Pure Mental: Madness on TV

by thethreepennyguignol

Recently, me and the consort demolished two separate shows in the space of a week-Hannibal, which I reviewed earlier here, and cult anime Neon Genesis Evanglelion. Both shows are brilliant in their own right (I consider NGE, which was obviously my pick, one of the best things I’ve seen in my life, and I’ve seen shirtless pictures of James Marsters, so…), and both are worth watching if you feel like a big binge of cleverness, and, in the case of Hannibal, many beautiful men. But I digress-what struck me about these shows when held together is how different they seem on the surface but how damn similar they are on closer inspection.

I should, at this point, probably outline what Neon Genesis Evangelion is: an anime series from the late nineties that is outwardly about giant robots fighting space monsters, but REALLY concerns the importance of individuality and the nature of personal madness. Now, the best way I can describe this series is by my brother’s reaction to the ending. As the credits rolled on the final episode, he shut down his computer, turned off his lights, and climbed into bed with the covers pulled up to his chin with a mixture of bemusement and mild upset on his face. It’s really fucking strange. Hannibal is similarly bizarre; focused more on the slow but unrelenting descent into madness that FBI criminal profiler Will Graham suffers as his mind becomes enveloped by a particularly traumatic case and the machinations of psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter (played by Mads Mikklesen, a man so angular his face resembles a tremendously handsome Ikea shelf set). They might seem wildly different on the surface, but they do have one important thing in common: madness.

Now, I don’t claim to have ever been “mad” in the ways that these shows depict, and I’m thankful for that. But both myself and many people close to me have suffered from mental health problems in one way or another, so I’m always interested in how these sorts of things are depicted in fiction; either we get the sanitized, slightly glamorous version of insanity (you rarely see, for example, a character sitting around, depressed, binge-eating crap food and watching one episode of Top Chef over and over because they can’t bloody take it in), or the one-off descent into madness that’s cured by the love of a good woman/man/Vampire Slayer (I apologize for the Spike references; the consort is sitting next to me watching Angel as I write and I’m trying to distract myself from how shit it is by reminding us all that James Marsters exists).

But the way these two shows handle madness is very alike. In neither case is the madness in any way attractive or aspirational-it’s by turns irritating, harrowing, irrational, debilitating and frustrating. In Hannibal, you become lost in the woozy, violent half-dream world Will Graham finds himself in, and in NGE you grow to sympathise with characters who suffer through their problems because they have no other choice. There’s very little swooning around mantelpieces and taking to beds-in some cases, you have no choice but to carry the fuck on and treat mental illness akin to cystitis-pissy, a little painful, and constantly re-occurring. One of the final scenes of NGE features the main character being told the man the fuck up and do what he knows he has to do because, even though doing it seems like the absolute hardest thing in the world, it’s the right thing. This is the same voice I hear in my head (in a non-mad way) when I start sleeping for sixteen hours a day and refuse to change out of my comfy Batman t-shirt.

Both shows also use a very distinctive visual style to depict madness. I think this is worth mentioning because madness (and particularly depression) is often nothing to do with the world around you changing, but rather to do with your perception of the world. In NGE, characters are mostly seen isolated and lonely even when they’re surrounded by people who truly want the best for them; in Hannibal, Will is plagued by visions of animals and people he knows can’t exist. In both cases, little has actually changed, but the way we see these events through these character’s eyes lets us know that for them, everything is different. Madness is in the way we see the world, less what the world does to us.

Don’t get me wrong; many shows do a great job of depicting madness. And I am in no position to really judge the right or wrong way to do it, because I’m neither mad nor involved in making television (unlike, say, Gillian McKeith or Jeremy Kyle, who clearly cover both bases). But something that struck me about these shows was how satisfied and drawn in I was in both cases. It’s rare to discover shows that examine mental illness in a way that anyone with mental illness will appreciate, but these two definitely hit the nail on the-schizophrenic, depressed, delusional, self-harming, bipolar, OCD, disassociate, and just plain nuts-head.