Depression is ugly and static, listless until it rears its head and makes its presence known with a sudden, ferocious roar. You can fight it, and sometimes even defeat it. But it's almost impossible to know when, where, or how it will strike. It looms above you, a cloud blackening with self-loathing, raining down on you whenever the hell it feels like it. It's a frightening, overwhelming, all-encompassing feeling that sits heavy on your chest, patient and steady, until you forget how to breathe.
Depicting something as internal as depression onscreen, especially on television, is tricky business. As my colleague Todd VanDerWerff wrote when discussing a character's clinical depression on FXX's sour romantic comedy You're the Worst, it's difficult to make depressed characters dynamic over a long period of time, as the medium requires:
"[A depressed character will] have peaks and valleys, sure, but you can't tell a story that's all peaks. That's just bad drama. This is absolute anathema to television, which thrives on change and on characters either overcoming their obstacles or eventually falling prey to them through means of their own making."
However, more shows are rising to the challenge of keeping depression not just relatable, but consistently compelling — and even a little funny besides. In addition to You're the Worst, Netflix's BoJack Horseman and The CW's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are addressing the startling, frustrating consequences of depression and other forms of mental illness.
Further, they're letting their female characters be depressed without letting that struggle define those characters entirely — a surprising rarity on television. Most shows tend to either gloss over their characters' mental illness or make it a primary focus. For example, while Broad City's fearless extrovert Ilana Wexler casually admitted to being on antidepressants in the show's season two finale, other portrayals — think Amy Jellicoe on Enlightened or Tara Gregson on United States of Tara — have hinged entirely on mental illness.
Meanwhile, if you think about the characters who have been specifically diagnosed with depression, either officially or via armchair, they tend to be men going through some sort of midlife crisis: Tony Soprano, Dr. Gregory House, Kevin Garvey, and even (or especially) Don Draper.
But You're the Worst's Gretchen, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's Rebecca, and BoJack Horseman's Diane don't fit the profiles TV has established for depressed characters, nor are they primarily defined by their mental struggles. Each character has her own pitfalls, fears, and coping mechanisms, which all manage to be very funny even when the situations decidedly aren't.
You're the Worst has found clarity in a clear diagnosis
You're the Worst has built its second season around the reveal that its female lead Gretchen (Aya Cash) has clinical depression. Gretchen is a whip-smart woman with a wicked smirk who has stubbornly maintained that she isn't a "real adult" ever since we first met her. But as You're the Worst's second season has unfolded, she's unraveled. Her depression has manifested itself in secret crying sessions in her car, harsh outbursts at her confused friends, and failed attempts to maintain the exhausting facade that everything is just fine, don't worry about her, really.
You're the Worst has been steadily building to Gretchen's breaking point, which finally came in the series' most stunning episode to date. "LCD Soundsystem," written and directed by series creator and showrunner Stephen Falk, sends Gretchen on a mission to try a new and shinier life on for size — and then it all comes crashing down around her.
Gretchen finds herself drawn to a slightly older couple, Lexi and Rob (Tara Summers and Justin Kirk), who live across the street from her and her boyfriend, Jimmy (Chris Geere). The episode's cold open is told entirely through Lexi and Rob's perspective, so that by the time it pivots to Gretchen's, we understand her attraction. Lexi and Rob are settled in a way she's never known. They have an adorable dog and a kid named Harper, but they're still cool, still wearing their leather jackets and rolling their eyes. Gretchen, who only moved in with Jimmy after accidentally burning down her apartment with a sparking vibrator in You're the Worst's season one finale, wants that balance.
So she fakes it.
Throughout "LCD Soundsystem," Gretchen strategically inserts herself into Lexi and Rob's lives, even going so far as to steal their dog for a day. Finally, she tries to be their friend, adjusting her personality to match theirs — but it turns out they're not as grounded and carefree as she thought. Rob and Lexi have their own issues, which Rob lays out in a rambling nightmare of a speech that's basically a list of midlife crisis clichés.
Falk's script and Kirk's edge-of-manic performance are fantastic, but it's Cash who steals this scene, as she's done so many times throughout You're the Worst's second season. She lets Gretchen's face fall, bit by devastating bit, as the full weight of her crushed expectations caves in on her. There's no easy way out after all.
