What Animated Sitcoms Get Right — And Wrong — About Mental Illness

In the last couple years, few genres have done more for accurate depictions of mental illness than cartoons. But is it enough to fundamentally shift our collective understanding of depression, anxiety, and other kinds of neurodiversity?

There are two shows currently airing that have been examined many times by the proverbial mind of the internet; they’ve been celebrated for their refreshing takes on mental illness. I speak of course of Netflix’s BoJack Horseman and Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty. Their titular characters (in the case of the latter, Rick) are narcissistic, depressed addicts, and the writers pull no punches in showing them in pretty unforgiving lights.

I love both of these shows. BoJack and Rick Sanchez — for better or for worse — resonate with me at times. The apathetic nihilism they subscribe to, the subtle, but consistent low-key feeling of wanting to die — it all makes me laugh. It’s all hallmarks of my mental illness.

BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett) is an aging former sitcom star living on residuals and bourbon; the show begins after he decides to hire a ghostwriter to publish his memoir. Throughout the three seasons he’s rude and caring in almost equal measure; his vulnerability belies the fact that what appears to be crushing narcissism is actually a deep sense of self-loathing.

This particular paradigm comes to a head in the penultimate episode of the first season, “Downer Ending,” where, after a very bad trip, BoJack seeks out his ghostwriter Diane Nguyen and begs her to validate that he is not messed up beyond repair.

“I know that I can be selfish and narcissistic and self-destructive, but underneath all that, deep down, I’m a good person, and I need you to tell me that I’m good, Diane.” The monologue stretches for more than an easy sitcom beat — awkward and stilted — and Diane doesn’t know how to respond. The show bleakly cuts to the credits before she can say anything.

BoJack even manages to crystallize the idea that things can seem perfect on the outside — a person can have everything technically together — yet depression remains a part of them. There is a particular exchange between BoJack and his friend Mr. Peanutbutter in “Let’s Find Out” that beautifully illustrates this painful conundrum:

BoJack: Everything comes so easy for you.
Mr. Peanutbutter: Oh, and it doesn’t for you? You’re a millionaire movie star with a girlfriend who loves you, acting in your dream movie. What more do you want? What else could the universe possible owe you?
BoJack: I . . . want . . . to feel good about myself. The way you do. And I don’t know how. I don’t know if I can.

I could list more of the many painfully real and misanthropic things he says over the course of 37 episodes, but I think, in the second season finale, BoJack sums himself up best: “I don’t understand how people . . . live. It’s amazing to me that people wake up every morning and say, ‘Yeah, another day, let’s do it.’ How do people do it? I don’t know how.”

Honest and raw, it distills his overall philosophy down to its purest form, which is that ultimately, he’s not entirely sure that he wants to live.

Meanwhile over in Rick and Morty, Rick Sanchez (played by Justin Roiland), plays a terrible influence of a grandfather; he’s introduced as a careless, alcoholic genius who has just returned to his daughter Beth’s life after a mysterious 20-year absence. At first, he seems just seems like an asshole, nothing deeper to find underneath the booze and the insults he hurls at his own grandchildren. But if you’re like me, and you push people away before they can get close enough to hurt you, that’s already evidence that he’s going to be more complicated than he seems.

For being billed as a comedy, Rick and Morty sneaks up with poignancy when you least expect it.

In the tenth episode, “Ricksy Business,” Beth and her husband Jerry go out of town so Rick and Summer (Morty’s older sister) decide to throw a party. Rick repeats a catchphrase that has been present throughout the season: “Wubba Lubba Dub Dub.” Birdperson, a humanoid bird that’s one of Rick’s only real friends, tells Morty — who’s convinced it’s meaningless because Rick truly doesn’t care about anything — that in his language, it means, “I am in great pain, please help me.”

While there were hints at a more vulnerable side of Rick peppered throughout the season, it’s that finale that finally comes out and says so. After that, no facet of mental illness is too dark for the show to explore.

