making it

All the TV I Watched When I Was Chronically Depressed

Illustration: by Samantha Hahn

At the end of February I got a rash, which should have been no big deal, but it meant I was having an allergic reaction to Lamictal, which, it turned out, was the only one of the many drugs I was taking to control my bipolar depression that was working even a little bit. I had to quit it cold turkey (the rash can be fatal), and within 24 hours I was prostrate, underwater, feeling like the world and everything in it was actively attacking me and also that it didn’t matter. This was different from depression I’d experienced before — the kind of depression where, yes, the world is trash, but you can still brush your teeth and go to the store. This was something completely different. I was being eaten from the inside. My brain was goo, evil goo that wanted me dead. I reached for anything that could help, but there was nothing. In an especially pathetic moment I overdosed on Benadryl. “I just wanted to feel sleepy and tired,” I explained to the ER doctor. “Sleepy and tired temporarily or, like, forever?” he asked. “Temporarily,” I semi-lied. That was the first weekend.

Then came the next month. I needed help and reminders to eat, to walk around the room. I tried to act normal in front of my kids and it was torture. New meds were coming, but not yet — first I had to try to see if a series of ketamine treatments would flip the dopamine switch (it didn’t). I submitted a request for medical leave, then lay there for a few days, sleeping when I could and wondering what would happen next. If you can’t do anything, and I mean really can’t do anything, if going outside feels impossible and lying in bed is the only option, what are you going to do? I stared at the wall. The color of the wall changed gradually. This was it, some part of my brain that still had critical faculties thought. You are in it now. All those memoirs described this — this state of simply not being able to do anything anymore. I lay there, and the light changed, and my whole being hurt. But the next day my husband handed me a laptop. “At least try to watch TV,” he said.

After some resistance, I decided to rewatch Girls5Eva, the comedy about a ’90s girl group reconvening in their 40s, which I’d already watched twice. The familiarity helped. It reminded me of a time in my life when I’d watched the show and hadn’t felt like this. Plus I was soothed by the bright colors and its soundstage version of New York, where sometimes John Slattery turns the corner and tells you it’s okay to only have one kid. But there were only two seasons and then I was in the shit again. I couldn’t read more than a few sentences of a book. The internet and podcasts were an absolute no-fly zone: They reminded me I had an identity and an existence, which was excruciating. Consciousness was painful. When I wasn’t watching TV, I could hear my brain, and my brain was the worst podcast in the world. I realized I was going to need infinitely more TV like Girls5Eva — shows that existed in an anodyne world where nothing truly bad happened and if there was life-altering drama, it was over the top and silly and harmless and sometimes solved by a song. I needed sweet, safe TV that could distract me from why I was lying there, unable to go outside or care for my kids or even speak. I didn’t want to think about that. I needed TV shows I could plug directly into my veins.

Girls5Eva. Photo: Heidi Gutman/Peacock

I briefly had a dalliance with Derry Girls — the accents helped, because I’d doze off whenever I couldn’t figure out what they were saying. And after that I loved the Mindy Kaling–produced teen drama Never Have I Ever. Talk about low stakes combined with solid performances. I was morose when it ended. The streaming services seemed filled with true crime (no) and reality (I couldn’t handle reality, no matter how produced). I scrolled Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max — Succession or anything artfully made was out, obviously — and came up with nothing I could sink my teeth into. I began to genuinely panic.

Then my friend Bennett came over and installed Paramount Plus on my TV so I could watch The Good Wife, which was the answer to all my prayers. The Good Wife has six long seasons, and I desperately wish there were more. From the beginning, I was hooked. For one thing, I was not reminded of myself or reality at all by the show — I have never been or wanted to be a trial lawyer or Chicago politician, and even the internet plots of the show (“ChumHum,” its Google stand-in, was always getting in trouble) were so over the top and phony that they didn’t trigger me to think of myself and my history of being too online. The point of the show was Alicia.

