What sitcoms mean to people struggling with their mental health.
by Tasneem S. Pocketwala
In May 2018, Fox cancelled the critically acclaimed sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine, citing bad ratings the show seemed to be garnering in its last season. Social media, as is its wont, erupted within minutes of the announcement, with fans vehemently protesting the network’s decision. But really, this isn’t so new in itself; many cancelled shows have seen similar reactions from fans. But what was new in the case of Brooklyn Nine-Nine—and quite striking—was that fans appeared to be asking to renew the show because they claimed it had helped them get through periods of depression.
This was a heavy claim, and something that made me sit up and take notice. This didn’t seem like just another case of fans being disappointed and campaigning for their favourite TV show to be revived, something that is barely unheard of. But here, people were making a direct link between Brooklyn Nine-Nine and their mental health.
Mental illness is on the rise, and some studies even suggest there may be connection between depression and binge-watching, although there’s too little data to say this with any certainty. Binge-watching behaviour involves the viewer sitting put and passively watching hour after hour of content–it can be addictive, and quite possibly create feelings of loneliness and isolation in the viewer. And yet, here were people vouching for a TV show helping them with their mental health. This seemed odd to me.
But is it? About 36 percent of the shows that were brought back after being cancelled, as per TVLine’s list, were sitcoms or comedy series. Critics argue that sitcoms rarely depict reality as it is, functioning as a curated world of its own, with its own set of identifiers that allow people to recognise its format instantly and know what to expect, in terms of characters, plot, and style. But, if, like fans say, sitcoms can heal - what is it about them that leads to positive outcomes?
I watched Scrubs for the first time when I had started college in 2009. It was a time when life was bursting with possibilities and my mind was a more pleasant place to live in. At the time I was drawn into the show because I found it funny and heart-warming, and pleasant thing to do to pass the time or unwind after studying for class. I don’t think I even told my friends about it. ‘What are you watching these days?’ hadn’t yet entered common parlance anyway. I watched it, not addictively (there was no access, I was at the mercy of an English TV channel in India that dictated when it wanted to air the episodes), with a kind of engaged enjoyment I find rare when I watch TV now. Scrubs was fun to watch, and funny, while everything around me seemed to be in its place.
But during a particularly vulnerable point in my life recently, when I found myself confused and anxiety-ridden, I happened to bump into Scrubs on Amazon Prime. I clicked on it curiously, at first out of pure nostalgia. But watching one episode and then the next, and then another unwittingly took me back to a time when my life wasn’t unravelling in front of my very eyes.
It only took a few more episodes for it to become a quarter-life-crisis-induced, full-blown addiction. I would come home, drop my bag, and settle down to watch an episode without even having changed first, promising myself that it would only be the one episode. There was a kind of ease and comfort that seemed to be attached to the environment that Scrubs depicted—and to the characters themselves, even when neurosis and anxiety were written into their personalities, like in Elliot’s character. There was harmony, a beautiful harmony in the show that seemed to be lacking in my own life at that point, with the blunt edges in the stories of the lives of doctors that it told where lay stress, confusion, loneliness, despair and depression, all blithely chopped off.
In the world of Scrubs, complex and messy emotions didn’t exist. Here, real love or the lack thereof, hurt and pain were all brushed aside to make way for comedy and adventure, for the camaraderie and “bromance” of JD and Turk. There was space and patience for Elliot’s neuroses which came across as funny (to us). Kelso’s impishness as a boss came out only as comedic, and Dr Cox’s (nearly abusive) sarcasm as he reluctantly mentored the interns was indulgently tolerated, did not make him a bad person, and was only a cause for laugher.
I wonder now if it was escapism I sought through this deep dive I made into binge-watching the show. Scrubs was a response to the question I was living with at that point in my life. The characters in the sitcom were intelligent, interesting, driven people doing what they were passionate about all the while making some sort of tangible difference in the world (as doctors). For me, who so much wanted a way to do the very same, the show became a refuge. I could watch these characters do things and live the way I wanted to, but could not figure out how. Scrubs presented a side of its characters’ lives that was only a small and fleeting part of the larger picture and inflated it. Here, there was banter and romance, and friendship and laughter, comfort, and harmony.
Media critic John Ellis repurposes the Freudian concept of “working through” to make sense of the effect TV shows have upon us. Drawn from psychoanalysis, “working through” describes the process whereby material is constantly ruminated over until the point at which it is exhausted. A juncture of revelation is then reached, which was hidden before, and makes for an entirely new experience.
Television—and by extension, the sitcom—does something similar for us. It works as a mechanism for processing what we witness in the world around us, by rendering it in a more digestible format: through tidy, 30-minute narratives. It defines, it clarifies. Most importantly, it presents life in clear-cut stories with definite beginnings and certain, unambiguous and happy endings. Even a hospital could be livened up when the stories it houses were told through the generic bindings of a sitcom, a la Scrubs. “Television imbues the present moment with meanings. It offers multiple stories and frameworks of explanation which enable understanding and, in the very multiplicity of those frameworks, it enables its viewers to work through the major public and private concerns of their society,” Ellis writes.
The sitcom is especially equipped to do this, because one of the key aspects of the genre is repetition. The traditional American sitcom works within a tight format and employs certain narrative and technical tropes to offer familiarity. Stereotypical but very likeable characters abound, the ‘situations’ generally follow the norm of an “interruption of… normality, attempts at coping with the intrusion or problem, and the resolution of it allowing for what we could call ‘the return to normalcy,” Lawrence E. Mintz wrote in 1985. In Brooklyn Nine-Nine the call-backs and gags, especially the extended Halloween Heist ranging across multiple seasons, create for its audience a comforting pattern of sorts: the viewers know what to expect, and the gag delivered is also hilarious. Then there are its various catchphrases and punchlines, the repetition of which both creates a language specific to the show that only fans will understand, while also generating incremental laughter.
Shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Scrubs, and 30 Rock are workplace sitcoms that create a world that is similar to our own, insofar as it is immediately recognisable, but still contrived enough to lack real depth in its characters and nuances in its situations—where we can channel our own anxieties and dispose of our experiences.
In the sitcom Community, the character Abed imagines that his life is a TV show. This is a running gag, because of course Abed’s life is a TV show: he doesn’t exist but as part of the TV show. I’ve realised how this brings a certain perspective to our lives, this imagining ourselves as we live a moment that’s part of a larger picture, something bigger than ourselves, where we conveniently become the central character. Everything then revolves around us in this imagining—as it does in reality, when we think and feel and go about the natural rhythms of our daily lives. Mundane moments might then turn out to be plot twists or character revelations, or might drive us, the protagonist, to crucial insight. In this way, sitcoms like Community and Brooklyn Nine-Nine allow us to take a step back and reflect on our own lives in ways that can be helpful to anyone struggling with mental illness.
Subliminally, perhaps this is what we all may be doing while watching TV. For mental well-being, the mind needs to be a good place to live in, and we are all hunting for ways to make it habitable in some way or another. It might be easier (and far pleasanter) to reorder our conceptions of ourselves along the lines of a sitcom rather than any other TV genre, not least because of its formulaic nature. The ingredients are all there after all.
Almost within 24 hours of its cancellation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine was picked up by a rival network.
Tasneem S. Pocketwala