Not (Just) a Laughing Matter: Nuanced Representations of Depression in Three Netflix Sitcoms

One Day at a Time, Bojack Horseman, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt each offer insight and understanding into mental illness quite unlike television shows we've seen before.

It’s hard to believe that Netflix’s original business model consisted of sending customers DVDs—most often feature films—in the mail. Remember asking co-workers what DVDs were in their queues? At this point, streaming rules and so does the network’s original content, from near-future shock ( Black Mirror) to family schlock (Fuller House).

So do representations of mental illness. In its original programming, Netflix has provided an array of comedic protagonists who suffer from depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Given the relative dearth of such representations on television programs historically, this is something of a breakthrough. Maybe this has to do in part with Netflix’s high volume of original shows. With new programs premiering on a near-weekly basis, several were bound to focus on mental illness. But we might also situate these representations of depressed persons within the network’s willingness to mirror the culture more inclusively than, say, broadcast ≠networks. For example, Netflix also offers progressive programs that center communities of color and engage issues of race in deep, intersectional fashion ( She’s Gotta Have It and Dear White People). Not only does the streaming service aim for a younger, more racially diverse audience, it also seems interested in challenging viewers with provocative, sometimes thoughtful (and, yes, sometimes problematic—looking at you Insatiable) stories about identity.

A series like Dear White People—a satirical dramedy set in an African-American residence hall at a prestigious university—focuses on race and engages head-on a slew of hard questions about skin tone, sexual orientation, interracial relationships, and much more. Similarly, several Netflix comedies don’t shy away from complex, nuanced stories about various forms of mental illness while also allowing the characters on those programs to have dimension.

Take, for example, Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machado), the single mom on Netflix’s One Day at a Time reboot (Gloria Calderon Kellett, Mike Royce) who happens to take anti-depressants and suffers from PTSD. The original One Day at a Time is one of Norman Lear’s gritty, working-class ’70s-era comedies and into the ’80s, a decade when “very special episodes” of sitcoms tackled Big Issues. The original One Day at a Time ( Whitney Blake, Norman Lear, Allan Manings) fuses elements of both sitcom paradigms—the Lear/’70s willingness to sustain attention on social context (especially the struggles of the working poor and working class) as well as the ’80s model of spotlighting any random social problem (drugs, peer pressure, drinking and driving,) via a one-off storyline. In the original series (1975-1984), Bonnie Franklin plays Ann Romano, a white single mother working hard to raise her daughters in a little Indianapolis apartment and dealing on occasion with the aforementioned Big Issues like shoplifting or being held hostage by an intruder.

The Netflix reboot, which premiered in January 2017, unabashedly reveres its source material but also draws from additional issues. Penelope Alvarez is a single mom living in a little apartment and working as a nurse’s aid to support her kids. She’s also a combat veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder. Like the original, the reboot sustains its focus on issues of social class, offering a realistic, albeit family-friendly, representation of the struggle to make ends meet. Penelope’s young son wants a new pair of shoes the family can’t afford. The is a plotline that bears a resemblance to most any of the gritty Norman Lear classics (All in the Family, Sanford and Son, One Day at a Time, The Jeffersons, Good Times, and Maude.) Even the reboot’s race-conscious plotlines (the Alvarez family is Cuban-American and living through the Trump era) echo Lear’s willingness to explore the race-class intersection.

But both gritty ’70s and glossy ’80s sitcoms rarely engaged issues of mental health beyond the easy laugh that could be mined from the tropes and stereotypes associated with going to a “shrink”. In contrast, the Netflix reboot of One Day at a Time is refreshing in its willingness to connect mental health to social context, explore the matter with both respect and humor, and treat Penelope’s PTSD as a fact.

PTSD gets something akin to the very-special-episode treatment in Season 2, Episode 9 (“Hello Penelope”) when Penelope goes off her meds. It’s an episode with high drama and high stakes but soars above the worst elements of the multi-camera sitcom genre. Penelope’s mental health and the fact that she takes anti-depressants had figured into prior episodes; they’re not one-off plot points but rather sustained, consistent elements (though not the totality) of who she is. Further, her reasons for her ill-advised cessation from her meds are complex and realistic. Her decision is informed by her old-school mom (Rita Moreno as Lydia Riera, priceless) who rejects anti-depressants and shames Penelope for taking them. But Penelope has also recently re-entered the dating game and fears telling her boyfriend about her meds, plus she has the sense that she feels better than she used to feel. The nuance and complexity of the storyline ring true: she shouldn’t stop taking her meds, especially without consulting her doctor, but she also acts on multiple, understandable motivations. Viewers get a full picture.

