Going Off Your Meds

Two shows I’ve been binging lately — and enjoying tremendously — open with the trope of the protagonist quitting mental health medication. Both United States of Tara and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend feature strong lead female characters struggling with their mental health. Both shows are noteworthy for their darkly comic, complex, honest presentations of mental illness. But they both lean on the shorthand device of the main character quitting medication.

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“Going off your meds” could be called a sub-trope of the popular pilot plot line I call “First day of the rest your life.” I can’t say I’ve seen it a lot, but it appears in movies like Garden State. (If you have other examples, please tweet them to me @meek_the_geek.) It was subverted in the pilot of Wilfred, where Ryan decides to take all the meds.

For the uninitiated, United States of Tara centers on a woman in her late 30s (Toni Collette) dealing with Disassociative Identity Disorder (DID, previously known as multiple personality disorder). She has decided she’s not herself on her medication, so she risks unleashing her “alters” in an effort to, ironically, feel more like herself.

The fact that Tara is quitting her medication isn’t explicit in the pilot. You sort of figure it out through her confessional-style video diary.

Because USoT centers on such an unusual situation, the first episode can make for a Brechtian viewing experience, weighed down by comparisons to reality. The illness itself acted, for me at least, as a major distraction during the pilot. I kept questioning how realistic the portrayal was and wanting to brush aside certain aspects of the alters’ behavior.

After two episodes, I started reading up on DID, including a couple of posts that therapists wrote in reaction to the show. I was sold. Apparently, USoT is pretty accurate. So my advice is, don’t waste the mental energy trying to figure out the illness, just enjoy the ride.

Based on the seriousness with which the show treats her disorder, we can infer that a medical professional is overseeing the switch. We don’t hear any names of medications, and it’s not explained whether she went off all of them all at once. She definitely has the support of her husband and children. But, we don’t witness any withdrawal, just a return to the symptoms she apparently experienced in the past — namely two other personalities surfacing in response to stress.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend‘s Rebecca flies solo. After bumping into a high school boyfriend while she’s in the throes of an existential crisis, the Harvard Law grad decides to move across the country. Under the ruse of needing a change of scenery, she denies following this cheerful ball of muscles to his tacky Inland Empire burg. Upon arriving, she’s so sure that she’s made the right choice, she dumps the meds. Literally.

This is another show that deftly handles mental illness and subverts expectations. But, the one moment I found grating in an otherwise brilliant pilot was the scene of Rebecca tossing no fewer than five bottles of pills ceremoniously down the kitchen sink. Now, granted, she’s unstable and bad decisions are her bread and butter. But if you just stop taking a bunch of brain chemistry-altering drugs bad stuff is going to happen. And not just that you’re going to be in the state of mind you were before the drugs.

Here’s just one article (from none other than Harvard), explaining what happens when someone goes off antidepressants. They list not only emotional symptoms but physical ones including dizziness, nausea and digestive issues.The length of time a drug takes to leave the body ranges from two and a half to 25 days, and the article advises a “slow and steady” taper.

Withdrawal is the component most TV shows ignore with the Going Off Your Meds trope. By ignoring physical symptoms, they’re also ignoring the physical causes, thereby selling one of the worst mental health stigmas, “It’s all in your head.” Showing a character dramatically throw away medication without any physical consequences might save time, but it’s a weak shortcut.

Both protagonists eventually revisit drug therapy for their respective illnesses. Again, USoT handles the question more responsibly and realistically than CEG. While both are comedic, CEG is a more wacky, over-the-top show — it’s a musical, for Yoda’s sake — but its treatment of drugs still bothers me. It’s just so damn near perfect that it shouldn’t succumb to this one weakness.

If you’re into this topic you may enjoy this article, “TV Shows That Got Mental Health Right.” Or this one, “TV Shows That Got Mental Health Issues Really, Really Wrong.”

 

Supernatural and victim POV

I’ve never watched Supernatural. By pure coincidence, I chose today to start watching it. I only found out afterward that today is the anniversary of the day the story begins, November 2, 1983. [Cue spooky music.]

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Here is the sum of everything I knew about the show. Two dreamy brothers, one of whom was played with an actor who left Gilmore Girls for the role, chase down supernatural beings. And that the driver picks the music and shotgun shuts his cake hole. That’s it.

The pilot follows a typical format: It starts with an inciting incident in the past, in this case 22 years in the past, then catches us up to the present day. The action begins at a point when the main characters reunite following a separation. To put it in Hero’s Journey terms, younger brother Sam (Jared Padalecki) would be the hero, called into action by the mentor, older brother Dean (Jensen Ackles). Sam leaves his ordinary world, promising his girlfriend (Adrianne Palicki) he’ll be back for his law school interview on Monday. Then we’re headlong into monster-of-the-week territory.

