Have you heard? We’re in a new golden age of television. People have been sounding this gong since the days of Mad Men and Breaking Bad. While there’s nothing in their wake that’s taken up the mantle of such superlative, spectacularly executed, cultural phenomenon (sorry folks, Thrones season 6 was rough), we are still riding a wave of creative highs and the powers that be taking greater risks and allowing more original stories to get a chance.
An offshoot is that this is the TV golden age is also great for those of us who are perpetually blue. Depressed characters were treated like Eeyore until very recently: they were perpetually sad and a bummer to be around, and it seemed almost to be the moral of the story that their misfortune and glum spirits were their own faults and just desserts for being Gloomy-Guses.
Not so anymore friends. For my fellow depressives, here are four shows and moments in particular that represent people with depression empathetically and poignantly:
4) The End of the F***ing World
Premise: James is a self-described “psychopath” and he describes his girlfriend, Alyssa as a “nympho.” The pair steal his father’s car and run away from home, getting caught up in an escalating runaway drama together.
It’s pretty riveting stuff.
It becomes clearer over the course of the show, but it’s there from the beginning that neither character is a psycho or nympho respectively: they’re just depressed. James has never received proper counseling or empathy for processing his grief at his mother’s death and it’s entirely likely he is prone to clinical depression making the help he does have in his father more harmful than helpful despite his father’s best intentions. Alyssa has abandonment issues with her bio-dad, and is harassed/objectified/belittled by her step father while he mother turns a blind eye to it all for the sake of material comfort.
The Perfect Depressing Moment:
The two kids break into an empty house for refuge and [Teen Trope Alert] Alyssa turns on some music and begins dancing. She asks James to dance, but he insists that he can’t dance. Rather than complete the cliché with some bubbly Manic Pixie encouragement or by grabbing his hands and forcing him to move, she says she’ll close her eyes, he can close his and they can just do whatever. He actually manages to start dancing and enjoy himself a bit.
Then they try to hook up, or rather, Alyssa tries to make him, and after a few seconds of actually enjoying it, his mind clearly “turns back on” and James ends the encounter abruptly and awkwardly. It’s a common feeling among the depressed to be on the “outside looking in.” Acting like a “normal person” is something that is daunting and that we’re afraid of attempting, and it’s even more distressing to feel forced into it by the people we love around us because we feel like a burden or like a charity case.
Instead, Alyssa exhibits the proper empathy needed for James to find his own genuine moment, but then she messes up by following the “playbook” of what “normal people” should do next and literally commands James through the motions of a hook up, which quickly upsets him. It’s a profoundly real paradox when depressed that we fear the pressure of trying to be “normal” and that oftentimes, depressed people will “run the motions” on one hand so they can fit in and not cause concern, but on the other because of the hope that by running the motions we might find, somehow, that we’ve become just another “normal person,” even though this is neither healthy to hope or pretend.
Granted, not many of us find ourselves in the home of a masochistic rapist, but hey, drama.
3) Bojack Horseman
Plenty has been said about Bojack and its being a masterclass in dark comedy for having the perpetually depressed and cantankerous former TV star turned washed up TV star turned serious celebrity be the core of the show’s message and narrative.
The whole show does a great job of showing the struggle of the depressed and depressive personality at finding and maintaining motivation, friendships, and relationships (not to mention showing the same challenges for the perpetually “happy” and manic). The most subtle of these is the line repetition: an entire episode in Season 2 centers around Bojack trying to force himself to be “happy” since he’s gotten the role of a lifetime, and this mindset preventing him from delivering a line on set with the proper sadness:
What are you doing here?
On set, it’s beat into our heads how weirdly impossible it is for Bojack to deliver the line sadly. The episode ends with him giving back into his grief and depressive tendencies, and finally being able to deliver the line as directed. What’s less obvious is that the phrase is repeated thereafter with stunning regularity, and it serves from then on out as a bit of a litmus test for the different characters: how they’re doing internally versus how they’re asking the casual query relative to their emotional standards.