Like Penelope, the titular protagonist of Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s Bojack Horseman (an animated horse voiced by Will Arnett) also has a connection to a sitcom from the past, albeit a fictional one. Bojack lives in a version of Hollywood populated by both humans and anthropomorphic animals. He starred on a popular, TGIF-style comedy program 25 years prior, but his career has since stagnated. Bojack is something of an also-ran, with lots of money but less and less cultural capital in the entertainment industry, an industry that the program skewers without mercy as Bojack navigates the vanity and shallowness that surround him. Bojack Horseman premiered on Netflix in August 2014 and quickly established itself as an “adult cartoon”, a more erudite version of Seth MacFarlane and David Zuckerman‘s Family Guy. Indeed Bojack Horseman ping-pongs between punny, tongue-twisting dialogue, cutaway gags, and a backstory that gives viewers an increasingly clear sense of just how dysfunctional Bojack’s family is. Bojack Horseman often aims for an Adult Swim (the Cartoon Network’s edgy evening programming) aesthetic, injecting surrealism, heavy doses of irony, and a barrage of “meta” jokes about the show itself.

The tonal juxtapositions are frequently jarring. Bojack Horseman doesn’t hesitate to aim for shock, as Bojack engages in self-destructive and self-sabotaging behavior. He goes on hard drug benders with the former child star to whom he was a father figure when they co-starred on Horsing Around. (Get it?) He verbally abuses his elderly mother while she’s in the throes of dementia—getting even with her for having abused Bojack as a child—now that she’s finally defenseless. There’s a colossally tragic trip to a high school prom with the underage daughter of a married woman Bojack knew decades prior and with whom he’s attempting to re-connect. The series consistently takes viewers to dark, dark places, shocking us with cruel and stark images of a figure often in existential crisis mode. There can be no doubt that Bojack suffers from severe depression. Even when he isn’t engaged in extreme or overt forms of self-destruction, Bojack displays more banal symptoms of depression—from an inability to leave the house, to a lack of focus, to a preoccupation with his shortcomings.

Like One Day at a Time, there is something akin to a very special episode about Bojack’s depression. By no means is this episode the only time we witness his depression, but it is an installment of the series singularly focused on said depression and one that explores Bojack’s mental health even more deeply. In Season 4, Episode 6 (“Stupid Piece of Sh*t”), Bojack’s mother is kicked out of her nursing home and must move into Bojack’s home, triggering a series of events wherein Bojack flees the home, wanders around town in an unfocused haze, gets drunk, and contemplates swerving his car into oncoming traffic. During these events, viewers hear what Bojack hears inside his mind: “You’re a stupid piece of shit, you’re a stupid piece of shit, you’re a worthless piece of shit.” Over and over again. It’s brutal, not least because we get the sense this is not the first time this soundtrack has played in our anti-hero’s head. The episode engages the question viewers ask over and over again, Why doesn’t Bojack do better? and essentially posits an answer. Without making excuses, becoming maudlin, or sanitizing the banal horrors of suicidal ideation, “Stupid Piece of Sh*t” places the relentless events of the series in a context, sustaining our empathy and understanding even as we continue to shake our heads at the program’s tendency to shock. Bojack doesn’t do better because he suffers from a disease.

We see the depression suffered by Penelope and Bojack in overt and obvious ways. Less so, Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper), though her mental health problems are also rooted in severe trauma. A live-action sitcom, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which premiered on Netflix in March, 2015, is perhaps more animated than Bojack Horseman, a literal cartoon. Awash in Day-Glo colors, campy plotlines, and even campier supporting players, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt follows the adventures of a relentlessly positive 20-something trying to find herself in New York City. If Kimmy’s lack of familiarity with millennial technologies and pop culture references seems especially pronounced, it’s largely because she was kidnapped as a child and spent 15 years in the underground bunker of a doomsday cultist, who raped Kimmy and denied her contact with the outside world throughout her teen years and into her young adulthood. Yes, it’s a sitcom.

Running gags include Kimmy’s affinity for the ’90s boy bands (on CD!) she loved before her kidnapping, and the slow pace with which she’s catching up on the Bush II and Obama years she mostly missed. Co-created by Tiny Fey and characterized by the self-awareness of other Fey projects like 30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt uses and largely subverts tropes like the “fish out of water” story, the wacky roommate, the gay best friend, New York City as a place for reinvention, and countless others. Fey and her creative team inundate viewers with these tropes until we almost forget the show’s shocking premise.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is at once as progressive as One Day at a Time (both series are sex-positive, have prominent gay characters, and explore class conflict) and as “meta” as Bojack Horseman (both crack so many jokes about their own conceits that viewers almost need to watch twice to catch all the self-awareness). Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, in contrast, is a busier program, synthesizing and juxtaposing even more aesthetics and approaches, sometimes wacky and sometimes sentimental, sometimes woke and sometimes head-scratchingly retrograde. (the show’s representation of Asian and Native-American characters has garnered controversy). Indeed, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt juggles so many topics that Kimmy’s mental health is only engaged on an intermittent basis, even though the trauma she experienced forms the very premise of the show. One of the remarkable ways Kimmy’s trauma visually manifests itself is when other characters refer to the bunker, which sometimes causes Kimmy to wince and then quickly move on. Kimmy’s gestures are telling, ambiguous, and brilliantly played by Kemper. Is she repressing her memories? Reliving trauma? Is she productively remembering but refusing to dwell? Confused after years of not just abuse but also gaslighting?