In the second season premiere “A Rickle in Time,” in order to merge multiple timelines and counter the chaos that’s been created, Rick gives his time-stabilizing collar to Morty, telling him, “be better than me!” while hurling towards nothingness; yes, he ends up fixing his own collar, but the fact that he was so quick to sacrifice himself to the — literal — void says a lot. It shows how much he, perhaps begrudgingly, cares about his grandson. But it also tells us how little he cares about his own life.

Rick may talk a big talk about how he looks out for number one, but, like his plan to save his grandchildren instead of himself, most of the time he’s just aimlessly hurling towards nothingness. He doesn’t necessarily search for ways to die, but he doesn’t not search for ways; his adventures are often life-threatening, and if those don’t kill him, the alcohol probably will. You don’t need to make a plan to die quickly to be suicidal.

“Auto Erotic Assimilation” literally ends with Rick building a machine to kill himself, testing it on an alien, then plugging himself into it, only to sadly collapse and narrowly miss its death rays, as Jerry putzes around the front yard, completely oblivious to Rick. The audience laughs, I imagine, to keep from crying. This small moment is a microcosm of the show: Someone who’s brilliant, but very depressed, thinks that nothing in life matters anymore, and the only thing that saves him is the randomness of his muscle reflexes, while the universe continues to — unfortunately — unfold around him.

I won’t deny that mental illness among men is its own phenomenon, with its own unique stigmas. Mental illness is often not taken as seriously as physical ailments, and men frequently deny mental health problems out of fear of looking weak. Depicting men with depression at all — especially in a way that resonates with actual depressed people — is a huge step forward and not one I consider inconsequential, even more so for Rick who is confirmed as openly pansexual (and therefore, part of a marginalized group that statistically, is more likely to be depressed).

But as a woman who struggles with mental illness, I find myself relating to these men — messy, aloof, rude, and usually drunk — far more than “sad woman” characters who are so debilitated by mental illness they’re unable to accomplish small, daily tasks until one day, they are simply no longer sad.

But that’s not how mental illness works (or at least, not how mine has ever worked). Life is hard with depression, but a lot of us still manage to get out of bed most days. To depict depression as an illness that is always so immobilizing that we cannot function, does nothing to help normalize depression as a thing 350 million people live with. We certainly don’t all experience it the same way, and I would never try to speak for all of us, but I can speak for myself: Rick, BoJack, even another titular narcissist, Sterling Archer — they’ve all helped me come to terms with my own depression and realize that just because I’m not bedridden doesn’t mean I don’t have unchecked mental health problems.

I just wish one of them had been a woman.

BoJack’s Diane (Alison Brie) is the closest thing these shows have to a female character consistently living with mental illness, as opposed to suffering a “bout of depression” for the sake of a story arc. BoJack even accuses her of “fetishizing sadness” and she admits in the third season that her friendship with BoJack is toxic for the both of them because of who they are.

But even she is her most relatable — hiding out at BoJack’s in shame, wearing sweatpants, drinking in the morning — for just a few episodes. Meanwhile BoJack is constantly self-medicating and fucking up and just trying to be happy. Of course, the show is called BoJack Horseman, so it is not surprising that he would be the most developed, flawed, and ultimately, nuanced.

But why is the show about BoJack? Why isn’t there Netflix’s Diane Nguyen?

When we finally choose to reconceive of our depictions of mental illness, to write characters that are messed up in the real ways we’re messed up, dealing with life in the real ways we deal, why do they need to be men?

I will, of course, continue to watch both BoJack and Rick and Morty. Their protagonists flub their way through life in a way I understand and that’s meaningful. But I am still waiting for the show that gives me a depressed addict, a character whose problems cannot be ignored or easily fixed, someone who’s crude and tactless and self-destructive, so unsympathetic that they somehow garner sympathy in spite of themselves — and they also just happen to be a woman.

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