Alex Gallner, Alex Marshall-Brown, Andrew Nowak, Anna Lore, Briggon Snow, Charlie Ian, Ian Mcquown, Julia Morizawa, Lauren Shippen, Mental Illness, Podcast Review, Podcasting, Superheroes, The Bright Sessions, Therapy
[The following contains spoilers.]
Ever since superheroes started regularly saving the planet, sometime in the 1930s, there has been a requirement that between a third to a half of each superhero narrative be given over to informality. There must be those moments when the superhero appears in civvies, to deal with the realities of human paperwork and to consent to be harmlessly knocked down a peg or two. After all, Superman unconjoined from Clark Kent would be tantamount to a kind of fascism. The reader or viewer would be accorded no other role than to worship the Übermensch and adulate his glorious feats. Clark, with his mundane worries about his work-life balance, makes Superman altogether more relatable. Nicer, in fact.
To clap superheroes into therapy, as occurs in Lauren Shippen’s audio drama podcast The Bright Sessions (2015-), is merely the next inevitable stage in the development of the genre rather than in any sense representing a deviation. In comprising recordings of therapy sessions, it is only the format of The Bright Sessions that is original and not its overall premise.
Superheroes have been getting ever more confused, tortured, and lonely since the genre’s inception. Indeed, that superheroes might need therapy is a storyline that has been stewing long in the pot. In 1965, the Village Voice’s Sally Kempton had noted that Spiderman is “anti-social, castration-ridden, racked with Oedipal guilt, and accident-prone … [a] functioning neurotic.” Batman was essentially on one big personal development programme during his last batch of movies. And it seems that the genre can now only ever reverse deeper into the Batcave of psychological trivia. To have an unconditionally strong and stoical superhero is today as impossible as it would be to have one suffering an ignominious defeat.
What you think of The Bright Sessions will depend upon what you think about therapy. You can probably tell what’s on my cards so I’ll lay them on the table: I am a sceptic. I disapprove of the priority given to psychology, the increased medicalisation of everyday unhappiness, and the consequent proliferation of therapies into an arcana that is now more monumental than the Catholic Church. For me, therapy encourages an active narcissism in its adherents and a passivity towards everything else. The sustained personal disempowerment that comes from seeing yourself as being complicatedly broken and fixable only by some expert guide to navigating the psyche.
The Bright Sessions is initially on firm ground in that its doctor, Joan Bright (Julia Morizawa), is seldom in control or of any use to her patients. Unfortunately, the story’s solution is that she too needs therapy. Or rather she, like all of the other characters, needs to straighten herself out and open up with her secrets. By the third season, Dr Bright’s patients have joined forces and she has been subtly demoted. The group is small and churchy, a discreet neighbourhood community, but there has been a theological shift away from the high priestcraft of Dr Bright to a more congregationalist polity.
They are never called superheroes; Shippen has herself said that this word is “inaccurate” in describing them. Her alternative – “atypicals” – insinuates that superpowers are much of a muchness with mental illness, in having to be managed and lived with day-to-day. There is a strategic blurring of psychosis and superpowers; a rounding of them up and down to the same number. Like the X-Men, Dr Bright’s patients were born this way and, as with the X-Men, there is an emphasis upon learning to control their conditions. Chloe (Anna Lore) is a telepath, Sam (Shippen) can travel through time, whilst Caleb (Briggon Snow) is the opposite of autistic in being able to feel other people’s emotions. I don’t personally think that Caleb’s superpower is anything special but within the non-judgemental environment of The Bright Sessions it is apparently placed on a par with time-travel. Damien (Charlie Ian), the group’s distant and malevolent satellite, can will other people to do whatever he wants.
The Bright Sessions is always enjoyable to listen to and each episode is anchored in vivid and well-matched performances. Yet after the first season the drama is strafing against its own format and trying to wriggle out of it. There is no framing or curation of Dr Bright’s audio tapes and they are soon interspersed with field recordings from phones and dictaphones. Framing is often annoying baggage for an audio drama to carry about, but without it this story’s recordings have an increased difficulty in sounding innocuous. The Bright Sessions is required to be set in a world in which everybody is improbably relaxed about their conversations being constantly recorded. By the third season finale, the explanations for the recordings have been quietly dropped or else we have to dream them up for ourselves. Is Dr Bright still taping everything or has the safe house been wired up with mics?