Passionate yet impassive Alicia Florrick, with her somehow expressive yet immobile face and her slightly imperfect wigs, won me over immediately. She was always going to reliably show up in court in her stunning bodycon suits and she was going to win, usually, and if not, she was going to be stunned and outraged. Afterward, she was going to relax with her heels up on a desk and a scotch in her hand, or at a bar with a glass of red wine. I only ate toast and eggs for months, and it reassured me how infrequently Alicia ate food. In her immaculately clean home, she often opened the fridge and closed it again, then poured a glass of wine. She was a perfect robot with no need for sustenance. She had teenage kids who seldom interfered with the plot or required, say, doing laundry. This was in stark contrast to my own life, which mostly consisted of laundry and little kids who needed me badly but whose needs I was incapable of meeting. I couldn’t, for example, take them to school or to the playground. Since I was at home all the time, I tried to contribute to my household the only way I could, via housework. I felt like a different kind of robot than Alicia, whose settings were perfectly attuned. Mine were awry, atrophied.

The structure of the show also soothed and reassured me. Dressed up as drama, it was really a procedural, with a dramatic A plot — some court case or other — and then the ongoing drama of the law firm as a B plot and a low-stakes C plot involving whichever lawyers were having sex with each other at any given time. I came to rely on the rhythm of the show, as soothing as a slowly beating drum. Sometimes, I could fall asleep to it as easily as you could fall asleep to whale sounds or the crashing of waves. I was always wishing or trying to fall asleep — unconsciousness was the only time I didn’t feel crushingly awful. When I couldn’t sleep, I could at least get so involved in Alicia’s attempt to free a convicted wife-killer that I couldn’t hear my own bad thoughts.

The Good Wife. Photo: Eike Schroter/CBS via Getty Images

I loved Alicia so much and I wanted the best for her, but she kept making stupid decisions. She ran for state’s attorney for basically no reason, and of course lost. She refused to tell the love of her life how she felt about him and then he up and died! But do you know what she did when he died? She spent exactly one day in bed, then she brushed herself off and put her form-fitting suit back on. After all, there was more lawyering to do.

I was so disappointed when the show ended, and even though I was doing a little bit better by that point — going outside, seeing friends sometimes — I still badly needed to spend all the other hours of my day not having thoughts. Unfortunately, the next show to present itself was The Good Fight, the Good Wife spinoff that features Diane (Christine Baranski) from The Good Wife working at a mostly Black law firm helmed by Audra McDonald and many other working Broadway actors. The great thing about The Good Wife and The Good Fight is that the cast of any given episode could, in a pinch, perform a decent production of almost any Sondheim play (especially Follies). There are a lot of situations where a guest star gets two lines on the stand — for example, Megan Hilty — and you’re like, “Why not just let her sing?”

Anyway, The Good Fight isn’t bad, necessarily, it’s just not as Good. It takes place in real time from 2020 to 2022, so there’s a lot of external bad news that interferes with the show’s purpose, which for me was of having a lot of silly plots that could be resolved within half an hour and did not remind me of myself, or my job, or any job or identity I’d ever had in my life. The episode where the firm is in charge of finding out who killed Jeffrey Epstein did not pass that test. I still watched all six seasons — the actors’ conviction helped keep me in that state I craved, the one where I didn’t have to think about myself.

Then I arrived at an impasse. There was only one show left for me, one I had resisted all along. It met the criteria of having a giant amount of seasons and a procedural structure, but I was worried that it would be too dumb to catch the thread of my attention. I took the leap anyway, of course, and became Grey’s Anatomy–pilled. After all, I’ve never been a doctor.

Grey’s Anatomy. Photo: Kelsey McNeal/ABC/Courtesy Everett Collection

You wouldn’t necessarily think that a show where regular cries of “Code blue!” and “She’s crashing!” could be soothing, especially for someone who had recently spent time in a psych ward. Not to mention the routine squish and suction sounds of surgical procedures. I can’t explain it either, but somehow I got used to the sonic rhythms of the show. They were the price I paid for its utter plot craziness, which kept me riveted. Doctors and interns hooked up in every available supply closet and elevator in seemingly infinite combinations and permutations. A protracted subplot involved a ghost.

I’m loath to give up my lifestyle of lying in bed and watching long-running procedurals, but I am forced to admit if I allowed myself to finish all of Grey’s 19 seasons, I would be really throwing in the towel. Plus, even though my mental health is still not sterling, I am capable of writing these words, which is something, and certainly more than I could do in the days when I was mainlining half a season of The Good Wife every day. And being conscious — the baseline state of having thoughts, walking around, talking to other people — is becoming less painful every day. It’s not as easy as lying in bed watching TV, but it’s life.

All the TV I Watched When I Was Chronically Depressed