Obviously, this isn't exactly a funny moment. In fact, it's straight-up heartbreaking. But leaning into the inherent risk of realistically portraying Gretchen's depression has paid off for You're the Worst, thanks to canny writing and the show's incredibly strong sense of self.
I recently spoke with Falk about the decision to include a depression storyline this season, and asked him if he'd always planned to make it about Gretchen, as the self-sabotaging Jimmy could have also conceivably carried it. Falk's answer, though, was an unequivocal yes, citing the "personality split" Gretchen displayed in You're the Worst's first season with her debauched life with Jimmy versus the obedient daughter act she put on for her parents.
Falk also emphasized how his writers' room was careful not to let Gretchen's depression define her, or to let it detract from the show's particular sardonic bite. "We trust ourselves that we have created characters that have very specific and funny worldviews," he said. "We found creative ways to activate the character [of Gretchen], while at the same time not shying away from the more bleak realities of the disease."
Making the choice to explicitly diagnose Gretchen with clinical depression is an undeniable game changer. Her confession in "There Is Currently Not a Problem" was jarring, not just because it signaled a major shift for the series, but because it was one of the only times I could recall a television character — on a comedy! — being open about her depression in such stark terms.
As a result, You're the Worst has tackled an entirely new set of challenges, and opened up a whole lot of new opportunities as well. Gretchen is struggling to manage her illness, and Jimmy is struggling to understand it, but there's no doubt about what's going on — and that drives the story in a new direction. Jimmy's inability to accept that he can't fix Gretchen's problems stings in a way that wouldn't hurt quite as much if Gretchen hadn't confirmed that she's dealing with clinical depression.
Falk says it was important to him and his team that Gretchen's breakdown wasn't just attributed to a bad mood. "Even just the word [depression] is tied to just sadness, just being bummed out," Falk told me. "It was very important to have her even just say, 'I have clinical depression.' ... I think it's important to destigmatize [depression], and at the same time, call attention to what it actually is."
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend mocks public perception of mental illness, but not nearly as much as it laughs at itself
The CW raised eyebrows when it picked up Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. In the pilot, high-strung Rebecca Bunch (comedian Rachel Bloom) quits her job at a law firm to chase her summer camp boyfriend across the country to his hometown of West Covina, California. She then plots to win him back with the cunning use of trickery and flattery, to predictably disastrous results. The opening credits mock her, chirping, "She's the crazy ex-girlfriend!"
But Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has worked overtime to prove that its unfortunate title is tongue in cheek. Those same opening credits even call out "crazy ex-girlfriend" as "a sexist term," noting, "The situation is a lot more nuanced than that." The show winks at the terrible connotations of such a label, and at the jerk men who use it to dismiss women they don't like.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has aired eight episodes so far, each more cognizant of the show's uphill battle to be taken seriously. Even in the pilot, though, Rebecca's decision to flee New York for small-town California is presented with more context than the fact that her aforementioned summer camp boyfriend, Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), broke her heart when she was a teenager. In New York, Rebecca was climbing corporate ladders like it was nothing, when in actuality it was killing her. The second she learns she's getting the huge promotion she's been working for, Rebecca has a panic attack that sends her flying into the streets outside the building — where she almost immediately runs into Josh. Bloom told TV Guide that Josh "represents the last time Rebecca was happy," so she chases him — and the happiness she associates with him — with wild abandon. It feels like self-care, but it's just a temporary fix for a larger issue.
Rebecca is an aggressive presence. Her wide-eyed fanaticism puts off many of her new West Covina neighbors, even though many of them also verge on cartoonish. In fact, many of Rebecca's neuroses take the form of upbeat dance numbers she imagines in her head; for instance, she primps during a "Sexy Getting Ready Song," and Josh's friend (Santino Fontana, Frozen's Hans) soft-shoes his way into a date while crooning, "Settle for me / if he's your broken condom, I'm your Plan B."
Ever since her first panic attack, though, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has dropped casual references to Rebecca's mental baggage. She talks herself out of the idea that her cross-country move has anything to do with a "nervous breakdown." She refuses to throw a party because of a crippling social anxiety that dates back to childhood. Her neighbor tries to study Rebecca for an "abnormal psychology" course, but keeps getting stumped.
