"Madness by Jonathan Miller," a five-part series that begins at 10 tonight on KCET Channel 28 and KPBS Channel 15, takes an extended look at the cultural history of mental illness and seems to arrive at a real Catch-22: The more we know about madness, the less we seem willing and able to do about it.
Miller, the physician, actor, theater, opera and television director, comes by his interest in the subject naturally--his father was a psychiatrist. What he has wrought is a compelling and useful series that may be more than even the most avid Miller fan and PBS documentary aficionado could want or digest.
Mental illness is a complex subject that touches the lives of many people: 10% of all adults in Western society will spend some time in an institution, according to Miller.
Tonight's episode, "To Define True Madness," looks at the history of mental illness, how it has been represented in art and literature ("Hamlet") and at some of the myths that still prevail. The series must have had an extensive travel budget, as Miller and a crew range from London to Paris to Philadelphia to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to examine the subject.
In his solemn, let-me-explain-it-to-you-carefully style, Miller points out that it is no easier to say what madness is today than it was in Shakespeare's time. Is it a disease, or merely frightening or troublesome behavior? Miller looks at demonic possession, or an imbalance of the "humors," as historical notions of how to explain mental illness. Those ideas fell into disrepute during the Restoration and, with the arrival of Sir Isaac Newton and scientific method, enlightened examination was brought to the question of mental illness.
But the problem did not yield to such new study and, as Miller points out, the large numbers of homeless people on the streets of America today underscore the fact that the care of the mentally ill is a dilemma that is still unresolved.
In subsequent episodes, "Madness by Jonathan Miller" looks at the rise and fall of insane asylums as centers for treatment, modern attempts to treat mental illness through physical treatment, "the talking cure" pioneered by Sigmund Freud, and schizophrenia and the current state of our knowledge.
"Madness by Jonathan Miller" was produced and directed by Richard Denton for BBC Television and KCET in Los Angeles.