The chief design flaw with The Bright Sessions lies in its core strategy and it is ultimately one of diminishing returns. The powerful paranoia early in the series about Dr Bright’s motives is quickly allowed to dissipate. She is trying to do the right thing but she is compromised. Likewise, the Atypical Monitors (AM), the sinister government agency, is mostly trying to do the right thing, until it comes to resemble something like Google in its mixture of soft power and conscientiousness. Director Wadsworth (Alex Marshall-Brown), the nearest thing that this series has to a villain, is always bigger on the camp than she is on the menace.
Damien is the only uncooperative atypical and his meanness never has any stamina to it. His actions are too explicable by his tragic backstory, so that it seems simply like a random accident that he is a bad guy. He kidnaps Dr Bright’s brother Mark (Andrew Nowak), ending the second season on a good spike of dismay, but this storyline goes nowhere and everybody is back home safe before long. The AM uncharacteristically loses interest in Mark. During the third season, the story is driven by Damien’s machinations but these are petty and confusing, as though a previously compelling chess game is now revolving around an attack from a single errant pawn.
You will eventually feel that you have gotten to know this series too well. You will know by now that Damien is not dangerous enough to ever wrench the drama into an exhilarating gear and that the story that is looking after him will similarly falter once it attempts to build up speed. Were it possible to merely process The Bright Sessions as relaxed, feelgood entertainment, rather like that great Superman with Teri Hatcher in the 1990s, then this would not be an issue. But there is a writer of steel beneath the Clark Kent nonchalance. Shippen has a talent for sewing mayhem amongst her characters; the show is best when it is exciting and unpredictable, such as when Dr Bright plots to spy on the government busybody Agent Green (Ian Mcquown) or when she tries to bust her brother out of the AM’s headquarters. Despite these moments of dexterity, Shippen never sticks to the suspense and paranoia for long enough for there to be any satisfying payoff.
And the reason for this is the show’s reverence for therapy. No problem can ever outgrow the ability of the atypicals to sit down and talk their way out of it. The problems that plague the team actually look as if they have been sent on angels’ wings purely to peel away more layers of their personal lives, opening them up for further therapeutic inspection. This begins to teeter upon self-caricature in the third season finale. In the immediate aftermath of a blood-splattered disaster, Caleb’s boyfriend Adam (Alex Gallner) is compelled to confess and introspect about his self-harm. Meanwhile, Sam confronts her boyfriend: “You’ve been through a lot of trauma, Mark. And I don’t think you’re dealing with it.” And so on. Maybe this is realistic – I have no idea. Maybe one day I will stagger out of a car crash, caked in gore and determined to emote about my most innermost traumas. Until then, it sounds decidedly ludicrous to me.
Chloe’s telepathy becomes the locus of this show’s weird priorities. The fear that your thoughts can be read is surely the giant sabre-toothed tiger of all horror and paranoia. Shippen raises this horror, imaginatively explores its social embarrassment, but then appears to be eerily insensible to its ramifications. Everybody stands naked in front of Chloe though, tellingly, her character is forced to be asexual, so that there is nothing potentially voyeuristic to her superpower. In addition, she is a big thoughtless mouth and she blabs out people’s secrets in open hearing. We can see that this character is tyrannical and terrifying – in the real world she would be promptly lynched – but within that of The Bright Sessions she is reduced to a flat and somewhat lifeless presence. For the show to go on the attack would, of course, rebound on the credibility of its beloved therapy. Thought-reading is just a quicker and less ethical route to the demolition of all privacy that Dr Bright has set out to benevolently accomplish.
One of the responsibilities of the critic is to direct the flashlight into the shadows beyond what would otherwise pass as enjoyable entertainment. With The Bright Sessions, such critical distance can surprise you with the question of who in this series are really the superheroes and who the villains. The AM may be somewhat rough around the edges, but it is actively working to develop the characters’ superpowers for the good of society. Telepathy and time-travel might be of some use when there is a jihadist plot to hijack airliners. Meanwhile, Dr Bright’s patients spend most of their time preening their egos on the therapist’s couch. Perhaps The Bright Sessions represents the point where the self-obsessed superhero has degraded to the point of irrelevance.