Jessica Jones is almost entirely a show about people trying to deal with their old damage, but Jessica’s struggle with PTSD is front and center. Everything about her attempts to deal with her trauma rings true. Her conflicted feelings over what to confront and what to let lie, her paranoia, her drinking, and her tendency to isolate are all grounded in life and dealt with realistically.
So many shows use trauma – especially sexual trauma – as a motivating factor for their female heroes. But Jessica Jones actually explores the emotional fallout of trauma in a way that few entertainments dare. And while it can be frustrating to watch her make the same mistakes repeatedly, it's realistic, and makes it that much more satisfying when she grows. That's something else to note - she doesn't "fix herself". But she grows. And usually, that's the best anyone can ask for.
It’s utterly bizarre to live in a world where one of the most thoughtful, nuanced portrayals of depression ever depicted is in a cartoon about a talking horse. It’s even more bizarre to watch a show where earnest conversations about the futility of looking for fulfillment from outside sources cuts away to visual puns about animals at the end of every scene. But here we are.
Bojack is a retired sitcom actor/horse who’s looking for a comeback, and for a bit of prestige. He constantly fights his self-defeating tendencies, his emptiness in the face of success, and the unrelenting negativity of his internal monologue, which – in one brutal, brilliant Season 4 episode – is laid bare for the audience.
Maria Bamford’s courageous, semi-autobiographical Netflix series follows a fictionalized version of herself making a career return after a stint in a psych ward. The people in her life are mostly supportive, but also punishingly honest. Maria herself fights hard through her illness, but remains undaunted for the most part.
The struggle with bipolar disorder shown onscreen is drawn from her personal experience, and the tone of the show, while unflinching, is surprisingly optimistic. That’s pretty fantastic for an illness as widely-misunderstood as bipolar disorder.
This Is Us
This Is Us has drawn praise and condemnation for the emotional rollercoaster it’s sent its fans on. But its depiction of anxiety drew a lot of positive attention when, in late in Season 1, it started opening up about the panic disorder of one of its best characters.
Randall Pearson is one of the show’s most put-together characters, in terms of successfully navigating adulthood. So when he has a brutal anxiety attack late in Season 1 – at a crucial moment when he needed to be there for his brother – it came as a bit of a surprise to most of the viewers. The show was praised for the accuracy and empathy of the depiction.
Ian’s struggle with bipolar disorder has been very true to life. He and the people around him make understandable, believable mistakes, but he’s working hard to treat and manage his illness. His victories are encouraging, but it’s also clear that no one triumph is the end of his battle with his illness, because there is no such thing.
Ian’s mother, Monica, also deals with bipolar disorder. When Ian is diagnosed, people aren’t particularly surprised, knowing that bipolar disorder can be hereditary. Monica handles hers a lot less gracefully. That fact has drawn some criticism, but it’s honestly helpful in its own way to have that study in contrasts.
The bizarre, earnest musical Crazy Ex-Girlfriend got a lot of attention when it finally gave the title character a diagnosis. Rebecca had displayed anxiety and depression before, but like many shows dealing with mental illness, they eschewed a diagnosis – until season 3. It turns out that Rebecca has borderline personality disorder.
Her therapist warns her not to look her diagnosis up online. And because it’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, now we not only have a likeable hero with an actual, firm diagnosis that helps explain her behavior, we got a song about how helpful it can be to have a name for your problem.
Despite being incredibly uncommon, schizophrenia is a go-to narrative crutch in a lot of TV and movies. Worse still, it’s often conflated with dissociative identity disorder, leading to widespread misinformation.
Legion doesn’t quite nail its depiction of schizophrenia. But where it does succeed is the fact that it shows David actually working through his mental health issues in therapy in a grounded and realistic way.
You're the Worst
You’re the Worst was already dealing with PTSD through Edgar, one of the show’s four leads, from the beginning. But in season 2, they also revealed that another main character, Gretchen, was dealing with a resurgence of her depression – something her friends had background on, but the audience did not. She aired her frustration at her own “broken brain,” in her words, and struggled with how or even whether to talk to her boyfriend about it.
The show captured the ebbs and flows of depression well, rather than going for a full-steam-ahead, stereotypical depiction of someone who can never smile. A season 3 episode deals with Edgar’s PTSD by revisiting the previous episode from his perspective, illustrating (if a bit exaggeratedly) the way that PTSD’s paranoia and anxiousness can alter your perception.