In Season 2, Episode 9 (“Kimmy Meets a Drunk Lady”), we finally witness Kimmy confront her own PTSD head-on. Normally, she uses her can-do attitude to come to the rescue of the bizarre supporting cast who populate her world. At last, it’s time to help herself. Kimmy has been…burping. She’s also been largely ignoring her past. When she finally visits a therapist (played by Fey), she’s told, “When you shove your problems down, they’re gonna bust out in weird ways.” Fey’s character is a raging alcoholic whose destructive addiction is momentarily played for laughs but soon becomes something as horrifying as Kimmy’s past. In keeping with the program’s tendency to use and subvert tropes, Kimmy recognizes the extent of trauma’s effects via a montage—Kimmy attacking her roommate Titus while sleepwalking, Kimmy bludgeoning her boyfriend Dong with a phone, and other violent outbursts directed at consistently male avatars of her kidnapper/rapist. These are montages we’ve seen in countless sitcoms. But montages about facing down horrific trauma? Not so much. Kimmy’s path toward sustained treatment and mental health care is represented as a long, pockmarked, idiosyncratic, and surreal journey.

All three of these memorable characters—Penelope, Bojack, and Kimmy—resist limited and limiting sitcom conventions, even while playing with familiar tropes. The programs transcend escapism, to be sure, but in equal part they transcend the post-Office “wince” model of comedy. They make audience members uncomfortable but the discomfort is always in service to a sense of empathy for the characters. Though all three engage in irony and “meta” laughs (even One Day at a Time, which casts Mackenzie Phillips of the original One Day as Penelope’s therapist), they are also more earnest than, say, cringe comedies.

The mental health struggles of these three protagonists are treated with respect and so their stories aren’t primarily told in order to make viewers wince. Rather, they illustrate how persons with mental illness are deserving of our understanding, at least. To viewers with, say, depressive disorders, they see complicated, compelling, and genuinely funny representations of themselves. All three programs offer sympathetic portrayals of characters not exclusively defined by their struggles with mental health. Somewhat paradoxically, though, these three Netflix sitcoms manage to center those struggles. They correct a long-standing tendency of television programs to quickly pivot away from a depiction of depression, anxiety, trauma. How many times have you seen a fictional character visit a therapist or psychiatrist (a bearded man with a fainting couch, natch) once and then apparently cease to suffer whatever symptoms prompted the visit? Representation matters.

It also matters that these programs air on Netflix, which is virtually synonymous with streaming. Streaming services can themselves provide opportunities for self-care, as they not only provide valued programming but also do so in nimble and dynamic ways. One can view content as easily in the middle of the night as during “prime time”, as easily on a mobile device (assuming a decent internet connection) as an immobile television set. I don’t say this to cheerlead for Netflix—which surely doesn’t need my cheerleading anyway—but rather to tout how this flexibility fosters the ability of programming to meet viewers where they are.

So imagine, for instance, a viewer who happens to have a mental illness that impacts her sleep schedule, or whose circumstances entail being away from home for extended amounts of time. The accessibility of Netflix matters (to those with access to streaming services, that is). Think of how this increased accessibility benefits folks across a wide spectrum of experiences and situations: someone with PTSD suffering from insomnia or someone hospitalized for long stretches, to name a few examples. Of course, Netflix also conjures experiences of binge-watching and even facilitates the practice, so it’s possible to imagine easy access to content-on-demand feeding problematic cycles and behaviors. The connotation of “binge” suggests unhealthy practices, to be sure.

Still a relatively new innovation in entertainment, Netflix has already become a monolith in terms of content and delivery. Persons with depression and related conditions rarely see themselves in the narratives we consume, and those representations are rarely nuanced and complex. So it’s noteworthy to have this confluence of Netflix sitcom protagonists united by their mental illnesses. Another way the network is reimagining television. And it’s not just sitcoms. Jessica Jones, the titular protagonist of one of the network’s superhero shows, is, like Kimmy Schmidt, a survivor of sexual assault and still reeling from her past. Recent stand-up specials from both Patton Oswalt and Hannah Gadsby subvert genre conventions by essentially morphing from stand-up comedy in their first acts to monologues about healing from trauma in their second acts.

These all have the potential to serve as affirmations, signaling to viewers that they really do exist. That in and of itself matters.