TV Shows Pop Culture

This new Netflix show could change the portrayal of mental illness – for better or for worse

With shows like 13 Reasons Why and movies like Me, Myself, and Irene, the entertainment industry has long misconstrued what living with a mental illness is like, and too often brought forth extremely negative stereotypes. This is why I am both terrified of and hopeful for the upcoming Netflix web series Maniac, which will star Emma Stone and Jonah Hill.  

Maniac, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, is set to premiere on September 21. Not much is known about this series, except that it is at least loosely based off of the Norwegian comedy of the same name. A teaser just came out this week:

The original Norwegian version came out in 2014, and it centered around the character Espen, a patient in a mental hospital. Espen’s thoughts regularly shift between his reality in a mental health institution and his delusions.

I do have many issues with the Norwegian version of Maniac, as it seems Espen’s delusions are used as a form of entertainment for the audience’s viewing pleasure, instead of an issue that needs to be treated. Delusions, whether they are rooted from mental illnesses like schizophrenia or come from traumatic experiences, gravely impact those affected and their loved ones. Thus, the industry should not perpetuate false narratives about delusions being entertaining. The upcoming adaptation of Maniac has a few choices of which route that they will take in portraying mental illness. Maniac should be very careful to make sure mental illnesses portrayed in this show do not turn into the butt of a joke or a far away fantasy.

Based on stills released for Maniac, this web series appears to take place in the future, judging by the fashion design. This could have two effects, one positive and one negative. Maniac could be set in the future to indicate that issues pertaining to mental health and the purpose of psychiatric institutions transcend time, which would be good. The practice of setting stories in different eras to show how issues transcend time is common in theatre, particularly with Shakespeare. However, this could also falsely be used to show how different people who suffer from delusions and other symptoms associated with mental health are, as the audience may have a difficult time emotionally relating to characters. This may foster a sense of Other, a further alienation.

The representation of mental illnesses and people in psychiatric institutions is extremely personal to me. I was admitted to a psychiatric institution after a cycle of horrific experiences less than a year ago, and I cannot find the portrayal of people with mental illnesses and psychiatric institutions to be more false. I found that people at psychiatric institutions are just like everyone else, but they are just at a place where they admit that they have problems that they need to work on, while most people harmfully keep their issues to themselves. In addition, mental illnesses are not funny. No part of my PTSD was entertaining or should ever be viewed as entertainment or used as a joke.

I hope that Maniac has a positive impact on the public’s perception of mental illness and psychiatric institutions, but, based on how the media has portrayed mental illnesses in the past, I have my doubts.

People with mental illnesses and their loved ones deserve better.

By Julia Métraux

Julia Métraux is a journalist whose work has appeared in Narratively, The Tempest, BUST, and Briarpatch Magazine.