My opinions shift all the time, but one I’ve stuck with is counting Friday Night Lights as one of my best-loved TV shows. Friday Night Lights, or FNL to fans, centers on a fictionalized Texas town that’s ruled by high school football. The show has been most acclaimed for its portrayal of everyday small-town life, even when plot points seem lifted from soap operas. But one mixed result in FNL was its inclusion of a character with bipolar disorder.
The character is Waverly Grady. (So this post contains some first-season spoilers. But they’re fairly minor, since she’s a secondary character.) At first, we just get to know Waverly as the preacher’s daughter and unlikely girlfriend to cocky running back Smash Williams. She’s smart and independent-minded and calls Smash on his crap. The only hint of her illness is the shady story about her doing missionary work in Africa, which her father tells everyone to explain her absence from school the year before.
But then Smash notices changes in Waverly. She impulsively takes him for a midnight swim and gives an impassioned speech about poetry in the school cafeteria, which drives her to tears. Not long after, she tells Smash she never went to Africa. Instead, she was in Dallas being treated for bipolar disorder. And now she’s gone off the pills she was taking for it. At first she celebrates feeling much more alive and like herself when she’s off the medication — until she sinks into depression.
This is a pretty straightforward depiction of bipolar disorder, which is characterized by extreme mood swings that can last for weeks at a time. Someone with the disorder can suddenly feel hyperactive and on a mental “high.” That’s known as mania (or hypomania when it’s less intense), shown by Waverly’s midnight swim and rhapsodizing over poetry. The other stage of the disorder is deep depression, which often manifests as prolonged feelings of worthlessness, and sometimes suicidal thoughts. On FNL, that’s when Smash finds Waverly crying in pajamas on her kitchen floor.
With Smash’s support, Waverly goes back on her medication and tries to take things easy. She even tells Smash to “enjoy himself” with other ladies during football playoffs while she tries to get better. But rather than party, Smash sweetly shows up at her house after the football semi-finals with a piece of cake for them to share.
Annnnd that is the last scene in which Waverly appears.
Waverly’s not the only character to disappear randomly from FNL, and it might have happened for any number of reasons, like the actress having other commitments. But the writers don’t even have Smash reference her in the next season. She’s just never mentioned again.
This was a big-let down for a few different reasons. For one thing, before Waverly’s disappearance I appreciated that FNL was writing her as a flesh-and-blood character, rather than a public service announcement about bipolar disorder. The writers gave her a distinct personality that wasn’t defined by mood swings. And the treatment of bipolar itself was serious but not heavy-handed, which is how FNL at its best approaches “issues” – as aspects of experience that naturally come up in people’s lives.
I also liked that they didn’t bother with the research community’s debates over bipolar disorder. Like most psychiatric disorders, bipolar does not have one clearly defined neurological cause. Its dramatic effects on mood certainly point to abnormal changes in brain chemistry. Those are the changes targeted by medication, with varying abilities to control symptoms and varying side effects. Lithium, which has been considered the “gold standard” bipolar medication over the past 40 years, is also associated with increased gray matter density in the cortex (or outer brain layers) of individuals with the disorder. This kind of research is still pretty wide open. It’s just irrelevant to a family and teen drama, since good storytelling doesn’t shove facts or lessons down people’s throats.
But that’s the funny thing about Waverly’s unceremonious disappearance – it negates her character development and almost reduces her to a device. She shows up, exposes a softer side of a central character who in the long-term seems unaffected by his love for her, provides sketches of life with a mood disorder, and then gets dropped.
The sequence makes me think of an ugly side of awareness campaigns, when in the push to inform people about an issue, the stories of real people get waved around like they’re just the means to an end. In today’s internet-fueled armchair advocacy – the “I support causes by liking them on Facebook” mentality, which I myself have been guilty of – it seems easier than ever to use people’s stories as routes to quick lessons, in a way that verges on exploitation.
I don’t think the FNL writers were quite that superficial with Waverly. But she deserved some closure. I guess Waverly fans have to comfort themselves with the post-FNL resume of the actress who portrayed her, Aasha Davis. I’m particularly fond of her appearance in the uncomfortable, kind of gross, insightful video for Gnarles Barkley’s 2008 single “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul.” Check it out for more Aasha Davis and a depiction of the effects of bad break-ups – one mental health issue that needs no awareness campaign.