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Americans Are Depressed, and Television is Starting to Notice

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Art imitates life, life imitates art. Since the dawn of the entertainment industry, film, television, and radio have shaped American culture and the way we see one another. It’s a big responsibility, and also a very delicate process to navigate: media changes America, but as America changes, so too does the industry.

2018 has found the entertainment industry in a very unique position, having to juggle a constant barrage of heavily biased content from every conceivable media platform, and somehow determine what to market to which demographics in a polarized culture. Many Americans are suffering, and the media is slowly catching on to the fact that these struggles are pretty universal; people are hurting regardless of their geographic location, ethnicity, or income. In fact, according to a report released by the CDC in June, suicides in America have increased by 30% since 1999.

A few high profile suicides in particular, namely Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, have made the issue harder for Hollywood to ignore.

Hollywood has always been (somewhat) aware that the content it produces needs to entertain, sure – but also needs to resonate with the audience it wants to attract. Simply put representation matters. And in today’s culture, there’s a sad but undeniable truth: America is depressed.

But for an industry built around the nuances of the human experience, those who shape the industry itself are great at sweeping difficult issues under the rug, both on the screen and off. Since the dawn of the industry, Hollywood has been a paradox: the content it produces elicits joy from the American masses and is so often produced under the shadiest of circumstances behind the screen. It’s an industry where exploitation, harassment, and betrayal are seen as part of a typical Wednesday. Hollywood’s ability to turn a blind eye to the problems within its own community and the country as a whole has led to some pretty big blind spots within the content it has chosen to release.

The movies have always been ahead of the television industry in this respect, presumably because TV has the reach of being in every American’s living room on a daily basis, and thus relies on appealing to the largest possible audience. For every show about more serious issues, like All in the Family or MASH, there are a dozen shows like Bewitched, I Dream of Jeanie, Family Ties, Growing Pains, and Full House. On the surface, that makes perfect sense – people generally want to watch things that make them happy, or at least, that’s been the general assumption.

Cable and subscription services have always been the leaders in confronting tougher issues on screen. AMC released Breaking Bad in 2007, and its success was staggering. The show hit a huge nerve with American audiences, both for its unapologetic brutality and for its highly relatable premise: a brilliant chemist has seen his career reduced to teaching chemistry at a public high school and washing cars on the weekends. When he’s diagnosed with cancer, he turns to selling meth in order to pay the medical bills and support his family.

Over the next few years, the rest of the television industry didn’t seem to catch on to the fact that the economy had crashed. 2 Broke Girls, a show about two waitresses splitting a studio apartment in Brooklyn, debuted on CBS in 2011, but otherwise, the issue was largely ignored.

However, Hollywood’s blind spot might be receding in these trying times, as the networks seem to be realizing that Americans are struggling.

Not surprisingly, cable networks and streaming services have been the ones to break the mold when it comes to depression, too. FX launched its half-hour comedy You’re the Worst in 2013, and although it was a light-hearted story about two Los Angeles narcissists who fall in love with one another, the show took a viciously dark turn in its third season, revealing that one half of the couple, Gretchen, was dealing with clinical depression. The move was a massive hit with both critics and audiences, who instantly appreciated the honesty and compassion it gave to the situation. The show continued to keep the issue at the forefront in its subsequent season, with Gretchen working through therapy and medication, and another character, Edgar, a war veteran and former drug addict, coping with PTSD.

BoJack Horseman debuted in on Netflix in 2014, and though it was also a 30-minute comedy, it leaned into the title character’s depressive, alcoholic, and self-loathing tendencies right off the bat. In 2017, it went as far as airing an episode title Stupid Piece of Shit, in with BoJack wanders throughout his days literally calling himself a – you guessed it – stupid piece of shit. Marvel’s Jessica Jones, based on the comic book of the same name, debuted on Netflix in 2015 and dove head-first into the world of the private investigator with superpowers, as well as PTSD and a drinking problem. And last year, Netflix launched its most controversial show, 13 Reasons Why, to a symphony of mixed reviews. Its dark premise, about a teenaged girl who commits suicide after being sexually assaulted and subsequently bullied by her classmates, lead to both applause from those who wanted to see these stories told, and outrage from those who claimed it glorified suicide.

Hulu has recently joined the club with its adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, a dark story of sexual slavery. Though the main character’s depression, caused by her terrible circumstances, has always been at the forefront of the show, its second season had her go into a catatonic state after a failed attempt to escape the oppressive regime in Gilead.

Finally, it seems like network TV is following suit. NBC’s This Is Us has been a huge success with audiences, in part because of its gentle portrayals of anxiety, depression, and alcoholism. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the unusual musical series on the CW, has always focused on the main character’s anxiety and obsessive tendencies, but in its current season, she was officially diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. And in the fall of 2017, ABC’s Black-ish gave us an episode about one of the least talked-about struggles out there: post-partum depression.

It’s important for this to be recognized in an era where, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 18% of Americans live with anxiety, and nearly 7% live with some form of depression. Representation matters. Audiences have given the industry plenty of evidence that they want to see their own realities reflected in entertainment. Hollywood needs to accept the challenge.

 

Jessica Hobbs

About Jessica Hobbs

Jessica Hobbs spent the early part of her career working in technical theater, opera, and film festivals while earning her film degree at the University of Colorado. She spent a year touring with a Vaudeville show, which included a 3-week run at the New Victory Theater in New York. After five years working in Reality TV as a writer’s assistant and Associate Producer, she made the move to Los Angeles and took a job with the Sundance Institute, while also working as a freelance writer and producer for film, theatre, and TV.