I was on high cliche-alert for this Halloweentime spooky tale, and I didn’t have to wait long. The episode plot is the most repeated ghost story ever. Friends even made a joke about how lame this story is. A guy picks up a hitchhiking young woman who asks for a ride home, and it turns out she’s actually the ghost of someone who died in that spot years earlier.

It’s not enough that we probably all know this story, but we then learn the information via the brothers. Also, we see, first hand, how the ghost takes down her prey, from the perspective a young man who picks her up. The question is, why? We certainly don’t need this familiar tale spelled out for us. And, the scene takes us out of the main action. It interrupts the character- and relationship-building we’ve been doing with Sam and Dean. The writers could have used the time more efficiently. Because then, the heroes themselves face the ghost not once, but twice.

This conundrum begs the question, why does any crime show have to give us the victim POV scene (or its cousin, the discoverer-of-the-body POV scene)? Usually it comes in the cold open, but for this pilot they saved it for the second act. Still, it rarely adds anything, and it’s overdone. Is it meant to heighten suspense? It usually fails at that, because it always features unknown characters. Is it just a chance to showcase some gore? Maybe. That’s not a good reason. I say we call on writers to ditch this cheap plot device.

Sam’s girlfriend Jessica has some decent screen time in the beginning… in her underwear, for some reason. He makes reference to a possible future marriage, and swears that she must never learn about his family’s monster hunting ways. I found myself hoping this wasn’t going to be one of those shows where the main character has a secret life and has to make up increasingly ridiculous excuses to his significant other until she discovers his secret in the Season 1 finale.

I needn’t have worried. As it became more obvious that the show was going to be set on the road, it seemed Sam’s ordinary world was going to have to end. Stormtroopers had to kill his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. And, this is one place where the victim’s POV might have carried some weight! As minor a character as she was, Jessica had more substance than Random Bridge Driving Guy. And we end up with a freaking fridging! Seriously?

One moment I found interesting was when Dean is being questioned by a local cop, who says, “I know you got a partner. One of em’s an older guy. Maybe he started the whole thing.” Was this meant to suggest the possibility that their father did start something? I may be going way out here, but I’m speculating as someone who hasn’t watched the show before. Is Dad a bad guy? Was Mom murdered in retaliation for something he did? I really hope so, because otherwise this thing is too predictable.

Okay, okay, so I figure fans are mad at me by now. The thing is, despite all of the predictability, I enjoyed this pilot. Padalecki and Ackles have great chemistry. Monster hunting has provided material for a lot of good shows. This premiered the same year as Ghost Whisperer, so maybe the time was ripe for a male-led ghost story to complement that female-led one, and it’s lasted much longer, so it’s doing something right.

The Walking Dead has lost its soul

I know I’m far from the only person to be disappointed by the season 7 finale of The Walking Dead. But I’ve felt the need to pinpoint exactly where the show went off the rails for me, and to articulate what, precisely, it has lost.

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In the beginning, I was surprised to find myself enjoying a horror show so much. “It’s not about zombies,” was how I explained it to everyone who hadn’t seen it. “It’s about the people.” Not only was it about people… it was about hope. I’m sorry to say good-bye to beloved characters, but such good-byes are par for the course. What I can’t forgive is the loss of hope. Continue reading

Wayward Pines and red herrings

Wayward Pines is the kind of show that defies you to answer the question “What is it about?” without giving away what it’s about. As soon as you hear the name M. Night Shyamalan, whatever you’re watching, you’re going to start scouring each scene for clues… clues to the almighty Twist. (Spoilers start mid-way though this post, with a warning.)

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Produced by Shyamalan, Wayward Pines is based on a series of novels of the same name by Blake Crouch. Season 2 just started, and I couldn’t decide if I was excited about it or not. So I rewatched the pilot, which I remember a suspenseful and riveting. The first half of the first season, up to The Twist, kept me guessing, theorizing, and eager for the next week. After that investment, I wanted to stay engaged — it was the summer TV season, after all — so I kept with it and more or less enjoyed it. It’s now, having all of the information about what the show is about, that I realize the pilot isn’t that good. It’s pretty awful. Continue reading

Younger and suspension of disbelief

I really wanted to like Younger. I can’t resist the if-I-knew-then-what-I-know-now fantasy (see Being Erica). Also Sutton Foster. Sutton Foster is fabulous and adorable as a theatre actress, but her talent hasn’t translated too well to the tube. If Bunheads couldn’t figure out how to make the most of this shining star when she was playing a dancer… which she is… this one needed to work extra hard.

