Are Bipolar Characters Finally Getting a Fair Shake on Television?

As anyone who's experienced bipolar disorder in their own brain (or been close to a bipolar person) can attest, it's not all magnificent highs and crushing lows as depicted on television dramas, and treatment is never as simple as one noble, weepy trip to the hospital and back. In fact, many (most?) bipolar people live their lives and take their medication and keep their shit together in a way that's more mundane — and, in some cases, more grueling — than what we see on TV.

That is, maybe, until now. In an essay at the Daily Beast today, Jace Lacob argues that Showtime's Homeland and Shameless are leading a vanguard of "groundbreakingly realistic depictions of mental illness, particularly bipolar disorder, on television." Lacob writes:

It's rare to see a bipolar character at the forefront of a television drama; they're typically shoved to the sidelines, a crazed killer in a police procedural or an unstable individual in a chance encounter.

But in order to break through the stigma associated with this condition, storytellers should offer both sides of the bipolar individual's crucible: the highs and the lows.

"If you only tell part of that story, it's not being completely honest," Frankel said. "If you just tell the story of the bipolar person who is depressed, that's not really the full picture of what it's like to go through that and what it's like to be a family member of someone who goes through that. Sometimes, it can be fun and exciting and … that, to me, leads to a more profound low for everybody. The low was inevitable, but you just want to hope against hope."

(Not to split hairs, but I'm a little uncomfortable with the article's insistence that people in manic states are "fun and exciting" and "incandescent"—it seems a bit like glamorizing an aspect of the disorder that can be just as devastating as any depression. Like, oh, it was so incandescent when Julie [made-up person] quit her job to run for mayor so she could dismantle the government from within! It was so fun and exciting when Frank [also made-up] bankrupted his family by buying 12 speedboats! Those guys. What a bunch of sexy free spirits.)

Of course there are people in real life who do fit spooky bipolar stereotypes, but why should those stereotype dominate in the media? When will we start treating stereotypes of mental illness the way we treat racial stereotypes—with scrutiny and critical thinking and outright rejection? Not to mention the way that popular media perpetuates the fallacy that all psychiatric medication turns people into zombies and stifles creative output. (You know what really stifles creative output? Staring at the floor for six months. Or, I don't know, being DEAD.) I know it's not particularly compelling TV to show a person taking their medication and then functioning as a completely average member of society (while almost never burning down a pet store!), but at least it's better than using actual human beings with actual problems as 2-dimensional props to propel your television show.

Photo credit (C) ambro / Stockfresh.