Tube Talk: Two kinds of disturbing: Bringing off-center characters to TV

By Paula Hendrickson
Contributing Writer

Many of TV’s great antiheroes were born on deep, dark and captivating cable dramas like The Shield, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. And House was one of the first successful broadcast series built around an extremely flawed and less-than-likable central character. Some antiheroes are amoral, some are irascible, a few are even mentally ill. The best are both thought-provoking and disturbing.

These days, NBC has a couple of engagingly off-center personalities on both The Blacklist and Hannibal.

James Spader’s Red Reddington on The Blacklist can be ruthless and polite at the same time, and clearly has some sort of endgame in mind that made it worthwhile to turn himself in to the FBI. As diabolical and manipulative as Red is, he appreciates the finer things in life and lives by his own code of honor, however warped it may seem to the rest of the world. Seeing him kill a man and apologize to his widow seconds later is chillingly disturbing,

On Hannibal, the title character, played by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, is a soft-spoken, highly educated and well-mannered psychiatrist who just happens to be a cannibalistic serial killer who has framed two other men for his crimes. Hannibal himself is a psychological smorgasbord — and one of the top mental health professionals in his field, too.

Instead of getting Will (Hugh Dancy) medical treatment for the encephalitis causing his hallucinations, Hannibal exploited the situation to make Will — and everyone around him — believe he was having a mental breakdown. Hannibal later framed his horrific crimes on another physiatrist, Dr. Chilton (Raul Esparza), who had taken over Will’s care at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.

Characters on Hannibal are as twisted as the storyline, which somehow makes it all work. Therapy sessions between Hannibal and Will, Will and Dr. Chilton, or Hannibal and his own (now ex-) therapist, Dr. Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson), are used to great effect, exposing the character’s hidden truths and vulnerabilities. The subtext turns those scenes into mental chess matches with each genius trying to outwit the other. The effect is unsettling and, yes, disturbing,

Yet, more disturbing is when TV series attempt to build drama around mentally ill main characters who intentionally go off their meds, but don’t show the damage that type of decision can cause. One such show, Mind Games, was canceled after a few episodes aired earlier this year.

On that show, Steve Zahn played Clark Edwards, a human behavior expert who was bipolar but didn’t like taking his medication. He was funny, childlike at times, and unpredictable, but the dangers of Clark going off his meds were more or less whitewashed. It was a hairsbreadth shy of irresponsible.

Judging from ads for its new series Black Box, it’s unclear whether ABC learned anything from its experience with Mind Games.

Debuting this Thursday, Black Box focuses on Dr. Catherine Black, a brilliant, bipolar neuroscientist (played by Kelly Reilly) who does “bad things” when she’s off her meds. Trailers for the show had me curious as to how Catherine’s mental illness — and its treatment —would be handled, so I decided to watch a preview of the first episode on ABC’s press site.

Unfortunately, the site was glitchy, and I was unable to watch the entire episode by press time, so I don’t know if Black Box will be responsible or irresponsible in its depiction of mental illness. I just hope it doesn’t glamorize the idea that it’s OK for bipolar people to seek inspiration by going off their meds. That would be disturbing in all the wrong ways.

Paula Hendrickson is a regular contributor to Emmy magazine and Variety, and has been published in numerous national publications, including American Bungalow, Television Week and TVGuide. Follow her on Twitter at P_Hendrickson and send your suggestions to

From the April 23-29, 2014, issue

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