional show that manages to strike a perfect balance between oftentimes black, downright raunchy humour and conversations about extremely serious topics such as mental illness.
Aya Cash’s portrayal of clinical depression is one of the most relatable ones I’ve ever seen in movies and TV shows. It’s the one that finally made me go “Oh, so I’m not the only one who feels like this.”
One of the things that hit really close to home was the representation of the nasty reality of living with depression and not feeling anything. In fact, part of this exchange between Lindsay and Gretchen has got to be one of my favourite lines ever:
The apathy and numbness that Gretchen feels is scary, and while I was watching the show, I couldn’t help but shudder expecting the worst to happen. For instance, when she pulls a gun on a girl, high on cocaine, and she claims she felt bored, or when she compares herself to the car we sent to Mars, “flipped upside-down so the sun can’t reach my solar panels,” I really understand what she means. I’m pretty sure in some other shape or form, many of the people watching the show expressed at some point in their lives similar feelings to these:
I feel nothing. About anything. Dogs, candy, old Blondie records, nachos, you, us – nothing (Gretchen, “A Rapidly Mutating Virus”)
Just like in Rebecca’s case, the reveal that Gretchen suffers from clinical depression is gradual. For a while, we’re left wondering what’s wrong with her and why she leaves home in the middle of the night (is it to cheat on Jimmy? That seems like a perfectly valid explanation).
Her overall behaviour doesn’t betray any signs of her being depressed, which shows that depression is not something you necessarily see when you look at someone. That’s something Gretchen’s character helps educate the public on.
It shows how terrifying depression can be, while also portraying it as quite banal and mundane, something that many people experience, and more importantly, something that can affect anybody, regardless of their gender, race, social status, etc.
We’re surrounded by representations of mental illness that single people out for their condition, either by applying the label “crazy” or by making them exceptional. In the midst of all of that, You’re the Worst shows how sitting in your car crying or being unable to get up from the couch is just as valid of a representation of depression as any.
What I like most about You’re the Worst is that its two main characters, Gretchen and Jimmy, are already portrayed as terrible people. Gretchen’s behaviour has nothing to do with her condition. She is not inherently evil because she is living with mental illness. She is often a crappy person who makes bad decisions because that’s a large part of who she is.
The idea that the people around you can “fix” you when you’re suffering from a mental condition is also tackled in the show. While his intentions are undeniably good, Jimmy can’t understand that whatever he does won’t fix Gretchen and magically cure her depression. Furthermore, fixing is not what Gretchen needs, and she makes that perfectly clear to Jimmy.
You’re the Worst is often painful to watch, especially when Gretchen’s condition leads to confrontations, but it is a breath of fresh air nonetheless. She breaks down, she launches into a tirade against her friends, and she is often selfish with what she feels. At some point, while Jimmy is grieving the loss of his father, Gretchen tells him:
I was there first. Here, in shit, miserable. There just isn’t room for you to be broken right now too (“You Knew It Was a Snake”)”
As horrible as this may sound, it is an entirely legitimate emotion to be experiencing when you’re in what seems like the depths of hell and when you can barely manage your own emotions.
In a similar vein with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, You’re the Worst also explores the non-linear progression of mental health. Sometimes, even with medication, you can bump into obstacles that set you back. There’s no straight path to a happy ending, as much as we’d like to think that’s true.
The show’s final episode was bittersweet, but it was the perfect ending to the show. I’m not going to spoil it for you, but let’s say that in terms of its relationship with mental illness, it doesn’t forget to make it clear that this is going to be a constant in Gretchen’s life, but that she learns to manage it as best as she can.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and You’re the Worst may be over, but my hope is that they’ve laid out a solid enough foundation for other shows to dare to follow in their footsteps and illustrate a more realistic, positive depiction of mental illness, one that not only comforts the public who identifies with it, but also educates people who want to learn more.