Crazy may be the new normal, at least when it comes to TV character roles.
This past television season, we’ve watched as Gaby Hoffmann’s Caroline seductively dances around “Girls” boy Ray only to bite his upper arm when he isn’t paying enough attention to her. Kate Dickie’s Lysa Arryn gleefully shoves her enemies to their doom through the “moon door” on “Game of Thrones.” And Uzo Aduba’s “Crazy Eyes” in “Orange Is the New Black” is as obsessive and volatile as those frightening peepers suggest.
These characters not only add spice to their series, the roles have offered intriguing challenges for the women playing them. No longer content to sprinkle shows with pretty, vapid girls or dutiful bffs, these new girls range from the oddly wacky to the downright deranged.
“Obviously actresses clamor to play these roles because they are so much fun and these characters really juice up the plot,” Gail Pennington, TV critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, says. “But they can’t be so flat-out crazy that the viewer won’t identify with that person, and that seems to be the real trend with these characters.”
Kristin Chenoweth’s washed-up actress April Rhodes is a hot mess on “Glee,” always thinking a glass of champagne will make everything OK.
“There’s a realness to these flawed people,” says Chenoweth. “We are all flawed and I’m obsessed with flawed characters who turn around and make it work. (April) might have been driven crazy by not being able to fulfill her dreams, but she also gives us permission to look at ourselves and laugh while being aware (that her) actions have consequences.”
Forensic psychiatrist Cathleen Cerney wrote an academic paper with co-authors Delaney Smith and Susan Hatters-Friedman on the phenomenon of crazy ladies on television.
“I think such characters exist for many reasons, including human fascination with psychopaths,” says Cerney. “Women are not ‘supposed’ to behave badly and we are entranced when they do. I also think there has been increasing demand for meaty, nuanced, varied and interesting roles for women.”
Off-kilter sisters in particular have been prevalent this past season. Linda Cardellini crashed into sibling Jess’ life on “New Girl” as the no-filter wild child. For true insanity you’d have to go to Dickie’s Lysa, the obsessive lunatic who sold out her family for unrequited love in “Game of Thrones.”
And in between you have Hoffmann’s Caroline, the erratic, perhaps even clinically insane sister of Hannah’s boyfriend, Adam, in “Girls.”
“We are all crazy, but Caroline just isn’t on a leash,” Hoffmann says. “I was raised by crazy people, so these kinds of characters are familiar to me. There’s a humanness about them that’s more on display, and that’s always more fun to explore.”
Hoffmann thinks the “crazy” trend naturally came as a result of so many male anti-heroes.
“Murders and sociopaths get to be heroes? How about crazy people?” she says. “The stereotypical girl next door with the boring sense of humor is really not compelling. People are hungry for something more complex and real.”
As for that girl-next-door, even she’s changed. As the obnoxious, trashy Rita Glossner on “The Middle,” Brooke Shields strikes back as the threatening neighbor whose driveway doesn’t quite meet the street.
“There’s a built-in sadness and vulnerability to her that impressed me,” Shields says. “And I’ve seen a lot of crazy in my life, including in a mother when she was not sober. We all have it in us, but we learn to temper our crazy.”
On the other hand, “Orange Is the New Black” is populated by people who wear their crazy on the outside. Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) has killed most of her brain cells through meth, while Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” appears to have lost her sanity because of true mental illness.
Yet Aduba says for all the craziness that her character embodies, there’s also some saneness left in her.
“What spoke to me was (Suzanne’s) desire for love,” Aduba says. “Now I wouldn’t throw a pie or pee on the floor for someone, but I loved and respected her passion that she doesn’t care how crazy it is, she’ll go there.”
She recalls that the script described Suzanne as innocent like a child, except a child isn’t scary. Aduba sees her as someone with a pacifier in one hand and a bazooka in the other.
“At first, we see the prisoners through the lens of Piper, which is like a funhouse mirror version, but as we go deeper it’s almost like time slows and we hear what Suzanne is saying,” Aduba says. “What initially is written off as lunacy turns out to be a point that isn’t entirely crazy.”
Khandi Alexander would argue that her character, Maya, on “Scandal” is not at all unhinged, even though that view is not supported by the majority of the viewers turning in to see what new insanity will happen in the wake of Olivia’s (Kerry Washington) criminally crazy mom’s departure from the fray.
“Yes, she’s a little angry. A little upset, but she’s very focused and clear on what she wants: Kill, get money, leave the country and make sure her daughter doesn’t continue her relationship with the president,” Alexander says. “Part of her ability to achieve these goals is her unpredictability.”
And sure, Alexander concedes, maybe on the outside it seems maniacal to plant bombs, murder innocent plane passengers and even savagely bite her own wrists to escape from jail.
“What Shonda (Rhimes) writes is so delicious,” Alexander says. “Just don’t get in (Maya’s) way.”
So call her crazy if you want.