Is it fair to criticize an absurdist television drama as riveting as Homeland for its tenuous relationship to reality? There are reasons to demur. Even the crudest précis of the show’s premise and plot is enough to reveal that its creators do not mean to venture, for the most part, into the realm of the real. The series’ first and most obvious flight of fantasy—the existence and transformation of an American marine turned jihadi terrorist turned congressman turned penitent—is outlandish, but typical of television. But it is the story’s second thread, the travails and eventual triumph of the beautiful and brilliant CIA agent Carrie Mathison, which gives pause. Afflicted with a mental disorder that affects every aspect of her life—her powers of perception and persuasion; the details of her obsessions; her loneliness, her instability, her hotness and her coldness; and, finally, her paranoia, which may be a preternatural gift, or simply paranoia—Carrie is an unlikely American hero, and a bad bet besides. Yet in December, after a tumultuous two seasons of on-and-off employment with the CIA, Carrie rose from the ashes of her career vindicated, not only in her questionable quest and more questionable methods, but also, and far more important, in the question that had dogged her and her more unimaginative colleagues throughout their mission: that of her sanity.
The porous nature of sanity has always been a rich thematic source for film and television, but as a new set of menaces of the mind—autism, bipolar disorder and the pathology of mass shootings, among others—have risen to the surface of public consciousness, insanity’s medical attendant, mental illness, has been renewed and reshaped in those mediums. Glenn Close appears in television spots urging viewers to accept and support bipolar (formerly manic-depressive) people like her sister. The New York Times publishes reports on how to make autistic children employable, as well as expert opinions about the treatment of and recovery from schizophrenia. (One recent enlightened discovery: “Some people with severe mental illness are capable of high levels of achievement.”) And no matter where one turns, the pundits endlessly ponder the neurological ailments presumed to have impelled the shooters in Aurora, Colorado; Oak Creek, Wisconsin; and Newtown, Connecticut.
The theme of the second season of the television show American Horror Story—created by Ryan Murphy, whose previous projects include Nip/Tuck, about plastic surgeons in Miami, and Glee, about, well, glee—is sanity, and its setting is an asylum supervised by a nun more deranged than Nurse Ratched. Here the well undergo the same inhumane treatments as the ill; in what seems to be a political statement, Murphy has one patient imprisoned for lesbianism, which, in the mind of Sister Jude, is nearly as wicked as killing women, skinning them and wearing their faces as masks.
But American Horror Story is the exception to the rule. Screen renderings of insanity and its discontents have strayed from their traditional genres—horror and tragedy, thrillers and cop shows—and, in the process, become both more comic and more clinical. In Silver Linings Playbook, the bipolar main character, played by Bradley Cooper, lists his meds by neologisms recognizable from TV commercials. He’s tried and abandoned a cocktail of Seroquel, Abilify and lithium (this last, an element of nature, is unpatented and unadvertised). His love interest (Jennifer Lawrence, who won an Oscar for her performance) is a distressed widow who appears to have some unspecified disorder herself; she’s dabbled in Xanax and Effexor, but they made her feel foggy. And they’re not the only ones: nearly everyone else in the cast is clinically diagnosable, with the notable exceptions of the protagonist’s mother and his friend’s bossy wife, presumably because moms are too busy to go crazy crazy.
Robert De Niro, as Cooper’s father, is the only character to play his ailment persuasively, perhaps because the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder are better known and more distinct than those of other psychiatric maladies, whose fits and rages are portrayed as generic (but always psychotic) fits and rages. De Niro begging Cooper, his lucky charm, to watch the Philadelphia Eagles play on game day; his need to set the television remotes on the table just so—these are identifiable as rituals typical of OCD to anyone who knows anyone with the disorder. In this happy-go-lucky romantic comedy, mental illness isn’t so scary after all; it could be a proxy for any emotional baggage that might delay two lovers in the discovery of their love, and it can apparently be cured, for at least a little while, by entering a dance contest.