TV hasn't always been particularly nuanced in the way it has dealt with mental health issues, tending either to play them for laughs or to focus on more dramatic conditions like depression and bipolar disorder when it tackles them at all. Finally, though, a series has come along which may just change all that.
Six-part comedy drama Pure – first broadcast on the UK's Channel 4 and available to stream on Netflix – tells the story of socially awkward Marnie (Charly Clive), a 24-year-old graduate who moves from the quiet little Scottish town where she grew up to London, driven not by a desire to make her fortune but by the need to understand what is happening inside her own head. Because unbeknownst to her, Marnie suffers from a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder known as 'Pure O' – repeated intrusive obsessive thoughts which can range from worry to violent fantasies, and which in Marnie's case take the form of disturbingly sexualised images of the people around her. As Marnie puts it, “I don't see dead people, I see naked ones.”
'Pure O' is one form of obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), a common mental health condition which manifests as uncontrollable reoccurring thoughts and/or behaviors which can interfere seriously with all aspects of sufferers' lives. The causes of OCD are as yet unknown, but probably depend on an interplay between environment, character, biology and genetics. Based on the book of the same name in which author Rose Cartwright detailed her own experiences with and diagnosis of 'Pure O', and written for TV by Kirstie Swain, Pure follows Marnie as she learns that she isn't the sex addict she'd feared and begins trying to come to terms with her condition.
On the surface, it's a lighthearted coming-of-age tale where Marnie's intrusive thoughts are used as a running gag, but what makes Pure different is its commitment to engaging with Marnie’s struggles both with her condition and with trying to understand exactly what that condition is: learning that there is a name for the feelings which make her life so difficult helps Marnie feel less alone, and speeds up the process of getting help and finding ways to manage with them. Pure is forthright about its educational mandate, and Cartwright says she hopes it will help address misconceptions about the condition and show how the nature of OCD obsessions is secondary to their debilitating effects.
The series has been a hit with viewers and critics alike for its attempt to give an accurate portrayal of life with mental health issues without skimping on the laughs, and for using an OCD sufferer as the protagonist rather than as a quirky secondary character. The NME applauded it as "an essential comedy that peels away the stigma of mental health" and The Guardian called it "a masterly comedy about sex and mental health.”
Although hopes for a second series were dashed in February when it was announced that it would not be renewed, Pure's challenging of the stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding OCD showcases how TV can approach mental health in ways which are entertaining, accessible and funny while still engaging with the complex realities of the issues involved.