Too Close and the Iceberg of Mental Illness in the Media

by thethreepennyguignol

When it comes to psychosis, and mental illness in general, TV has one thing to say – and that’s go big, or go home.

As I’ve written about before, the banality of mental illness is something that doesn’t often make it in to the stories we tell about the people who suffer from them. As a full-time nutjob myself, I can confirm that, most of the time, being mentally ill is pretty boring, interspersed with periods of Very Not Boring Oh God Can I Go Back to the Boring Now Please Fuck. Which is why I’m always interested when I hear about a show that is handling a major mental health issue – in the case of Too Close, a psychotic episode – in a way that actually speaks to people.

Too Close, starring Emily Watson and Denise Gough, got enough buzz to get me over my usual apprehension at mainstream TV’s approach to mental illness, and damn, I’m really glad that it did. Based on a book by Natalie Daniels, it follows a forensic psychiatrist (Watson) called in to try and extract the truth of the events that led up to the incarceration of “yummy mummy” Connie (Gough) after she drives herself, her daughter, and her daughter’s friend into a river in an apparent suicide attempt.

Starting from a huge event like this, the show naturally trades on the gawker value of an incident like this. In fact, that’s a lot of how those initial moments are framed – through the press, through the mutterings of the neighborhood, through the prying of Watson’s friends and family to get the juicy details. A crime like that one is the tip of the iceberg that sticks out above the water to most people – exciting, wild, shocking, engaging. That’s the point the show starts, and the point at which most people start to give a shit about serious mental illness: when it is, in some ways, too late.

But from there, Too Close works from the front to the back of this story, and that’s where it’s real skill lies. If the show is focused on one thing, it’s that the people whose mental illnesses lead them to commit crimes rarely start at the most extreme point; Connie slips through the cracks of her own family, circumstances, and mental health system over and over again. The small, banal details that aren’t big enough to warrant an intervention on their own – taking a particular medication for too long, drinking too much, trying to manage her mother’s mental health before her own – are what leads to her eventual breakdown and the catastrophic results that follow on from it.

For most people who reach a point of crisis with their mental health, there is warning. Maybe not warning that they can heed – maybe not warning they the people around them can, either – but warning that might allow them or someone around them to intervene before things get out of control. The idea of serious and acute mental health problems coming out of the clear blue sky is basically a myth, and Too Close puts effort in to exposing that. Tracing back the smallest details and watching the way that they can be allowed to bloom into something bigger.

And that, to me, is where the show really soars. It approaches Connie’s mental health struggles not as the explosive end-point that it leads to, but as a culmination of the small banalities that build up over time to push her to the point of no return. These are the kind of depictions that I want to see – it’s not as scandalous, not as glamorous, and perhaps even more unsettling that the idea that these things just appear out of nowhere and cause people to act in ways they never have before. But it’s a far less stigmatizing and far more helpful and compassionate way of investigating mental illness, even mental illness that contributes to horrifying stuff like the crime at the centre of Too Close – not a shaking finger that declares “this could be YOU!”, but rather a more reasoned approach that says that it could be any of us, given the right triggers. It’s exposing more of the iceberg that we usually keep hidden for the purposes of an exciting, explosive climax – but I’m glad to see stuff like Too Close unpicking that. And I think it’s about time, too.

(header image via The Guardian)