There was a scary moment, as the credits rolled over the season 1 finale of “13 Reasons Why,” when I feared television would never be the same again. After watching the sadly graphic scene in which Hannah Baker commits suicide — the scene was cut from the episode, two years too late — I felt deeply nauseous and chronically disturbed. The show, I concluded after finishing its entire first season, was terrible, but it was immensely popular, sparking lasting talk throughout the college cafeteria. I was worried, would this be the future of youth television? Unfettered brutality for clicks?
Most critics are right — The New Yorker sentenced the show’s “disrespectful and disrespectful pedagogical aesthetic”; The independent, in not very general terms, call for its pure and simple cancellation. And yet, the show, marketed to teenagers, was renewed for three more excruciating seasons. Asked by Vulture about the series’ inclusion of particularly graphic sexual assault scenes, series creator Brian Yorkey responded with a statement advocating for the show’s mission to “tell stories truthfully…unwaveringly.” As if a story was something without implications, whose life stopped when told.
Since “13 Reasons Why” first appeared on Netflix in 2017, the discourse surrounding representation versus authentic portrayal of mental illness has only become more pervasive. Today, we ask more of the media: to tell stories with care and respect for the communities from which they are inspired. Mental illness is an elusive theme to represent well, as it exists in different forms across different identity spectra. Careful portrayals recognize and elevate this variety, taking precautions not to allow mental illness to diminish a character in any way.
Take the main character of “Ted Lasso”; a straight white man who is, absurdly, improbably, nice. Ted, Kansas City football manager and vehement optimist, is asked to lead an English football club by its newly divorced owner, who hopes the move will lead to relegation of the Premier’s beloved team from the Premier. League. The strategy is working, but we hardly notice the team’s failures; most of Ted’s training takes place between matches, as he subtly tears away vestiges of the patriarchy from the men of Richmond FC. In one scene, Richmond veteran and team captain Roy Kent asks Ted for advice: Roy’s girlfriend Keeley admitted to having slept with fellow team member Jamie Tartt, Roy’s nemesis and narcissistic executioner. Their suggestion to Roy? Move on. Ted’s advice seems to stick; in season two, Jamie admits his abiding love for Keeley, even as her relationship with Roy grows increasingly serious. Roy, after finding out, confronts Jamie, and without Ted’s help, forgives him. It’s a never-ending stream of satisfaction as the toxic tropes are, one by one, killed with kindness. Over time, however, we are made to wonder if this kindness, so capable of killing, is rooted in something darker.
In the show’s second season, the curtain rises on the inner turmoil that makes Ted’s bubbly personality all the more frantic. We learn that Ted’s father died by suicide when Ted was young, and his struggle to process this fact is complicated by his anxiety, which manifests in panic attacks: one during a tense football game, one in a karaoke bar, one at a funeral. – which, we assume, reminds him of his father’s. The season, truly unflinchingly, deals with mental illness in all the ways that “13 Reasons Why” does not. There’s no gratuitous sensationalism of the most graphic, television-ready bits of mental illness. Ted’s depictions of panic attacks are sympathetic, and the show’s mental health discussions follow careful and meticulously researched guidelines. It helps, of course, that most of this talk comes from a licensed therapist, Dr. Sharon, who is hired by Ted to treat some members of the team, and who ends up treating Ted himself.
Some argue that Ted Lasso’s focus on the topic of mental well-being results in a substandard treatment of other topics, especially race. New Yorker writer Doreen St. Felix pointed out the closeness of the character of Dr. Sharon – at first adamant in Ted’s drama, later more outspoken, but still professional – to the stereotype of the “competent black woman”. Indeed, it sometimes seems like Dr. Sharon’s sole purpose is to fix Ted’s self-repression, as she’s the only character safe from his merry histrionics. His scenes can often feel restricted by this fact, his movement through the plot sterile and utilitarian. With his family overseas and otherwise half estranged, Ted’s last bastion of power is the football club, and Dr. Sharon stands in the way of that power getting out. We know this phenomenon only too well: a man whose authority is challenged is a dangerous man.
Fortunately, a scene in a pub at the end of season two sees the solidification of a true friendship between Dr. Sharon and Ted: Ted, his appearance bared by Dr. Sharon’s x-ray vision, is for the first totally vulnerable, and Dr. Sharon admits the positive impact Ted has had on her practice. There’s a satisfying release in their display of mutual love, previously hidden behind walls of professionalism. The audience relaxes; tensions ease. And the show insists: it’s in these moments of raw, mutual vulnerability that the most productive and healing conversations about mental well-being occur. We come out of the new season fully convinced.
But one question remains: where are the Ted Lassos in the real world? Can such a man really exist? Today’s television, quite predictably, dips its toes into a new subject: that of the vulnerable man. In a world not cleansed of patriarchal violence, is this credible? Is it responsible?
The men of “This Is Us”, namely Randall, Kevin and Jack Pearson – two brothers and their late father, respectively – are not Ted Lassos, although the recent season sometimes goes against the myth of insensitive man. In one particularly important scene, Randall calls Kevin from his office on the first night of Kevin’s play, telling him that he got caught at work and won’t be there. Kevin knows something is wrong; he rushes to Randall’s office, where Randall is on the floor sobbing, suffering from a panic attack. The brothers embrace. When the curtain goes up, Kevin’s co-star is alone on stage.
Male gentleness runs throughout the show; Jack Pearson, the children’s kind but flawed father, is lovingly shown in flashbacks to the 80s, when Randall, Kevin and their sister Kate were children. But even as an adult, after his death, Jack’s memory exerts a powerful, almost mythological influence on the family. Kevin’s co-star, just before the play starts and after Randall’s call, asks him what he’s thinking. He replies, “I’m thinking what my dad would do.”
And of course, Kevin does the right thing. And Ted Lasso too, for most of the two seasons. And yet, the shadows of the patriarchy are still inseparable from every show’s discussion of mental illness. We wonder why it takes a mythical, martyred father figure for Kevin to do the right thing, for Ted to behave with kindness. We wonder why, in every case of male vulnerability, a woman is lifted up, lowered, or placed in a place to be vilified. In today’s male-dominated TV industry, discussions about men’s mental health — perfectly healthy and necessary, I argue — consist of men behind the scenes influencing men on screen. This type of television, while educational for boys and grown men, should not remedy patterns of historical male brutality. Media projects depicting vulnerable men, in order to prevent their own complicity in a patriarchal system, must still emphasize diverse and gender-inclusive practices by hiring not just actors, but writers, directors, producers and showrunners. – wizards behind the curtain.
Assuredly, life and art surround each other in endless mockery; it is impossible, and frankly unimportant, to distinguish who is imitating whom. The treatment of mental illness through television should therefore project a hopeful image for the future without ignoring the current situation, however unpleasant it may be. TV writers who want to spark mental health discourse have a unique responsibility: not only to portray current circumstances, but also to set plans for new ones.