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Younger follows the misadventures of a woman in her 40s posing as a woman in her 20s to facilitate her transition back to the workforce following stay-at-home-mom life and a painful divorce. Continue reading

Jessica Jones

Fragility and toughness form the juxtaposed themes of the pilot of Jessica Jones, which debuted yesterday on Netflix. I know nothing of Jessica Jones from the comics, and I haven’t read any reviews of the show, so this is an unadulterated first impression.

JonesI couldn’t not think about the Veronica Mars pilot in the first few minutes. A female private detective spies on a tawdry hook-up as her voiceover provides exposition. We’re then transported to a hallway outside a dingy office where the textured glass proclaims the name of the business, Alias Investigations, not unlike the door to Mars Investigations. Then a client’s head comes through the glass and the similarity is, shall we say, shattered. (Doors are a recurring symbol, as well.) Continue reading

Punky Brewster: The child welfare system in three acts

Kids living with substitute parents were big on 80s TV. Television would have had us believe you could will your kids to your employer (Diff’rent Strokes), take in homeless teens (Growing Pains), force two guys you slept with to share custody of your kid (My Two Dads), or raise a robot as your daughter (Small Wonder), all without any legal intervention. I don’t know if the networks were just trying to be inclusive of less traditional families or catering to kids who wished they could trade theirs in.

PUNKY BREWSTER -- SEASON 1 -- Pictured: Soleil Moon Frye as Penelope 'Punky' Brewster -- Photo by: NBCU Photo Bank

In this climate, Punky Brewster’s premise wasn’t hard to buy, but the show went above and beyond in attempting to be realistic. In making the pilot a three-parter, the network expressed their confidence in the audience’s willingness to stick with it, and the creators acknowledged the complexity of the subject matter. Don’t misunderstand; the show debuted with all the trappings of an 80s sit-com, including a whimsical montage, but it boldly adopted the tone of a “very special” episode right out of the gate. Continue reading

Other Space

It takes a lot to think of something new to do within science fiction, but that doesn’t mean the old tropes have been exhausted. Other Space owes influences to many of the shows on this list of the 50 Greatest Sci-Fi TV Shows, but manages to find a unique voice of its own. In fact, it proves you don’t need a big name star or even explosions to succeed — although the name Paul Feig probably doesn’t hurt — he created, directed and produced it.other_space

Opening titles tell us that a “multi-national corporate coalition” was formed in the mid-21s century to map the cosmos, and that we’ll be following the adventures of a ship that went missing in 2105. We’re then thrown into action on the bridge of a spaceship, which could be any spaceship on any show. People are frantically shouting for the captain to make a judgment call when he enters with a tray full of hotdogs to share. It’s a ham-handed joke, but tells us all we need to know about central character Stewart.(Karan Soni). Crew morale is his utmost priority and his aw-shucks need to be liked will always trump his professional obligations. And that’s okay, because he’s just passed this simulation (we knew it was a simulation) with flying colors. Continue reading

Selfie drones and other con TV memories

In July, the fall TV season seems a million years off. The networks are mainly reruns and there’s nary a pumpkin spice latte in sight. Returning from San Diego Comic-Con — or your other summertime con of choice — do you sometimes wonder how you can stand the wait for all the premieres that were teased or screened?

Having spent the past couple of weeks finally watching all the new fall shows, we can now talk about what they looked like without con goggles. Some lived up to the hype and some didn’t. But do you think your experience was colored by what you saw this summer?

I first saw part one Archer’s “Heart of Archness,” three-episode series at SDCC, and now it holds a special place in my heart as one of my favorite episodes of that show. There’s one joke (about punching a shark in the friggin’ face) where I can almost hear the crowd in the Indigo Ballroom laugh every time. Continue reading

Scandal and things of the week

The sum total of my knowledge about Scandal was this: The Limited has a clothing line named for it. So I’m reacting to this pilot unbiased. (Spoilers ahead.)

Olivia compares herself to the accused

Olivia compares herself to the accused

As any pilot of a procedural, this one has to introduce a season-long story arc while delivering a case/mystery/monster of the week. Things of the week are a tricky thing, and some shows put more weight on them than others. Some shows use the thing of the week only in support of the A plot, and it really doesn’t matter that much. For others, the main focus is on the thing of the week and little bits of series arc simply bookend the episode. (I have more to say on this subject with regard to iZombie, but I’ll get to that another day.) Continue reading