‘This Way Up’ Star Aisling Bea On Making A Comedy About Loneliness Amid The Pandemic

The Hulu series, back for Season 2, resists unrealistic movie and TV clichés about mental health.
Aine (Aisling Bea) in Season 2 of "This Way Up."
Aine (Aisling Bea) in Season 2 of "This Way Up."
Rekha Garton/Channel 4

At the end of Season 1 of Hulu’s “This Way Up,” Aine (Aisling Bea) is talking to her therapist about how she’s doing.

“It’s hard, man. It’s hard, you know?” she says. “The dailiness of it can be sort of relentless. But all we can do is give it a go.”

That line captures the way the series, whose second season premieres Friday, is refreshingly honest about loneliness and depression, resisting unrealistic clichés. In movies and TV about mental health, there’s often one horrific event that has traumatized the protagonist, who then has a dramatic moment of catharsis or a breakthrough, “overcomes” their trauma, finds “closure,” and the end credits roll.

But real life isn’t that neat and pat. On “This Way Up,” Bea, who created and wrote the show, uses observational and confessional humor to show how personal growth and trying to take care of your mental health isn’t usually a straight line upward. Instead, it’s often a series of daily ups and downs that, only when you zoom out, might point in a generally upward direction.

“What about when life isn’t the worst in the world, there’s no catastrophe?” she said in an interview. “For me, that’s what I wanted to show with the show, that sort of dailiness, and that there’s sort of a nobility to plowing through.”

In Season 1, which aired in summer 2019, Aine, an ESL teacher in London, is trying to rebuild her life after having a nervous breakdown and spending some time at a mental health facility. Sometimes, she struggles to connect with the people around her and has a co-dependent relationship with her older sister Shona (Sharon Horgan). But slowly, she takes steps forward. She excels at her job and cares deeply about her students. She tutors a boy named Étienne (Dorian Grover) and becomes friends with his father Richard (Tobias Menzies).

The new season builds on Aine’s progress: She’s making plans to start a teaching company with her boss James (Ekow Quartey), she has become less dependent on Shona and is now in a relationship with Richard. Outwardly, things are looking up. But from time to time, she’s still struggling, experiencing bouts of insomnia and social withdrawal.

“It’s almost like a high from feeling great again. But that’s not a sustainable way of living, and it’s bound to literally go downhill. I wanted to show: What about when everything’s winning, and it just becomes too many things, and you’re still struggling? There’s no magical pill,” Bea said.

“I suppose we’ve all faced that with COVID — like, some days, you’re like, ‘Yeah, let’s go! Oh no, one tiny bit of bad news. I can’t handle this, and I’m crying on a Zoom.’”

“When I see women on shows about depression with perfect barrel-curled hair, I'm like, ‘Nah, she's doing all right.’””

- "This Way Up" creator and star Aisling Bea

Like many movies and TV shows, the pandemic upended the show’s production. Ironically, Bea found herself having to write a new season of a show about loneliness while alone in her house at the height of the pandemic.

Over the last year and a half, TV shows and writers have grappled with the question of whether to address the pandemic or not — and have landed on wildly different answers. Some shows made it central to the plot. Some shows mentioned it at the start of the season but then let it fade into the background. And some chose to ignore it all together to give audiences some escapism.

In Bea’s case, she felt it would have been a disservice to not include it because so much of “This Way Up” is about loneliness and isolation.

“For me to come out with a show now would have felt like pretending a thing didn’t exist that affected everyone,” she said. “But I also knew that if I wrote about it as it was happening, I wouldn’t have enough time to process it.”

So she chose to set it in the weeks right before the onset of the pandemic, in February and early March 2020, joking that the show is now “a period drama.” Over the six episodes of the season, that exact timing slowly becomes clear as the characters start to wonder whether they should cancel big plans, take extra precautions and prepare to hunker down. Compared to the pandemic itself, those weeks were a distinct period of time, which Bea said made it more manageable to write about it.

“It’s the only bit all of us can process,” she said. “I’m sure if you were to think about those few weeks, you could process it. I’m sure if I was to say to you, “But how, Marina, was your July to February?’ you’d be like, ‘Nope, don’t want to think about it. I’ll talk about it with my therapist in five years.’”

Pandemic or not, the show’s realism and frankness can help us see our own struggles more clearly. For most of us, there isn’t necessarily a singular event or cause to our mental health problems. More often, it’s a series of events or causes that might be manageable on their own, but as they pile up, they can feel unbearable and impossible to contain.

“You know, they often say you’re only ever, like, eight paychecks away from homelessness,” Bea said. “There’s a version of, I suppose, mental health homelessness, that if eight things go wrong, you could really end up somewhere dark.”

In addition to realistically portraying the big themes and ideas of the show, Bea also wanted to make sure the small details weren’t neat and tidy, either.

“When we were doing the set design, I’d come in and be like, ‘Where are all the crumbs? Nobody lives without any crumbs.’ That might sound so small, but I’d go and put, like, orange juice and a glass out by the sink and put dishes around,” she said. “The same thing with costume or hair — like, when I see women on shows about depression, with perfect barrel-curled hair, I’m like, ‘Nah, she’s doing all right.’”

Aine (Aisling Bea) and her roommate and friend Bradley (Kadiff Kirwan) in Season 2 of "This Way Up."
Aine (Aisling Bea) and her roommate and friend Bradley (Kadiff Kirwan) in Season 2 of "This Way Up."
Rekha Garton/Channel 4

Comedy and drama often focus on extremes, which is understandable because those can sometimes be the most entertaining or compelling or broadly appealing stories. But real life isn’t always that extreme. “This Way Up” finds both comedy and drama in the in-between. The show is joyous and warm without being sentimental or cloying. At times, it’s devastating, but as Bea says, “it’s not going to ruin your day.”

Likewise, the show recognizes that most people’s mental health problems are somewhere in the middle, too. Bea recalled that when the first season premiered, she took issue with an article that referred to Aine as a “trainwreck.” Much of the way she wrote Aine as a character was to purposely show that most of our struggles aren’t “everything’s going wrong, life is shit.”

“Is it that she doesn’t have children? Is it that she lives with a really nice flatmate in a small space, and she’s not aching to get out of that space? Like, what is it about that life, which more people than not live, that is a trainwreck?” Bea said.

Taking care of your mental health and trying to grow as a person can also be somewhere in the middle, not a big transformation.

“Aine might start this little business with James. She’s not trying to start Windows 95, you know? She’s trying to start a small business and move herself a bit forward,” Bea said. “A bit forward, or where you are, can be OK. The big dream doesn’t have to be ambitious all the time, or the happiest, best life, or a million quid.”

At the same time, “if you’re not doing OK, you’re not a failure as a human. The failures of a human are Jeff Bezos, are the head of Nike, who doesn’t pay his wages in developing countries,” she said. “They are the failures of people. It is not you in a small flat, having a tough time, but being kind and loving and getting through it.”

“This Way Up” is available on Hulu.

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