Four seasons in and there hasn’t been a happy ending, because that’s just how life looks to the depressed: an ongoing run of the shitty things life brings with it, and trying to move forward from the shitty things we do to ourselves and those around us.
The Perfect Depressing Moment:
I’m going to cheat here and pick out two, since the show has been running for 4 seasons now. The first comes towards the end of the first season, where Bojack has read Diane’s biography of him and its frank and harrowing assessment of who he is. He shows up at a convention to ask her publicly if she really thinks the person he is in the book is all he is, and pleads with her to tell him that he’s a good person.
It’s heart rending, and it’s the plight of the depressive. To fear so pervasively that you’re worthless, and then see it in stark black and white. He can’t help but literally plead to be told he’s a good person. Thankfully, Diane knows well enough not to answer. This bookends well with a moment in season two when Mr. Peanut Butter has Bojack on his show (The delightfully titled: Hollywood Stars and Celebrities: What Do They Know? Do They Know Things?? Let’s Find Out!) Mr. Peanut Butter has put up with a lot from Bojack until this moment and finally confronts Bojack on his selfishness.
The truest thing about depression is the emptiness felt and this moment is when Bojack Horseman as a show tells the viewer: we get it. Here’s a look at a guy who, no matter what glamor he has, feels it and gets it.
2) Neo Yokio
This one has been heralded as a send up of materialism and superficial “fake friends,” and it is that- but not just that. Jaden Smith’s Kaaz Khan is surrounded by people who find and are completely sated with their meaning in the superficial trappings of society.
While Kaaz is, at first, presented as just another of these superficial folks (my dude really appreciates nice suits and cable knit sweaters), it’s shown over the course of the show that the material isn’t what matters, it’s the connections he hopes or trusts he’s forming with people through shared experience of those finer things.
The Perfect Depressing Moment:
Kaaz, throughout most of the limited series, has a rival for the spot as #1 most eligible bachelor in Neo Yokio: Arcangelo Corelli. The two gents are face pissing rivals until Kaaz’s paramour, Helena St. Tessero, bombs and destroys the Times Square billboard that tracks the bachelor rankings. Without that competition, Arcangelo slides smoothly into being Kaaz’s new friend:
However, seeing the change in the city, and how easily one fairly meaningless façade completely changes how people feel and behave, Kaaz laments to himself during the Neo Yokio Grand Prix: maybe Neo Yokio isn’t the greatest city on earth? We’ve all thought that at some quiet moment on a desolate sidewalk of whatever town or city we’re desperately alone.
1) Your Lie in April
Oh gosh, I buried this one and tricked you all into reading this far so I can espouse the virtues of a high school drama anime. Holy hell are there virtues though. I could very well skip the “perfect moment” section for this entry because the whole series, an efficient twenty episodes, is about depression and grief- through and through.
At its heart is Kosei Arima who is struggling to find his love for and ability to perform music in the years since the passing of his mother, and a young girl who manages to draw him out of his shell with her own passion and faith in art and expression. Whether or not you’re a musician, if you have any kind of art or hobby, it’s a story that will resonate with how sadness, grief and feeling insufficient can impede our hearts and art, but then on the flipside: how those emotions can feed and fuel it as well.
The Perfect Depressing Moment:
There are more stories happening in this than just Kosei’s, and I could pull a moment from virtually every episode of the series, but instead I’ll stick with the one that is the least spoilery because I want you all to watch it and experience as much of it viscerally as possible.
As I mentioned above, Kosei starts the show numb and unable to play piano because of the grief of losing his mother. While the show follows him as a high schooler, we learn that his mother passed away some four years prior when he was ten, so we’re treated to flashbacks of the first time he tried to play piano after his mother passed away, and how a pianist referred to as a young “robot” thanks to his cold proficiency breaks down crying and sobbing that he can’t play and can’t hear the music anymore.
Are you feeling that? Yeah, me too.
Let’s Netflix and sob.
For anyone dealing with depression that a comforting TV show isn’t good enough to allay, there are the following resources, available 24/7: National Alliance on Mental Illness 800-950-6264; Mental Health Hotline 866-677-5924; Suicide Prevention 800-273-8255.
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