I’m in a marathon rewatch of Six Feet Under right now because I’m working on an ongoing series over at I Fry Mine In Butter on the show’s depiction of the funeral industry1. One of the recurring themes of the show is mental illness and a number of regular characters including Billy Chenowith and George Sibley are mentally ill. Right now I’m wrapping up the third season, where a number of mental illness-related topics come up, including depression in the case of Vanessa Diaz, who is struggling after the death of her mother, and Ruth Fisher, who is experiencing disorientation as all the people around her go through huge life changes.
Usually mental illness on television leaves me cold. When I’m lucky, it won’t actively enrage me, and when I’m not, it will leave me writhing on the floor in a state of extreme infuriation, because it seems like television series invest pretty minimal energy in actually researching mental illness and talking with mentally ill people about their lived experiences to, you know, get the depiction even vaguely right. Writing about this issue at Bitch earlier this year, I said:
Given the distorted image of mental illness that the media puts forward, it is perhaps no wonder that depictions of mental illness in pop culture rely heavily on some really harmful ideas about us, people with mental illness. We are dangerous. We need to be medicated for our own good. We are out of control. We are irrational. We lie, cheat, steal. We use our mental illness as an excuse for bad behaviour. We are burdens on our families. Our lives are tragedies. We will never know love, because we can never be good enough for romantic partners.
The show’s handling of mental illness is not always pitch-perfect, but it does a better job than most in terms of providing a more honest depiction of mental health issues. It feels like the writers and actors actually know what they are doing. Either they are reflecting their own lived experiences, or they researched and paid attention to the outcome of that research. It’s the kind of show I feel comfortable recommending to people and it’s also a show I really like mining for the depth of its content. Even as on the one hand we have throwaway lines like ‘when he takes his meds, he’s fine,’ the show also has great little exchanges like this, where characters exert autonomy and also have a little fun in the process:
Billy: Oh read that part out loud.
Brenda: You’re sick.
Billy: If by that you mean suffering from bipolar disorder with occasional psychotic episodes than yes I am.
Both mentally ill characters and caregivers come up over the course of the series and I appreciate that it avoids putting either one in a box. When Rico and Ruth are dealing with mental illness in their partners, they are not depicted as selfless saints sacrificing everything to care for their partners. They are real. They are frustrated and angry sometimes and they love their partners deeply and they try to establish boundaries and they struggle with assumptions from others. Sometimes they snap and say or do things they regret but the show also manages to avoid positioning Vanessa and George as burdens with no personality; both characters are very humanised and we see situations from their point of view instead of solely seeing them positioned as objects on the screen, like props to be moved around to advance the plot.
Like I say, the show is not always perfect; I find a lot of Billy’s handling to be difficult to take, for example, primarily because the show often strips him of agency and shows him to us primarily through the lens of caregivers and people around him, rather than allowing Billy to speak for himself. In the overall balance, though, Six Feet Under is solid in its depiction of mental illness more than it’s infuriating, which is better that a lot of pop culture.
I’m so used to seeing partners and caregivers positioned adversarially, where we only see the caregiver perspective and the partner is just a lump off to the corner of the screen. In Six Feet Under, we see both perspectives and the show does things like giving people their own scenes! And monologues! And interactions! It’s almost like it thinks people with mental illness are human beings! Sure, the show also evokes stereotypes like ‘the crazy, you know, it makes you soooo creative,‘ but sometimes it subverts and plays with those stereotypes also, challenging viewers to think beyond their assumptions.
- If you’re longing to read some examples, ‘Six Feet Under and the Funeral Rule‘ and ‘Marketing To Death‘ give you a taste and there are upcoming entries planned on exciting topics like the show’s depiction of independent funeral homes and natural burial. Yeah, ok, you kinda have to be a funeral nerd to appreciate this series, I suspect. ↩