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Extraordinary minds, impossible choices: mental health, special skills and television
  1. Rebecca C Beirne
  1. Correspondence to Dr Rebecca C Beirne, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Newcastle, Callaghan, NSW 2308, Australia; rebecca.beirne{at}


Over the last decade, there has been an increase in the number of televisual protagonist and major secondary characters specifically identified within the text as having a diagnosed mental illness. This is a significant development in the context of characters with a mental illness on television, who were previously usually minor and heavily stigmatised. A key trend with these new protagonists and major characters is the attribution of special talents or powers associated with mental health conditions. This paper analyses the discursive construction of this trope in five recent television series: Sherlock (UK, BBC, 2010-), Homeland (USA, Showtime, 2011-), Perception (USA, TNT, 2012–2015), Hannibal (USA, NBC, 2013–2015) and Black Box (USA, ABC, 2014). Theoretically, this paper draws on Sami Schalk’s formulation of the ‘superpowered supercrip narrative’, which refers to the ‘representation of a character who has abilities or "powers" that operate in direct relationship with or contrast to their disability'. This paper is also indebted to Davi A Johnson’s ‘Managing Mr. Monk’ (2008) for its discussion of mental illness as attaining ‘social value’ through becoming a resource with economic and ethical value, as do the conditions of the fictional characters explored in this article. Schalk’s work on disability is here expanded to a more specific discussion of mental illness on television, while Johnson’s work is updated to discuss whether the newer characterisations reflect the same rhetorical positioning as Monk (USA, USA Network, 2002–2009), one of the earliest texts celebrated for featuring a lead, sympathetic character clearly and explicitly identified with a mental health condition. Of the five lead characters examined here, three are figured as responsible for their symptoms because they have chosen not to take medication or withdraw from their medication. It is concurrently presented that if they do take medication, it dampens their abilities to perform valuable work in the community, thus removing their use value within the world of the series.

  • medical humanities
  • mental health care
  • popular media
  • television

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  • Funding Faculty of Education and Arts, University of Newcastle, Mid-Career Researcher Fellowship.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.