When described in such stark terms, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend sounds as if it's positioning itself to go deep and get heavy on us, but the truth is that all these details are conveyed through screwball comedy. Bloom plays Rebecca as manic and narcissistic, but also smart and sharper than even she realizes. When she hands out fliers alongside her younger self, singing, "I have friends, I definitely have friends!" through a desperate grin, we understand what it's like to be inside her head without her belaboring the point. "Sexy French Depression" is a languid ballad to her mental health, which shows how listless she's become while parodying French new wave movies. Rebecca isn't okay, but that's not all there is to her. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend makes fun of her even as it cheers her on.
BoJack Horseman doesn't need to be explicit to prove it understands depression
This summer, Netflix's black comedy BoJack Horseman continued to be one of TV's best meditations on how debilitating depression can be, even though half its characters are self-obsessed, anthropomorphic animal-human hybrids. (Stay with me.) In discussing the show's exploration of the illness, most critics have focused on BoJack (Will Arnett), the titular washed-up sitcom star who can't seem to fill the hollow space inside of him and often engages in self-destructive behavior that even Don Draper might find extreme.
But one of the second season's most compelling stories belongs to Diane (Alison Brie), BoJack's neighbor and former biographer. In season one, Diane was the voice of reason as the zany weirdos around her made terrible decisions (though she always had a bit of a temper). In season two, however, Diane turns 35, confronts her own ambitions, and finds herself wanting. She publicly calls out one of the most beloved stars in Hollywoo (née Hollywood), someone who's long been dogged by rumors of sexual harassment, but can't convince anyone to take her seriously. She travels to the (fictional) war-torn Republic of Cordovia to find something "worthy" to write about but ends up slinking back home, overwhelmed, traumatized, and embarrassed.
From there, Diane's story takes a sharp turn away from her usual path. Unable to face her husband, who encouraged her to chase the dreams she no longer believes in, Diane instead crashes at BoJack's house for some good old-fashioned wallowing. They spend an entire episode indulging the baser sides of themselves, burying each other in crushed beer cans and laughing through bong smoke at BoJack's old reruns. But when BoJack returns to Los Angeles after two months away, Diane is still at his house, wading through piles of crumpled aluminum.
Just like with BoJack, the show never explicitly states that Diane is capital-D Depressed. Series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg told me via email that this is purposeful. "Depression is a broad spectrum that everyone defines and experiences differently, so we're definitely not out to tell The Story of Depression," he wrote. "Real people often float through life in a state of flux between different levels of acceptance and despair without really labeling themselves, just kind of dealing day to day with the vague sadness that is being alive. So it feels natural to not define too precisely the inner workings of what our characters are going through."
But this decision not to label Diane's mental state wasn't the result of trepidation about going to darker places. "We talk a lot in the room about how things have consequences and feelings linger," Bob-Waksberg went on. "I think the thing that people respond to in our show is that the sadness doesn't have to be resolved. The problem doesn't get solved at the end of the episode, and the sadness doesn't go away."
Though pushing Diane to her edge provided an easy way to contrast her season two self with the image she maintained in season one, it also allowed BoJack Horseman to mirror its title character's downward spiral. BoJack and Diane have always understood each other's unsettled dissatisfaction. What's different about their relationship in season two is that the show has made room for Diane to have her own existential crisis outside of BoJack's self-sabotage.
So while Diane never receives a formal diagnosis of depression, her devolution to an apathetic, booze-soaked nightmare rings true thanks to BoJack Horseman's careful character development. In season one, Diane seemed put-together and confident. But season two peeled back that layer and let her messy fears, resentment, and confusion spill right out. While BoJack Horseman centers on BoJack's struggle to be a better (horse)man, it still has space for Diane's depressive breakdown — while not letting it take over her character entirely.
Even as these shows take mental illness seriously, they're determined to keep their characters — and their humor — intact
You 're the Worst, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and BoJack Horseman aren't afraid to confront some real darkness. But the reason they've been successful in doing so is that none of them rely on their characters' depression, or depressive episodes, to provide depth. Indeed, their characters already have depth. You're the Worst's Gretchen and BoJack Horseman's Diane each had a full season to develop and let viewers get to know them before their respective shows pulled the rug out from under them. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's Rebecca is newer on the scene, but her beaming, bombastic personality in no way depends on her anxieties.
It's hard to say whether this wave of depression on TV signals a groundswell in more empathetic and relatable depictions of mental illness. But it's encouraging that all three of these women have received enough space and consideration from their shows that their mental trauma is just one aspect of themselves — just like it is for so many people in real life.