The new drama Black Box (Thursday, ABC, 10 p.m.), which isn't very good, has ignited a small storm of reaction. And little wonder. It's the umpteenth time that mainstream TV has used mental disorders to define characters and kick-start lurid drama.
Writing about mental illness is fraught. That's something that all of us in media know.
A reference to a character in fiction as being "nuts" or a joking reference to the "loony bin" brings reaction from readers. Sincere people who have had personal experience with mental problems, whether in their own life or through family and friends, resent the casual diminishment of mental problems.
That's fair enough. However, it raises a question – why is it that such entertainment value is garnered from the hazy or utterly inaccurate depiction of many mental disorders? And isn't it true that fanciful portrayals of people with depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia have the greater impact on the public? It seems we like our stereotypes.
On Black Box, Kelly Reilly plays a brilliant brain specialist, Dr. Catherine Black, with some psychiatric issues of her own. She's bipolar and regularly abandons her medication to experience the highs and raw lows of her disorder. It helps make her the genius she is, or something. The show has been soundly mocked for its implausible dramatization of those highs and lows. Also for the manner in which Catherine Black's relationship with her psychiatrist (Vanessa Redgrave) is presented to us.
The first thing to note is that many actors seem to be drawn to roles that require them to handle mental illness. Both Reilly and Redgrave are good actors. We'd have to hazard a guess that the extravagantly dramatic roller-coaster ride of the characters is what Reilly and Redgrave crave. Doesn't matter that what's delivered is a dippy riff on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde clichés.
The other thing to note is that the main character's bipolar disorder makes her a genius and a heroine. Finally, we need to note that Dr. Black on Black Box is merely a heightened, cartoonish version of what Claire Danes does as the bipolar Carrie Mathison on Homeland. She too is depicted as especially insightful because of her condition. And just as Black tends to bed-hop with handsome hunks when she's off her meds, Carrie indulges in her ludicrously lusty relationship with the traitor Nicholas Brody.
While Carrie's fits of despair and manic behaviour are the subject of jokes on other shows, the audience has come to accept the behaviour as central to the character. It doesn't matter if it's a fanciful portrayal of a woman with bipolar disorder.
The upshot is that television, even in such premium-cable shows as Homeland, exaggerates for entertainment value. This disappoints medical professionals and people who have real experience of mental disorders.
But blaming television (or indeed the movie industry – how accurate was the mental illness presented in Silver Linings Playbook?) is redundant. It's the audience that wants exaggeration and the preposterous, and actors enjoy indulging this need.
Over the years we've seen countless shows, some good, some bad, offer characters with all sorts of disorders. The main character on Monk had obsessive-compulsive disorder and it aided him in solving crimes. It was all very cute. On Perception, Eric McCormack played a schizophrenic professor whose condition allowed him to help the FBI solve cases. It was, possibly, the most ludicrously inane depiction of schizophrenia, ever. But the show had ardent followers.
An interesting example of the matter at hand is the now-cancelled CBC series Cracked. It set out to educate as well as entertain, and in doing so, fell between two stools, and failed. Essentially, it was too sober on the matter of the cases of mental illness encountered weekly. It wasn't preposterous enough.
The problem is this – we, the audience, believe that we're educated about mental illness. We're sympathetic, we have empathy.
We think we'd know how to handle it in friends or family. But in reality, without direct personal experience we're hopeless at it. We're more comfortable with the cartoonish behaviour seen on TV or in movies.
We like our stereotypes and it's our failure, not that of TV or the media.