No Laughing Matter: How Sitcoms Have Helped Change the Conversation on Mental Health
Earlier this year, Netflix courted controversy with its divisive (yet staggeringly successful) teen drama 13 Reasons Why, an adaptation of a young adult novel dealing with weighty themes ranging from teen suicide to sexual violence and bullying. With a pilot episode directed by Spotlight’s Tom McCarthy and a familiar high school setting, it managed to carry the prestige we expect of a major TV drama in the current “golden age”, as well as enough high school tropes to make it familiar to millions of teens the world over.
In the weeks after originally hitting the streaming service, the show’s popularity soon grew in to something more widespread, as critical acclaim grew to international anguish at the show’s handling of mental health themes- especially when written for impressionable younger audiences.
In Florida, school psychologists raised alarm after noticing an uptick in self harm after the show began to air, with many students citing the series as a reason for their actions. This led America’s National Association of School Psychologists to berate the show, because studies have shown that exposure to depictions of suicide is often cited as a reason suicide is attempted.
In countries with higher youth suicide rates, such as New Zealand, a new classification system had to be invented in order to restrict younger viewers from watching. Not since the romanticisation of death cited in the Emo subculture, which reached its peak in popularity a decade ago, has a work of pop culture been so drastically attached to the troubled mindsets of certain younger audiences in the glaring eyes of the controversy courting news media.
Seeing graphic self harm, and eventually suicide, appearing in a teen drama like 13 Reasons Why may make sense from a narrative perspective- but it doesn’t add up to a responsible representation of mental health issues that is required for the impressionable target audience. The show proved to be critically divisive because of its most graphic moments, all but asking the question of how you can portray the darkest moments in the life of a depressed character responsibly, yet without sanitising their inner demons.
And yet, for the past few years, this is exactly what a number of sitcoms have been doing frequently; exploring mental health themes in a manner both sincere and free of the bleak seriousness that has affected the discussions of these issues within drama series. In 2015, Vulture referred to this new generation of comedies as “Sadcoms”, coining a term that is the best imaginable shorthand for how shows like BoJack Horseman and Rick and Morty deal with these issues in a serious, empathetic manner, without the need to restrict the boundary pushing comic storytelling around the themes.
The idea of a “Sadcom” isn’t a recent phenomenon by any means; comedians like Ricky Gervais have made entire careers balancing comedy with a deeper emotional resonance in their TV work. But as for a sincere approach to addressing specific mental health issues, being made a major element of the central characterisations without diluting any of the laughs these characters frequently provide, sitcoms have recently grown adept to tackling these topics with a remarkable, well researched tastefulness.
What’s most remarkable is that a show as prone to offend as Rick and Morty manages to accurately display the marriage between addiction and depression, as well as the effects mental health has on a genetic basis. Rick’s daughter and his grandchildren are all continually suffering the consequences of his behaviour, via their own mental health issues and via the show’s wider allegory that the carnage caused is all down to his failure to confront his own problems.
This show, and to a similar extent, BoJack Horseman, perfect the difficult balancing acts of translating the central character’s own personal demons in a hilariously nihilistic way (who else would avoid attending therapy by transforming themselves in to a sentient pickle, then going on a violent rampage against the mafia?), while never belittling the cause of the behaviour itself.
Both Rick Sanchez and Bojack Horseman are extremely exaggerated stereotypes of people at their lowest ebb, suffering the consequences of not confronting their own demons with increasingly self destructive behaviour that harms both them and their loved ones. Their antics may be hilarious, but the treatment of their specific issues in both shows is considerably different- both acting as cautionary tales to audience members to seek help so as to not follow their destructive approach to life.
Beneath the richly imagined fantasy universes and jet black humour, there is a hidden moral underpinning to each show in regards to mental health issues, delicately constructed beneath the chaos on the surface, that is more richly considered and surprisingly less sensationalised than what you’d expect from a seemingly irreverent animated comedy. It makes the blunt approach taken by drama series like 13 Reasons Why seem considerably more harmful. After all, by laughing at these characters, we know their destructive, often suicidal, behaviour isn’t to be emulated. The earnestness of Netflix’s teen drama and how it attempts to relate directly to its target audience, on the other hand, has merely sparked international crises in copycat self harming.
However, both sitcoms mentioned above feature older male protagonists, whereas 13 Reasons Why has a primary audience of young women. There is an ongoing international effort to stop reporting of specific suicide methods in news stories, because of fears of copycat attempts- but it is important that issues surrounding mental health are examined in media consumed by younger audiences, so they can seek help before the issue develops. Luckily, sitcoms have this figured out with female protagonists too; cult US sitcom You’re The Worst dedicated an entire second season story arc to its lead female protagonist’s struggle with depression- even deviating from comedy in many episodes to fully depict the downward spiral that goes hand in hand with refusing to seek help, or take medication.
The show was initially conceived as a raunchy rebuke to the romantic comedy formula, and still maintains a joyous crassness. But like all shows dealing with the topic of mental health, it has developed a deeper emotional resonance by transforming comic caricatures in to flawed characters, whose struggles we hope not to see reflected in our own.
Some audiences have complained that the deviations from straightforward comedy in all the above shows have made them harder to love. But considering the care and attention placed upon integrating weighty themes in to silly storylines, and the lack of sensationalising when dealing with them, it’s blatantly obvious that comedies are currently dealing with serious themes in a more mature manner than drama- all without losing the comic immaturity elsewhere.
Dramas have been repeatedly accused of exaggerating symptoms of mental health to a damaging effect to fit a narrative (this can be seen, to a certain extent, in Homeland), whereas comedies don’t have to depict these issues with a similarly blunt realism. The fact they’ve still managed to achieve an emotional resonance highlighting these themes while sticking to their comedic guns is no laughing matter- but it is something to be applauded.