How The Emmy Nominations Fail The Mental Illness Discussion

Photo: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix.
As the Golden Age of TV continues, so does one of its most impressive feats: There are more representations of mental illness on the small screen than ever before. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, One Day at a Time, and You're The Worst show the realities of living with anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Numerous inmates on Netflix's Orange Is The New Black appear to suffer from undefined mental health issues, highlighting the fact that our country sends the mentally ill to prison all too often. And 13 Reasons Why dealt with the pain of losing a loved one to suicide, though the show wasn't specifically about mental health.
With so many strong depictions of mental health on TV, it's frustrating that the majority of shows that address it were snubbed in the 2017 Emmy Nominations. The biggest exception is Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which was nominated in the "Outstanding Comedy Series" category. But the fact that Kimmy Schmidt was nominated in a top category this year — and shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and You're the Worst weren't — is a frustrating example of the mainstream's reluctance to tackle difficult topics head-on.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has one of the darkest plots on TV, especially for such a seemingly chipper tone. Its first two seasons dealt with Kimmy's (Ellie Kemper) PTSD in a nuanced way, while still keeping the show light enough to be considered a comedy. Its lackluster third season, though, fell prey to sitcom tropes, and Kimmy's mental health largely fell by the wayside. We saw ill-advised storylines about Titus using a public restroom and millennials' desire to seek sexual consent, but there was little about Kimmy dealing with her past. That's a real shame, considering the progress we saw with her therapy sessions in season 2.
But Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt makes mental illness palatable — largely because it doesn't go into too much detail. It's much easier for mainstream audiences to get on board with Kimmy Schmidt than, say, You're the Worst. The FX sitcom has never been nominated for an Emmy, despite being a critical darling. You're the Worst has throwaway lines that are just as funny as the best jokes on Kimmy Schmidt. But it also devoted an entire episode to veterans and PTSD that left its lead characters on the sidelines.
Meanwhile, shows like You're the Worst and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — another critical favorite — don't make it into the top categories at the Emmys. Both shows deal with mental health in a much better way than Kimmy Schmidt's third season did. As Revelist pointed out in January, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend tackles the average American's off-again-on-again relationship with therapy, while You're The Worst features a protagonist with clinical depression, a feature that showrunner Stephen Falk addressed in an essay for Vulture.
For better or worse — okay, definitely for worse — shows that dive too much into deep topics are relegated to the sidelines. If you turn to TV as a mindless form of escape, you might not want to watch something that leaves you with unanswered questions and troubling thoughts. (There's a reason Modern Family continues to be nominated.)
It's also worth noting that one of Orange Is The New Black's two Emmy nominations this year was Uzo Aduba's nod in the "Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series" category for her portrayal of Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren. Aduba's acting is great, and she deserves the nomination. But Crazy Eyes is a fairly problematic character, and it's telling that she's the one who sticks with viewers.
As Angelica Jade Bastién so wonderfully explained in a Fusion essay last year, Suzanne's mental illness is never defined, even though it guides plenty of storylines.
"Suzanne is taken advantage of, ignored, belittled, and worst of all, framed as a joke," Bastien wrote in September. "The writing on the show often pivots between overly comedic representations of mental illness or exploitative schlock. The show tries to comment on the ways Suzanne is manipulated because of her fragility and childlike nature, but the writers tellingly never give Suzanne a diagnosis, which lets the writers have free reign to pick and choose the ways her mental illness manifests."
By not defining Suzanne's issues, the show's writers can pick and choose what she'll experience each season without any real consequences or resolution. It's not great that her character, along with Kimmy Schmidt, are the Emmys' only nods to shows about mental health, especially since there are so many other — and better — options out there. (It is worth noting, though, that the Television Academy nominated Allison Janney in the "Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series" category for her moving portrayal of a person with addiction.)
Talking about mental health isn't easy, but it's incredibly important — hopefully next year, the Emmys will recognize more shows that are starting those conversations.
If you are experiencing depression and need support, please call the National Depressive/Manic-Depressive Association Hotline at 1-800-826-3632 or the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-775-784-8090.
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