Creative people are often depressives — depression and inspiration go hand-in-hand. It is therefore surprising that in the history of TV, so few shows have had depressed characters. Or maybe it’s not surprising, given how many TV writers and executives have been Jewish yet only in recent years has it become OK to have characters who are MOT (Members of the Tribe) because of sponsor squeamishness, perhaps married with a touch of self-hate.
The first show that had an unhappy heroine who reminded me of myself was My So-Called Life, the short-lived, darkly lit drama that launched Clair Danes’ career. Danes’ character wasn’t identified as depressed per se, but her grim frame of mind was echoed in the gloomy look and feel of the entire show. Jared Leto was also launched here, playing the ultimate desirable bad boy, the perfectly named Jordan Catalano (see them together, above). Everyone knows that the inside of your mind when you are teenager is vast wasteland of despair. Hardly anyone gets through those years like the Beaves’ big brother Wally or Happy Days’ Joanie, who gets to love and be loved by Chachi. This was the first time television admitted it.
Six Feet Under came next. This hilarious and alarming show about a family who ran a funeral home arguably launched the “dramedy” genre. Some people credit the Sopranos with pioneering the modern age of bitingly literary television, but even though the Sopranos lined up with my personal experience of a certain strata of people in New Jersey, to me the tone danced a little too closely to the great crime movies of the 1970s and ’80s — albeit with a more humorous bent.
By contrast, Six Feet Under was something completely different — a show that felt real to me as no other show had ever felt before. The dysfunctional, funeral-home dwelling Fisher family was laid bare for our horror and delight. Everyone in the family was depressed, as were most of the people they came into contact with (it was a funeral home, after all). The wry, angry tone made a sharp contrast with the sunny Southern California location, reminding me of my own bouts of depression when I felt mocked by the overwhelming beauty of the Bay Area. This was the first ever television show that was “appointment” television for me as an adult. I would get goosebumps on Sunday nights as soon as I heard the distinctive static signature of the HBO musical intro.
This brings me to the present and the brave choice made by the writers of one of my favorite comedy shows of all time, You’re the Worst. Instead of recycling typical comedy fodder (Crazy situations! Nutty characters!), they opted to have the leading female character fall into a severe, realistic depression last season. The resulting shows were so original and eye-opening to actually qualify as revolutionary. Astonishingly, while all of the episodes dealing with Gretchen’s depression were moving, none of them even flirted with sanctimoniousness or felt like a “very special episode.” See below for a photo. Yes, Aya Cash (as Gretchen) is still wearing eye-liner with her sweats (I would have gone for a make up-free face in this case) but her portrayal of clinical depression is as authentic as it gets. What started as a show about how difficult it is for two narcissists to find love has added a level that is both deep and satisfying. I can’t wait to see where they will go next.