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  1. Wealth
May 24, 2010

Mainstream Madness

By Spear's

Jackie is a groundbreaker: she throws open the gates on crazy pill-popping women and the men who love them.

“Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive,” writes Josephine Hart in her novel Damage. Well, dangerous or not, damaged people are also extremely lucrative.

First, there was House, the very popular TV show featuring Hugh Laurie playing a brilliant but Vicodin-addicted diagnostician who offends absolutely everyone who crosses his path in his hospital. A misanthrope and drug addict of the first order, Dr. House nevertheless has devoted friends and millions of viewers. The two-hour special of him committed to a psychiatric hospital was wildly popular. 

Then on Showtime we got Nurse Jackie, one of my favorites, which is produced by my friend Caryn Mandabach, the “sitcom supernova” who brought us Cosby Show, Roseanne, 3rd Rock from the Sun, Cybill and That 70s Show

Well, the eponymous Nurse Jackie, played by Edie Falco (of Mrs.Tony Soprano fame) ain’t no Mrs. Cosby. She’s a Vicodin-addicted philandering nurse and lapsed Catholic who loves both her devoted husband and her stalkerish pharmacist lover, who conveniently dispenses some hot loving along with her preferred opiates at twelve noon every day. Complex as it may be, she has a clear moral compass and dispenses her own brand of justice in the emergency room where she works. 

But Jackie is a groundbreaker as a lot more than a female counterpoint to House: she throws open the gates on a whole new genre of popular entertainment: crazy pill-popping women and the men who love them. And I’m gripped, as are millions of others all across America.

Riding the coattails of Jackie’s popularity is United States of Tara, the new Showtime series in the half-hour slot directly following Nurse Jackie. Tara is played by Emmy-Award winner Toni Collette, who’s probably most famous as the flawed mother opposite Hugh Grant in About A Boy, a film written, directed and produced by other friends of mine, the brothers Chris and Paul Weitz. 

Tara raises the bar on prime time crazy. With the tag line “One husband, two kids … multiple personalities,” Tara’s Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) does lead the viewer on a Sybill-esque array of “alternates,” as she calls them: the wild and flirty “T,” the 1950s Betty Crocker housewife Alice, and beer guzzling (male) Vietnam vet Buck, and, ultimately, as Shoshanna, Tara’s own shrink. I thought this last one was a frightfully good idea: splitting your own mind to become your own shrink is an ingenious way to save money in this recession — though perhaps not the most effective treatment strategy.

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Yet despite all the trouble caused by all the people living in his wife’s head, and effectively therefore under his roof, Tara’s husband remains devoted to caring for her, as if indeed his own life wouldn’t have meaning without his role as her caretaker — something some of his closer friends point out to him. Both Jackie and Tara make me wonder if perhaps developing an addiction or multiple personalities might garner more devotion from a husband.

As we women constantly feel the burden of being raised and groomed to please and be flexible to men’s needs, spurring a not-so-cottage industry of self-help books like Women Who Love Too Much and Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them, there’s a certain glee attached to seeing the shoe on the other foot. So I and millions of others tune in every Monday night from 10 to 11 to watch Jackie and Tara do their thing, only barely resisting the urge to cheer: “Give ‘im hell, sista!”

But neither of these compare to the musical my old high school friend and her fiancé took me to see on Saturday: Next to Normal

Hailed as “the future of American musicals,” it features a (you guessed it!) mentally ill wife, her devoted husband and their afflicted over-achieving daughter. The husband nurtures his wife through delusions, an ocean of psychotropic pills, myriad psychiatrists, and ultimately electro-convulsive (shock) therapy, before, in the ultimate ironic twist …. well, I wouldn’t want to give it away. Suffice it to say, I can understand all the acclaim it has garnered for its complex characters, compelling plot, and realistic portrayal of how one mentally ill person can drag a whole family down in her wake, but it doesn’t exactly make for a jolly night out.

What next? Who knows. But as my high school chum pointed out, it’s a trend that’s bound to pass. “Ten years ago all the plays and movies were about Aids. Now they’re about mental illness.” Whatever else you may say, crazy women are bringing in lots of money to the entertainment industry. Do you think this is what Betty Friedan had in mind?

Well, maybe, actually. 

Indeed in the dawn days of feminism one of the ways women realized they had experiences that bound them together as a group against a patriarchal society is that they began to compare notes and realized they had a lot of the same concerns or even neuroses: depression, fear of abandonment, nearly pathological selflessness and an overarching alienation. Realizing that 50% of the population couldn’t all be crazy, they reasoned there must be something in the socioeconomic structure causing this and they banded together to fight the system. Such strategies are typical of identity politics and have been employed successfully by African-Americans, gays and now Latinos. 

As I sat through Next to Normal, though, the only political or philosophical point I could see was one made most brilliantly in the screenplay by Charlie Kaufman (no, not a friend of mine, though I am a huge fan) of the 2004 movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: there is no point trying to obliterate painful memories, for that dull ache in the soul will direct the mind to piece it all together again. So in forgetting our own history, we will only be doomed to repeat it.  The best strategy then is that most American of mantras: “Deal with it!” 

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