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3 TV Shows That Helped Me Understand and Cope with Depression

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Photo: NBC

Society likes to causally link television and depression, but that hasn’t always been my experience. Yes, when used as a way to neglect relationships and responsibilities, TV can be a correlative anchor for depression, but it doesn’t have to be -- or, at least, that’s not all it might be.

In addition to acting as a lifeline for the depressed, TV has the power to change the way we think about mental illness -- both in ourselves and in others. In many ways, it is the most intimate of mediums, coming into our homes week after week and becoming part of the sustained cultural conversation we have with our friends and family.

Serialized television in particular allows for a more complex, nuanced exploration of character and theme. When that narrative magnifying glass is turned toward stigmatized subjects like mental illness, minds are opened and altered. Here are three shows that have helped me to better understand mental illness -- and that have been a narrative lifeline when I was depressed.


In the Flesh


If you’re looking for a genre show about depression...

British import In the Flesh is one part domestic drama, one part zombie dystopia. It follows Kieren Walker, a teenaged zombie who is now medicated and therefore deemed ready to return to his hometown in rural England. Unfortunately, the fictional village of Roarton is not ready for him. The Human Volunteer Force still patrols the woods for zombies, shooting first and asking questions later. This town wears its prejudice against Partial Death Syndrome (PDS) sufferers as a badge of honor.

In the Flesh is interesting because it explores mental illness not only through the eyes of a main character who is depressed, but uses zombie-ism as a metaphor to explore the stigma against mental illness (amongst other prejudices). Kieren’s zombie-ism is part of his identity, but so is his depression. He may have risen from the dead, but the first season is about learning to choose the life he once purposefully ended. It’s about learning to live again, despite everything that's been lost.


Slings and Arrows

If you like your TV heavy on the Shakespearean themes...

Slings and Arrows proves that you don’t have to be a serious drama to explore mental illness well. This wacky, wonderful Canadian show about a struggling theater festival in fictional New Burbage follows the production of a different Shakespearean tragedy every season, using the play’s themes to shape the show’s behind-the-scenes action.

The first season uses Hamlet for inspiration, exploring its central theme of madness through the emotional journey of protagonist Geoffrey Tennant. Seven years after suffering a nervous breakdown on stage while playing Hamlet, Geoffrey is back at the New Burbage Festival as creative director. With the help of his estranged mentor (who happens to be a ghost) and ex-fiance, Geoffrey attempts to get the festival back on track, without losing the semblance of sanity he’s managed to reclaim over the years.

In Slings and Arrows, Geoffrey’s mental illness isn’t treated as unusual or as something he should be ashamed of. That’s not to say that other characters don’t try to shame him or that it is never an obstacle to his relationships and work, but Geoffrey is a compelling, competent, and caring character in addition to his mental illness -- not in spite of it.

Like In the Flesh, Slings and Arrows has at its heart this question of whether existence itself is worth it when life is filled with sadness and pain. Unlike the former, it never seems to stray too far from the answer that life is wonderful, confusing madness, and it is worth every performance we make.


Friday Night Lights

If you’re looking for cathartic comfort...

If you are one of the people who has dismissed Friday Night Lights as a viable viewing option because it’s “just a show about high school football,” think again. This community-based drama is a critical, yet optimistic look at what it is to live in contemporary small town America and is akin in quality to the best “prestige” dramas of the last decade.

Set in the fictional Dillon, Texas, it uses the family of Coach Eric Taylor as its focal point, but it is an ensemble drama involving a diverse cast of characters. Though mental health is not a major theme in the series, watching this show is truly a cathartic experience. If you’re in the mood to cry -- happy tears and sad, and about something other than your life -- then this is the show for you. In the process, you will be taken through nuanced, intimate, and compelling explorations of complex topics like classism, racism, sexism, and ableism that rarely feel heavy-handed.

Friday Night Lights does make a notable exploration of mental illness in Season 1 with the character of Waverly Grady. The clever, independent, and opinionated daughter of a local reverend, Waverly is a love interest for one of the central characters and also happens to be bipolar. Though Waverly was only a minor character and sadly didn’t return in the second season, the show won a Prism Award -- given out for “the accurate depiction of substance abuse and mental illness” -- for her storyline. Waverly was never a caricature or defined by her condition, and is one of many memorably complex characters on the Friday Night Lights journey.


Has TV ever altered your views on mental illness, or even helped you get through mental health struggles of your own? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments below.

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