Content Warning: Mental Health/ Depression/ Suicide
I’m not sure there has ever been a period where television has been this brilliant. Perhaps not since The Office, Little Britain and Peep Show were airing during 2003 have we seen such a bombardment of great TV. But much has changed in the 16 years since 2003: I’m now actually old enough to watch these shows (and decide that the awkward men in them are a bit annoying not endearing), Doctor Who came back, and most importantly – Women are actually at the centre of the new age of TV, and we’ve moved past the idea of ‘female’ as a genre too. Thank God. ‘Female’ constitutes a genre as much as bread constitutes a food group: it isn’t. (but that doesn’t stop me eating it with every meal.)
In the same breath this year we’ve had Derry Girls, Fleabag, Back to Life, GameFace, Killing Eve, and now – This Way Up. The answer to all my prayers. The best year of my life and it’s only August!
This Way Up is, and I know how dramatic this sounds, the best thing ever. The most accurate and relatable depiction of mental health recovery I’ve ever seen. The rawest, most open and honest portrayal of the insides of many of our brains. And it’s bloody funny.
The show focuses on Aine (Aisling Bea) who we meet leaving a rehabilitation clinic following a ‘teeny little nervous breakdown’, aided by her older sister Shona (Sharon Horgan). The opening scene sets up the dynamic of the sisters: Aine knows what she wants (a kit-kat in a jacuzzi, neither of which were available in the clinic ) and Shona wants to help her, by giving ‘business feedback’ to a worker in the clinic who probably just wants to get on with her day in not the happiest environment. I loved Horgan in Pulling and Catastrophe, and have long been a fan of Bea’s stand up. Seeing them together like this is fantastic – Bea wrote the show, whilst Horgan’s company Merman produced it. It’s also great to see Channel 4 airing an Irish led show following Derry Girls, ensuring that the former wasn’t a novelty.
Comparisons to Fleabag have been made, obviously – wow! A woman! Talking openly about mental health and having sex! – however, and despite my love for Fleabag, one of the endearing and more relatable qualities of This Way Up is that it isn’t ‘posh’ in the way Fleabag veers on being. In one scene, Aine rings up her therapist in an emergency, but only reaches the receptionist, telling them: ‘‘I’ve just shoplifted a smoothie so I’m feeling a bit…actually can I speak to Helen about this not you’. Bea shows the reality of mental health: you can’t always get an appointment straight away, if at all.
Aine works as a TEFL teacher, and within her classroom we see a diverse mix of people trying to learn English. In episode two, Aine takes one Bulgarian student, Victor, to the hospital believing he has been the victim of a racially motivated attack, when in fact a brick fell on him whilst at work. The nuance in the humour as Aine navigates her job and the current social and political climate highlights how a show can play into political correctness in a sensitive way whilst keeping the humour too. The protagonist doesn’t always have to be the best when they’re trying their best.
Anyone who has faced their own mental health crisis will probably know how funny it can be. The dark joke in a quiet room that you know is hilarious but doesn’t quite land because, well, jokes about depression aren’t actually that funny to everyone. Aisling Bea plays on this. Lucy Mangan writing in the Guardian points out that ‘It is a drama (it is only a comedy-drama if you are one of those lucky people who has never experienced the eternal truth and saving grace of real life – that the worse things get, the better the jokes become; you can’t separate them by so much as a hyphen)’. Mangan is quite right, and the label ‘comedy-drama’ perhaps indicates as much as the label ‘female’ does in television, i.e. not a lot.
A scene in the first episode shows Aine going from laughing in the mirror to being crouched on the floor crying, in what looks like a panic attack, within seconds. Perhaps this scene best highlights the ease at with Bea takes the audience from comedy to drama and back again, but always keeping them intermingled and never separated, because it is impossible to take one away from the other.