Beyond Pity: Realistic Depictions Of Televisions “Very Special Episode” Topics

On a Very Special Episode of...

On a Very Special Episode of…

When lazy writers want to inject TV shows with drama, or explain away cringe-inducing characterization, they often reach for the big guns: rape and abuse as backstory, mental illness, and addiction. Nobody would argue that these aren’t important topics, but it takes nuanced writing to move past the patronizing tone of an after-school special and create an enthralling, accurate representation of someone living with one of these issues. Luckily, the trend towards fully-realized characters holds true here, and viewers are seeing more characters whose problems are multifaceted and realistic, rather than the same stereotypes that were once accepted as inevitable.



Orange IS the New Black

Orange IS the New Black

We know that everyone is talking about Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black (adapted from Piper Kerman’s memoir) at the moment – it’s this summer’s big hit, and an interested reader can dig up everything from the usual recaps to nuanced discussions of the show’s treatment of race. Yet this show is the real thing; despite the hype, and its treatment of Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (played by Uzo Aduba) deserves serious attention as well. It would have been easy for OITNB to write Suzanne off as comic relief, and early episodes make a feint in that direction. Of course, one of the show’s strengths is the way these broadly-defined characters are slowly recognized as complex individuals as Piper and the viewer both grow to understand them. This works particularly well in Suzanne’s case, since – given her problems, and her personality – she is a larger-than-life character, and acknowledging that early on allows viewers to get it out of the way before focusing in on the subtleties. OITNB doesn’t preach, and it doesn’t turn its characters into one-dimensional pawns, leaving it capable of giving us unforgettable characters like Suzanne.



Teen Wolf

Teen Wolf

Now in its third season, MTV’s Teen Wolf has been one of the most surprising successes of the past few years. Despite having everything stacked against it (it is, after all, a reboot of the 1985 Michael J. Fox movie), the show has won over both critics and viewers by refusing to use “well, it’s fantasy” as an excuse for lazy writing. Supernatural beings or not, Teen Wolf’s characters are still fundamentally real people, and the show’s portrayals of trauma and abuse are better than most of those found on more realistic shows.

Lydia Martin (played by Holland Roden), for example, spent season two recovering from the effects of a werewolf attack. While some of these were supernatural, it was the depiction of “mundane” post-traumatic stress disorder which resonated most deeply. Never a wilting flower, Lydia retained her personality while showing symptoms of PTSD, fighting her way through the mental and emotional aftermath of the attack. Teen Wolf could have easily been sickly-sympathetic towards her character, yet its writers understood the character well enough to allow her moments of detached callousness, panicked anger,and denial – all familiar emotions for anyone who has struggled with PTSD themselves. Lydia never does receive the appropriate therapy for her trauma, but she fares better than Isaac Lahey (Daniel Sharman), whose character arc follows him through the death of his abusive father. Isaac’s story is slightly more sensationalized than Lydia’s (even outside of the whole werewolf thing), yet it still avoids the trap of treating the character as cardboard pawn rather than a real person.





Another addition to the “better than expected” list, CBS’s Elementary returns on September 26 for its much-anticipated second season. Jonny Lee Miller’s portrayal of a contemporary Sherlock Holmes focuses a great deal on Sherlock’s addictions – Lucy Liu’s Watson is his sober companion – and the show’s first season was nominated for a 2013 PRISM award. However, this take is a departure from the original stories, in which Sherlock is a functional cocaine addict, and some reviewers have criticized the show for focusing too heavily on this aspect of Sherlock’s personality. This argument isn’t without merit, but it’s still refreshing to see Elementary avoid the “addict and genius” angle; while Sherlock is certainly both of those things, they’re still only two parts of the whole, and are seldom – if ever – conflated. It also makes sense to have Sherlock’s addiction receive more notice in a modern update, given the changing values around drug use and abuse since Arthur Conan Doyle’s time. (BBC’s Sherlock, which has had an on-and-off rivalry with Elementary, has important nods to the detective’s addictions without making them a central plot point.)


Do you have a fond memory of an “On a Very Special Episode of…” growing up? Share it in the comments below…


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