One of television's first obsessive-compulsive characters was Felix Unger, in the 1970s series adaptation of Neil Simon's Broadway smash, The Odd Couple. Felix worried a lot about his health, but, more obviously, cleaned his home constantly and fussed about all kinds of “picky” household and culinary details — much to the distress of his roommate, notorious slob Oscar Madison.
While Felix's cleaning preoccupation showed one facet of OCD, many viewers probably came to believe that that was its sole characteristic. (That is, assuming that they even made the association between Felix's behavior and OCD, which was not mentioned per se.) At around that time, compulsive cleaning enjoyed a short vogue in the media. It was a start.
Several Columbo fans have suggested that the iconic 1970s TV detective embodied several OC tendencies, such as obsession (dwelling on his cases until they were solved) and repetition (at least insofar as wearing the same clothing and eating the same lunch every day constitutes repetition). This underscores the classic question of whether a person is obsessive-compulsive or merely quirky.
Although some in the OCD community may have taken offense at Jack Nicholson's portrayal of life with OCD (particularly the apparently quick resolution to his problems) in As Good As It Gets, the 1996 film may have been the first mainstream movie to deal with this subject. Nicholson's character, wildly successful novelist Melvin Udall, takes extremely long showers, washes his hands with brand-new soaps and scalding water, carries his own plastic utensils to restaurants, and displays, along with many other typical OC characteristics, an aversion to being touched by strangers. (He is also bad-tempered: mean, intolerant, rude and profane, unlike most people who have OCD!)
The 2004 movie Dirty, Filthy Love, originally made for British television, presents a main character who has OCD as well as Tourette's syndrome.
There is even an obsessive-compulsive character — played strictly for laughs, of course — on The Simpsons. After many episodes, the otherwise unnamed “rich Texan,” an obnoxiously wealthy tycoon, reveals that he has OCD. In that episode, the stereotypical oilman compulsively taps his foot in counts of four each time he fires his revolver (at the same time, keeping count out loud)! The show's Latino game announcer also confesses — right in the middle of calling a bullfight — to fears about having left the stove on at home.
In 2002, USA Network's detective series Monk introduced an obsessive-compulsive character who suffered from so many phobias and compulsions, it is unlikely that such a person could have existed in the “real world,” if only because his behaviors would have “canceled one another out.” (A fear of germs and the compulsion to touch parking meters? Probably not.)
Monk, however, illustrated the very real suffering that so often goes along with OCD. At the same time, the program underscored the humor that many OCD sufferers manage to see in themselves.
Another not-quite-human television character often mentioned in the context of OCD is the compulsive counter on Sesame Street: The Count. The Count's “birthday,” October 9, was shared by the late John Lennon and is also the birthday of Tony Shalhoub, who plays an OCD sufferer on Monk.
Monk's therapist visits are a regular part of the show's action, and his conflict over whether to take medication formed the cornerstone of at least one memorable episode. Monk also has the understanding of the police force (now that he's proved his worth) and an assistant who helps him do things that are hard for him. Would she be considered an “enabler” in real life? Probably. (Not to mention that the department might not give her “clearance” for all that sensitive information she comes into contact with as a result.)
Another salient point worth noting about this program: Monk's disorder, while it has kept him off the San Francisco police force, does not hinder his abilities. In fact, it is his hyper-attention to detail that allows him to do his work as well as he does, even though Monk does not try to sugarcoat the very real difficulties faced by people who have OCD.
Prior to starting work on Monk, title actor Tony Shalhoub prepared by visiting a psychologist who specialized in OCD. Shalhoub, therefore, began with a lot of knowledge about the condition and those who have it. (He's also acknowledged that he's a little fanatical about the way dishes are loaded into his dishwasher at home.)
Getting It Right
On television's medical comedy Scrubs, Michael J. Fox guest starred as a brilliant pathologist with OCD. Fox's character makes his seeming disability work for him: In medical school, he directed his need for repetition into poring over his textbooks endlessly and, as a result, became the best diagnostician in his field. (In fact, he is even able to “diagnose” the food in the hospital cafeteria!) But he still has to walk over thresholds multiple times and run home during the day to use his own bathroom.