Written by Jay Copp
Advocates for the mentally ill applauded ABC's dropping of its controversial drama "Wonderland," a show they say stigmatized people who are mentally ill.
"The show played up to the fear people have about mental illness," said the Rev. Bob Dell of Sandwich, Ill., chair of the UCC Mental Illness Network. "Television needs to go beyond using violence as a dramatic hook."
Set in the psychiatric ward of a fictional Manhattan hospital, "Wonderland" aired just twice, debuting in March. The first episode featured a schizophrenic man who opened fire on a crowd, a suicidal character who slashed his arms and a psychotic son who bit off his mother's finger.
ABC put the show on hiatus April 12 after fierce protests from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI). Laurie Flynn, NAMI executive director, criticized the show for depicting the mentally ill as "killers, crazies and freaks" and ignoring the real possibility of adequate treatment and recovery. NAMI contacted the show's sponsors to ask them to end their support of the show.
Last year the UCC's General Synod 22 passed a resolution on mental illness that said that serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are biological brain disorders.
The resolution noted the effectiveness of treatment and called on the church to be "a community of love which breaks through fear and isolation to offer love, hope, care and healing."
The Rev. Norma Mengel of York, Pa., who authored the resolution, deplored the approach of "Wonderland." "The whole tenor of the show was one of chaos and confusion," said Mengel, a retired health care administrator who once worked for UCC's Council for Health and Human Services Ministries.
"Mental illness is a physical, biological brain disorder like other illnesses that affect organs of the body," she added. "The show perpetuated the stigma that the mentally ill are violent and bizarre."
"Wonderland" was generally well received by TV critics. Associated Press reviewer Frazier Moore called the show "risky, honest and hauntingly fresh."
Such undiscriminating attitudes toward the show made it particularly harmful, said Dell. "Maybe 15 years from now, when we can educate the public about mental illness, the show would be OK," he said. "At this stage I think it's inappropriate to take such dramatic license."
Freelance writer Jay Copp watches TV from his home in La Grange Park, Ill.