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Television

Commentary: How ‘Nashville’ and ‘Jane the Virgin’ have changed the conversation about postpartum depression

Hayden Panettiere in “Nashville”
Hayden Panettiere has dealt with postpartum depression in real life and in her role as Juliette Barnes on ABC’s “Nashville.”
(ABC)

When ABC announced its decision to cancel “Nashville,” the news was briefly overshadowed by a tweet from one of the show’s stars. Hayden Panettiere, who plays country starlet and new mother Juliette Barnes, posted a message stating that she was still suffering from the effects of postpartum depression and was taking time to focus on her health. 

Panettiere gave birth to her daughter in 2014 and has been vocal about her continuing struggle with postpartum depression. In an appearance last year on “Live With Kelly and Michael,” she said the condition was “scary and needs to be talked about.”

It’s an issue that “Nashville” itself tackled in Seasons 3 and 4, Panettiere’s character struggles with postpartum depression, feeling disconnected from her child and relying on work, pills and alcohol to distract her, sometimes to violent effect.

The series found both praise and criticism in its exploration of postpartum depression, which manifests in about 600,000 women each year and was an arc “Nashville” hoped to explore even before Panettiere’s own diagnosis. 

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Some worried that the show’s soapy depiction might cause women to not recognize their own troubles in Juliette’s, as most new moms suffering from PPD don’t find themselves intoxicated and suicidal on a ledge, leading to someone else’s death. Others, though, were grateful that the illness was being discussed on television at all.

But “Nashville” isn’t the only show on TV to broach the topic in recent years. 

On “Homeland,” protagonist Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) was deeply detached from her infant, while on “Girls,” recurring character Caroline (Gaby Hoffmann) fled her family because she was afraid she would hurt herself or her baby daughter.

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Television’s most fascinating exploration of postpartum depression, however, is seen on the CW’s “Jane the Virgin.”

The series, which is part telenovela, part family drama, part screwball comedy, centers on Jane, a young woman (played by kinetic newcomer Gina Rodriguez) accidentally impregnated and the chaos that ensues, including a love triangle, a long-lost father, an actual telenovela and a host of soapy subplots. 

It was not Jane’s pregnancy, though, that spurred the show’s postpartum storyline. Instead, it was the second-season pregnancy of sometimes villainous supporting character Petra (Yael Grobglas).

“Jane the Virgin’s” Yael Grobglas plays Petra, a new mom dealing with postpartum depression.
“Jane the Virgin’s” Yael Grobglas plays Petra, a new mom dealing with postpartum depression.
(The CW )

A typically stoic persona, Petra found herself a bit undone by pregnancy and, more important, by motherhood. She was overwhelmed by and distant from her newborns (she gave birth to twin girls) before eventually getting treatment and finding a version of motherhood that worked for her. 

The most significant difference in the approaches taken by “Nashville” and “Jane the Virgin” comes in a quiet scene in which Petra is first confronted with the idea that she may be depressed. Surrounded by other new mothers, Petra lets her guard down and admits that sometimes she wonders if her daughters would be better off raised by someone else. 

It’s a far cry from the pill-popping, postpartum extremes evidenced on ABC’s soap. 

By taking on postpartum depression, “Jane the Virgin” joins a growing trend of television shows tackling issues of mental illness. And some of the most effective of these shows are comedies. Along with “Jane,” FX’s “You’re the Worst,” with its clinical depression themes, and CBS’ “Mom,” with its addiction storylines, prove that comedies can be places for audiences to find nuanced portrayals of the less-peasant facets of modern life.

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Comedy, after all, not only allows for visitation of the dark realities that life entails, it also allows room for the humor that often accompanies even the most dire of situations. 

Even as a series with extreme soap-opera elements, existing in the comedic realm allows “Jane the Virgin” more leeway to deal in quiet and understated moments than its more dramatic counterparts. It’s this balance that makes television comedies well-suited for examining the complexities of mental illness.

As “Nashville” ends, it leaves behind a mixed legacy as a series, but it should be remembered as a forerunner in its willingness to address an issue that affects so many women annually. For all the show may have gotten right or wrong in its depiction of postpartum depression, what matters is that it, and more shows like it, are willing to have the conversation at all. 

Coupled with Panettiere’s alacrity with regards to her own struggles, “Nashville” reminded viewers that they are not alone with their postpartum depression. Luckily for audiences, “Jane the Virgin” remains on the air to do the same.

MORE:

Saying goodbye to ‘Nashville,’ the country music show that started out as Hank Williams and ended up as Hank Williams Jr.

ABC’s ‘Nashville’ stars sing, and it’s not just for show

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On screen and off, women front the band that gets Callie Khouri’s ‘Nashville’ on the air

‘Jane the Virgin’s’ engaging alter ego, Gina Rodriguez

Jaime Camil of ‘Jane the Virgin’ takes the fatherhood role to a funny new level

Follow me on Twitter @midwestspitfire


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