When it comes to depicting sensitive issues on TV, something like mental illness has historically been treated more as a device than a real, affecting disorder. As writer Julie Kliegman wrote for Vulture, shows such as Wonderland and Monk sensationalized mental issues in different ways, emphasizing the gap between those suffering from it and "normal" people. While the former at one point featured a schizophrenic man who kills several people and eventually himself, the latter placed a crime-fighting man with obsessive-compulsive disorder at its center and glorified his mental health status as a "gift." Both were damaging in separate but equal ways — to make people with these issues extreme villains or valiant heroes in a way connected directly to their sickness ignores the vast majority of people with mental disorders who are neither. That is it say, it ignores real people.
In 2015, there was a noticeable shift in how mental illness was depicted on screen. On TV, shows from both the comedy and drama worlds featured major characters suffering from diseases such as severe anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even issues with no clear diagnosis. In comedy, the show that's seen perhaps the most attention on this topic is FXX's You're the Worst, and rightfully so. From the beginning, one of its four leads, Desmin Borges' Edgar, has openly discussed and suffered from the PTSD he carries as a result of his time as a soldier in Iraq. This season, Aya Cash's Gretchen, initially introduced as a loud, no-nonsense, aggressively independent woman, was reduced to a near-catatonic state at times because of her clinical depression. Prior to the reveal of her condition, the show relied heavily on its topical humor and horrible-people-being-horrible dynamic to provide relatively light laughs and enjoyable, if predictable story progression. That it suddenly veered into a sensitive discussion of depression and the way it affects both a person and those who love them was a big challenge, but transformed the comedy into a deeper and ultimately even better show.
On the drama side of TV, USA's Mr. Robot was a delightful surprise over the summer, with Rami Malek impressively portraying a brilliant, volatile, and untrustworthy hacker due to his ambiguous mental health. Creator Sam Esmail got viewers' blood pumping with a truly unique vision for a world blind to corporate corruption, and at the middle of it all was a character clearly struggling to maintain a grip on reality. Whether or not the decision to leave an actual diagnosis for his disorder out of the first season reduces stigma towards mental illness overall is up for debate, but there's no denying it hasn't been explored in such an aggressive, affecting manner before.
So with mental health getting more respect than it ever has on TV in 2015, what issues can we expect to receive similar treatment in 2016? Let's talk about a couple key ones.
In "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken," the sixth episode in season five of HBO's crown jewel Game of Thrones, a major character is raped on her wedding night. On a show often blasted for its near-gratuitous depiction of violence, particularly against women, what's actually shown isn't anywhere near its worst, but the fact that it happened at all caused yet another uproar among fans and critics alike. Furthermore, although the act itself took place off screen, the level of attention paid to a character forced to watch the proceedings in comparison to the toll they took on the woman actually being violated was a big issue.
Apparently, the scene in question finally represented "too far" for sexual violence on TV. Jeremy Podeswa, the director of the episode in which it took place, recently defended how it came across on screen, but acknowledged that the show's creators (D.B. Weiss and David Benioff) are aware of the criticism and have incorporated it into their approach to season 6. "[Weiss and Benioff] were responsive to the discussion and there were a couple of things that changed as a result," he said. "The show depicts a brutal world where horrible things happen. They did not want to be too overly influenced by that [criticism] but they did absorb and take it in and it did influence them in a way."
Given that Game of Thrones is not only one of the most successful shows on TV commercially, but also culturally, we can expect all other TV to follow suit in 2016 when it comes to sexual violence. It's not necessarily outrageous to show horrible acts like rape and assault, but the response to how Game of Thrones has done it in the past demonstrates that it requires sensitivity and respect, regardless of whatever fantastical or brutal world it lives in. The issue may not come up in greater volume next year, but when it does, it will likely do so according to this ideal.
Amazon's Transparent isn't the first show to have a transgender character, but it's definitely the first to have one as its protagonist in a real, honest way. Jeffrey Tambor portrays Maura Pfefferman, a man who comes out as a woman at age 70 and struggles to find comfort and purpose in her new life. Maura has three kids who are just as lost and confused as she is, and the dramedy never uses its clever title as anything more than just that. Transparent isn't the "transgender show," it's a show about people fighting to find their identity, sexual or otherwise, and the lead happens to be a transgender woman. It must have been tempting to position Maura solely as a heroic figure up against all kinda of adversity. The reality is that she's actually incredibly flawed, which is exactly what makes her so authentic — just as authentic as any other character on the show or person in the real world.
In 2016, we're likely to see more shows tackle the gray areas that exist in sexuality and identity, and give voice to the notion that there are gray areas at all. So much of entertainment has been set in black and white for a long time as far as sex is concerned. Shows like Transparent and Looking are just the beginning of a wider discussion that'll hopefully break down these binaries and reveal the world to be the collection of different spectrums that it is.
So as we sign off on an excellent year in TV, let's appreciate how far it took us on important issues, and what it opens up for us moving forward. If you fancy yourself a TV buff, you're in a good spot. 2016 should be better than ever.
Cover image: FXX via YouTube