Lots of shows make alcoholism look fun, but while Mom may joke about the addictions of its two leads, it doesn’t take them lightly. The show illustrates the struggles and triumphs of following a twelve-step program, and has done a lot to tackle the variety of forms that addiction can take.
Mom drew a lot of attention after having a beloved, young character die of an overdose, losing a long battle that many of the same characters are also fighting. The episode drew praise from fans who are also dealing with addiction in themselves or loved ones, and even got a nod from the U.S. Surgeon General.
Black-ish focuses primarily on issues of race, as Dre struggles with his desire to provide a good life for his children while making sure that they understand their background and their heritage. His wife, Rainbow, is a doctor and a grounding influence on him and their kids. Her strength and capability made it that much more resonant when she went through postpartum depression.
After giving birth to child number five, Bow becomes withdrawn, and struggles to go about her everyday life. Dre does some research and realizes that she’s experiencing postpartum. Her initial resistance to the truth – as well as her shame and embarrassment over her difficulty connecting to her baby – are as heartbreaking as they are true-to-life.
In Treatment was an HBO series that ran for three seasons. Centered around a psychiatrist named Paul Weston, the show followed the therapy sessions that he ran from his private practice. The show aired multiple episodes each week, and each weekday’s episode centered around a specific patient. Friday’s episode always saw Paul go to his own therapist.
Based on an Israeli show, In Therapy might not specifically be “about” any one specific condition, the way some shows might examine PTSD or depression. But what it does well is that it focuses on the work of therapy. It shows the process in all its grueling labor and all its reward.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is yet another gem from 30 Rock producers Tina Fey and Robert Carlock. The title character is a girl who is rescued after spending 15 years in an underground bunker, after being kidnapped as a youth by a cult leader. If that sounds sort of dark, well…it is.
What makes much of Tina Fey’s comedy work is characters who are resourceful and even optimistic in the face of all of the horrible things the world has to offer, and Kimmy Schmidt is no different. Kimmy is definitely suffering from PTSD, she struggles with intimacy, and she’s afraid of Velcro. The darkness underneath the bright candy shell is real, but the show treats her with warmth and depth as she tries to rebuild her life.
Scrubs gets a lot of things right about working in medicine, and it’s often singled out by doctors and nurses as one of the most accurate shows ever made about working in a hospital – both medically and emotionally. In Season 3, Michael J. Fox makes a guest appearance. The writers gave his character obsessive-compulsive disorder, to give him a reason for the constant motion and tics induced by the actor’s Parkinson’s disease.
Most TV depictions of OCD are a lot closer to germaphobia than they are to real OCD. But, as with many diseases and disorders, Scrubs took the time to portray the condition right. Dr. Casey’s tics and obsessions – from repeatedly entering and leaving rooms, to turning a light switch on and off to the point of paralysis – were heralded for being singularly true to life.
Parenthood follows several generations of the Braverman family as they struggle to navigate life together. The show deftly juggled multiple storylines, with a phenomenal cast of comedy all-stars and a touch for genuine humanity. Show creator Jason Katims has a son on the autism spectrum, a neurodevelopmental disorder, and drew from that when writing Max Braverman, a young character who is given a diagnosis on the spectrum, as well.
Max’s diagnosis is Asperger’s syndrome, which was actually recently dropped from the diagnostic manual and folded in as an autism spectrum disorder. But Max’s portrayal is nuanced – and less saccharine as time goes on. His parents don’t deal with the diagnosis spectacularly all of the time, and a lot of their best efforts are misguided, but honestly that’s pretty true to life, as well.
In Homeland, Claire Danes plays Carrie Mathison, a CIA agent who works to untangle terrorist plots both at home and abroad. She also suffers from bipolar disorder. Admittedly, the show occasionally sensationalizes her illness – it risks dipping into Sherlock’s “high-functioning sociopath,” a phrase as outdated in its terminology as it is inaccurate. But Homeland does take Mathison’s illness seriously.
Lest anyone think that Carrie’s mental illness gives her superpowers, the show actually illustrates what happens when Carrie herself comes to believe it. She goes off her meds - which is true-to-life. Med-resistant behavior is common with bipolar disorder. But rather than throwing her insight into overdrive, the lack of medication sends Carrie into a wildly self-destructive spiral. Which, while painful, is also true to life. The show reminds us that her illness is an illness, not some mystical asset, and not a prop to a drama.