Wakefield and a Look Behind The Curtain of Mental Health
Ever since the Golden Age of Television more or less began with Oz — the usually unforgiving dark drama set in maximum security prison — the medium has gone to places it wouldn’t have thought of going before in deeper detail — politics, the War on Terror, criminal enterprises and the most dystopian of futures. But for all that there has been one area that television has never seemed willing to go behind — the world of the psychiatric institution.
We’ve been more than willing to delve into the world of the mentally unstable, of course, but usually in small doses in medical dramas or the police procedural but in all my years of watching television I only recall on TV series anywhere that actually took place entirely in a psychiatric ward: Wonderland, which aired for the briefest of moments in 2000. It was lucky that it aired two episodes, and frankly given the level of the subject matter (a pregnant nurse got stabbed with a hypodermic during the opening minutes) it was the kind of material that one rarely expects to see on FX or Showtime, much less broadcast television. (I’m aware one of the incarnations of FX’s American Horror Story was set in an asylum, but considering the nature of the show I seriously doubt it looked at it in a realistic vein.) Television’s attitude towards this area of our lives sadly reflects our own: we want to view those with these kinds of altered abilities as people we can shunt aside, not people we can treat or let walk among us.
This is one of the reasons I was intrigued when Showtime premiered Wakefield an Australian set drama filmed in conjunction with the BBC. This is the first series I have ever seen that is willing to take examine every approach of the world of the mentally unstable and those to have to treat them. The creators do it in a way that will fondly remind us of NBC’s Boomtown, an extraordinary police procedural that had a great first season before the network completely redesigned, then dumped it in the TV graveyard that is Friday nights, before killing it after just three episodes into its second season. (Still bitter about it after twenty years? Maybe a little.)
For those of you not familiar with Boomtown, it was a series that would focus on a crime from the points of view of almost every character, often showing parts of previous scenes from a different characters point of view. Some series have done variations on this theme (most notably The Affair) bur I have to admit after four episodes that not even Boomtown did it as well. No matter how well written or performed, you could never get over the fact that it seemed purely a gimmick. When Wakefield does it, there seems to be a purpose to it — since every character has a fractured view of reality to begin with, the writers showing it this way does a fairly good job of putting us in this world.
And Wakefield has done a good job of showing us the problems of all of the patients by clearly illustrating the differences between them all. We see a hoarder who wants to hurt herself and whose illness has forced even her own mother to give up on her. We see a manic woman who is sexually crazed and whose husband keeps sticking by her, no matter how hard it is. We see a bipolar patient obsessed with his physique who can’t understand why the doctors won’t let him go to the gym anymore. And in what was the most shocking sequence so far, we saw a young mother spend days trying to deal with her fears for her new baby — and in the last seconds of her sequence appear to casually push her child’s pram in front of an oncoming train.
The doctors aren’t quite as unstable as the patients here, but there are many occasions when we can see that they are hanging by a thread. There’s the nurse manager who in every way seems unqualified for her job and who doesn’t seem to like making human connections. Our sympathies with her go back and forth — we do know she needs money, but in a fit of range she smashes in an old man’s windshield. She goes through mediation and seems to use a fellow caregiver’s sympathy for her for help, then leaves an exercise to go gambling. The major psychiatrist — Kareena — may be the best doctor at her hospital, but she’s going through stresses for her own. We see her announce to her psychiatrist: “I can’t come’, has an obsession with beating a phantom jogger at a course, and when a patient’s wife challenges her authority by inviting her own therapist, she seems more angry that the therapist came to her job than about the patient’s well being.
Holding Wakefield the institution — and the series — together is Nik, an Indian refugee who is the best nurse at the facility. He takes his job perfectly seriously and with the right amount of humor — “Bar’s open!” he cries as he brings out the medication for the patients. He knows how to best care for everybody, something that most of the doctors and staff really don’t. But as you’d expect Nik has his own demons. He has spent the first three episodes dealing with an earworm and an inability to sleep. He keeps hallucinating and seeing himself from a distance. There is clearly some kind of trauma in his past — the viewer still isn’t sure of it even now, but it’s obvious his mother had some kind of major psychiatric condition which his father spent their marriage covering up. His sister is getting married and the ritual of best man is bringing up traumas he is not prepared to face. Kareena is the only person who seems able to reach him, but she’s far from the best candidate — they were going to be married before some still undisclosed reason broke it up, and given the fantasies we have seen in her head, she still carries a torch, even though she’s now married to another man.
Wakefield is not the kind of show that will be for everybody, to say the least. We tend to only like the mentally altered when they are disturbed enough to be serial killers on shows like Criminal Minds or Law & Order: SVU — or perhaps on series like The Fall. To see those with a mental illness as human beings deserving of the compassion we should go everyone else is not a position that most of us are willing to consider as rule, much less make a part of our nightly viewing. Certainly the staff and doctors of Wakefield don’t seem to think that way, and they are in that position. Still I’m grateful that Showtime has offered this series in connection with its airing of many other BBC series this past year, such as Back to Life. It’s not a great show — it doesn’t have enough confidence in its storytelling yet to make all its characters fully dimensional — but it is one we need to see. We may not be all mad here, as Lewis Carroll put it and the series itself quoted in the pilot, but we all have problems. Some of them are just less visible then others.
My score: 3.5 stars.