Aine (Aisling Bea
) is discussing her
progress with her therapist at the end of Season 1 of Hulu
's "This Way Up."
“It’s hard, man. It’s hard, you know?” she says, “the daily grind can be kind of relentless, but all we can do is give it our best shot.”
That line encapsulates how the series, whose second season premieres Friday, is refreshingly honest about loneliness and depression
while avoiding unrealistic clichés. In movies
and TV about mental health
, there is often one horrific event that has traumatized the protagonist, who then has a dramatic moment of catharsis or a breakthrough
, “overcomes” their trauma, finds “closure,” and the end credits r
But real life isn't that neat and pat. On "This Way Up," Bea, who created and wrote the show, uses observational and confessional humor
to show how personal growth and trying to take care of your mental health isn't always a straight line upward, but rather a series of daily ups and downs that, when zoomed out, might point in a generally upward direction.
“What about when life isn’t the worst in the world, when there isn’t a disaster?” she asked in an interview
. “For me, that’s what I wanted to show with the show, that sort of dailiness, and that there’s sort of a nobility to plowing through.”
In Season 1, which premiered in the summer of 2019, Aine, an ESL teacher in London
, is trying to rebuild her life after having a nervous breakdown and spending some time in a mental health facility. At times, she struggles to connect with the people
around her and has a co-dependent relationship with her older sister Shona (Sharon Horgan), but she gradually moves forward. She excels at her job and cares about her students.
The new season builds on Aine's progress: she's planning to start a teaching company with her boss James (Ekow Quartey), she's less reliant on Shona, and she's now in a relationship with Richard. On the surface, things appear to be improving, but she's still struggling, experiencing bouts of insomnia
and social withdrawal.
“It’s almost like a high from feeling great again, but that’s not a sustainable way of living, and it’s bound to literally go downhill. I wanted to show: What about when everything is winning, and it just becomes too many things, and you’re still struggling? There’s no magical pill,” Bea explained.
“I suppose we've all experienced that with COVID — some days, you're like, 'Yeah, let's go! Oh no, one tiny bit of bad news
. I can't handle this, and I'm crying on a Zoom.'"
When I see women
with perfect barrel-curled hair
on shows about depression, I think to myself, 'Nah, she's doing fine
Aisling Bea, the show's creator and star,
disrupted the production of the show, as it did many other movies and TV shows, and Bea found herself having to write a new season of a show about loneliness while alone in her house
during the peak of the pandemic.
Over the last year and a half, TV shows and writers have wrestled with whether or not to address the pandemic — and have come up with wildly disparate responses. Some shows made it central to the plot, while others mentioned it at the start of the season but then let it fade into the background, and still others chose to ignore it entirely to provide audiences with some escapism.
In Bea's case, she felt that not including it would have been a disservice because so much of "This Way Up" is about loneliness and isolation.
with a show now would have felt like pretending a thing that affected everyone didn't exist,” she explained, “but I also knew that if I wrote about it as it was happening, I wouldn't have enough time to process it.”
So she set it in the weeks leading up to the pandemic's onset, in February and early March 2020, joking that the show is now "a period drama." Over the six episodes of the season, that exact timing gradually becomes clear as the characters begin to wonder whether they should cancel big plans, take extra precautions, and prepare to hunker down.
“I'm sure if you thought about those few weeks, you could process it. I'm sure if I said to you, ‘But how, Marina, was your July to February?’ you'd be like, 'Nope, don't want to think about it. I'll talk about it with my therapist in five years.'"
Whether or not the show is about a pandemic, its realism and candor can help us see our own struggles more clearly. For most of us, our mental health problems are the result of a series of events or causes that may be manageable on their own, but when they pile up, they can feel unbearable and impossible to contain.
“You know, they often say you're only ever, like, eight paychecks away from homelessness
,” Bea explained, adding, “There's a version of, I suppose, mental health homelessness, where if eight things go wrong, you could really end up somewhere dark.”
Bea wanted to make sure that, in addition to portraying the show's big themes and ideas realistically, the small details were not neat and tidy.
“When we were doing the set design, I’d come in and be like, ‘Where are all the crumbs? Nobody lives without any crumbs.’ That may sound so small, but I’d go and put, like, orange juice and a glass out by the sink and put dishes around,” she explained. “The same thing with costume or hair — like, when I see women on shows about depression with perfect barrel-curled hair, I'm like, 'Nah, she's doing a
and drama frequently focus on extremes, which is understandable given that those can sometimes be the most entertaining, compelling, or broadly appealing stories. But real life isn't always that extreme, and "This Way Up" finds both comedy and drama in the in-between. The show is joyous and warm without being sentimental or cloying. At times, it's devastating, but as Bea says, "it's not going to ruin your life."
Similarly, the show acknowledges that most people's mental health problems are somewhere in the middle, as well. Bea recalled that when the first season premiered, she took issue with an article that referred to Aine as a "trainwreck." Much of the way she wrote Aine as a character was to show that most of our struggles aren't "everything's going wrong, life is shit."
“Is it that she doesn’t have children
? Is it that she lives in a small space
with a really nice flatmate and isn’t itching to get out
of that space? Like, what is it about that life, which more people than not live, that is a trainwreck?” Bea asked.
Taking care of your mental health and attempting to grow as a person can also be somewhere in the middle, with no dramatic changes.
“Aine might start this little business with James. She’s not trying to start Windows 95, you know? She’s trying to start a small business
and move herself a bit forward,” Bea said. “A bit forward, or where you are, can be OK. The big dream doesn’t always have to be ambitious, or the happiest, best life, or a million quid.”
At the same time, “if you're not doing OK, you're not a failure as a human. The failures of a human are Jeff Bezos
, the head of Nike
, who doesn't pay his wages in developing
countries,” she said. “They are the failures of people. It's not you in a small flat, having a hard time, but being kind and loving and getting through it.”
Hulu has a streaming version of “This Way Up.”