Banality, Bipolar, and Brassic

by thethreepennyguignol

When it comes to depictions of mental illness on television, there’s an all-or-nothing attitude. It’s either 13 Reasons Why all-consuming-DEPRESSION or nothing ever going wrong at all thank you so much and if it does it’s certainly resolved by the end of the episode, no in between; either mental illness is consuming the life of a main character, or it doesn’t exist at all.

But let’s be real: for most people living with mental illnesses, that just isn’t the case. Most of us have lives to live, things to do, jobs to go to that don’t involve swooning around on our chaise-longues in a depressed fugue state (tempting as that is a lot of the time, God, so tempting ). There are periods in your life where it might be more prominent than others, but chances are it’s not the first thing you tell people about yourself, right?

And so enter Brassic: Danny Brocklehurst and Joseph Gilgun’s bleak, brilliant, utterly bold comedy, led by Gilgun himself, who plays bipolar small-time criminal Vinnie. In fact, no, let me rephrase that: he plays Vinnie, a small-time criminal from a tiny Northern town who happens to have bipolar disorder.

And okay, let’s just get one small thing straight first before I get into this specific part of the show: Brassic is brilliant. It’s stupid-funny, the cast is perfect, the affectionate chemistry between the leading ensemble is fantastic; Gilgun might well never have been better, which, given his amazing back catalogue, is saying something. Michelle Keegan will kick your heart out of your chest in every way you can imagine it happening; Dominic West puts in the best guest spot of the year as the most delightfully crooked small-town doctor TV has ever seen. It’s truly one of my favourite shows of the year so far and I’m surprised I haven’t seen more hype around it, so consider this your go fucking watch it of this article.

Back to the matter at hand: one of the things I love most about Brassic is the way it handles mental illness as something that’s almost quite banal. Which is not to say that it’s treated lightly or dismissively – no, the show takes bipolarity and mental illness in general with the utmost seriousness, in between brutal suicide gags about the right height of bridge to jump off if you really want to die this time.

But when we think of disorders like bipolar (also, hello, read my partner’s very relevant and excellent take on the depiction of bipolar disorder in cinema right here!), they tend to make up the very basis of what the character who deals with it is about – think Homeland, think Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, think Monk (shout out to my OCD family out there who wish they could just use it to fight crime). And I don’t think it’s a bad thing to centre stories on mental illness per se – in fact, I think it can be a valuable exploration of stuff that most people will never encounter in their normal lives – but damn, it’s nice to have something that feels like it reflects a more banal, less, well, cinematic version of being somewhat mental.

Vinnie exists around his bipolar disorder. He doesn’t begin and end with it. He takes his meds, he goes for long runs to burn off manic energy, and it only comes up when someone asks how he got so good at it.  He makes rash choices in manic periods, and only realizes how stupid it is after the fact. He makes it to his doctor’s appointments after being stuck on waiting lists. In the meantime, the show is more interested in his wild, ridiculous criminal capers, in surviving the small town he’s stuck in, in navigating his complex relationships. His bipolar informs a lot of the character, but it does not define it. We learn these little snippets about his illness, and how he copes with it, as side-notes, not as season arcs.

And, beyond just bipolar disorder, I would love to see more shows take on mental illness in this way. Not as the be-all and end-all of a character, but as part of their lives. Because I think that it’s a far more honest way to approach these kinds of issues; the majority of people I know who live with a long-term mental health issue find ways to cope that make their mental illness background noise to the rest of their lives. Brassic does a brilliant job underlining the sheer banality and, yeah, acquired normalcy of living with a mental illness that speaks a lot of truth to the way many of us experience it. And for that, I think it’s already one of the most important shows of the year. And also the one that made me crave cheap cigarettes more than anything in the fucking world.

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