Why Bojack Horseman is TV’s Funniest Show About Depression
Let’s talk about depression.
Depression isn’t like the common cold. It’s not something that hits you, annoys you for a couple of days and then goes away. It’s more akin to a parasite: once it finds you, it tends to stick to you.
Depression isn’t like cancer. It doesn’t slowly get worse and eventually end up taking over your life. Depression is more benign, like an unannounced house guest who never moved away and is (mostly) harmless. Over time, depression simply becomes a fact of life.
Depression isn’t like drug addiction. It’s patient. It leaves a breadcrumb trail of self-doubt and insecurity in your mind over time. When you have reached a nadir, it gives you the slightest nudge. You tumble and fall down, shattering into a thousand pieces like fine china.
These episodes can be as short as minutes or be as long as years. But as you slowly piece yourself back together and get back on your feet, you discover that depression, ever patient, is still there. It always will be.
A Comedy of Despair
Bojack Horseman is a funny show. It takes place in an animated, vividly colored Hollywood populated by humans and anthropomorphic animals living side by side. It takes full advantage of this premise to produce biting satire about Hollywood’s shallowness and narcissism, as well as endlessly inventive visual gags. As the story develops, however, it becomes apparent that Bojack Horseman is also deeply, unshakably dark.
The protagonist, Bojack Horseman, is a washed-up 90s TV star trying to find his way back to relevance and success. At first glance, he seems to be a lovable asshole, joining the ranks of Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm or Hank Moody in Californication.
Bojack, however, is consumed by pettiness, bitterness and spite. Haunted by a childhood with neglectful, caustic parents, Bojack has been depressed for most of his life. He drinks and copulates his way through life to numb his disappointment about how everything turned out to be.
This incredibly raw and candid look at the protagonist and the characters in his life works because of the surreal setting of the show. That, and the fact that it’s very funny makes this one of the best shows on television right now.
Minor spoilers lie ahead. If you want to avoid them, then do watch the three seasons of the show before coming back to this article. We can wait!
We are All Broken in Our Own Ways
One of the things that prevent Bojack Horseman from devolving into an overwrought pity fest and becoming a one trick pony (pun intended) is the well-rounded cast of eccentric characters. This cast is engaging, well developed and not just background scenery. They come with their own sets of problems and character flaws.
Bojack’s agent, the feline Princess Caroline, is a highly competent career woman who is plagued by acute loneliness. She tries to micromanage her clients’ lives and fix their problems because she feels that her own life is out of her control. Diane, the ghostwriter for Bojack’s memoir, is already a successful author and in a healthy relationship. However, her ideals of success and achievements mean that she is always left wanting for more.
Mr, Peanutbutter, Diane’s fiancée, is a golden retriever, and as stupidly happy as you can expect him to be. However, he secretly believes that the universe is uncaring and nothing really matters. He deals with this by constantly distracting himself with silly nonsense and hoping it will keep him busy until his death.
What makes these characters compelling isn’t that they wallow in their unhappiness all the time or that their flaws are played off for laughs. Most of them lead functional lives to various degrees. It’s only when you get to know them more that you notice the cracks in their armor.
We Run After the Wrong Things
Eventually realizing that you are broken lays the groundwork for depression. What truly cements it, however, is running after the wrong things to fix yourself.
One of the few bright spots in Bojack’s childhood was Secretariat, a race horse whom he idolized. Once he sent in a letter to Secretariat on a talk show, asking him about how to deal with being sad. This is what Secretariat told him:
Bojack took this advice to heart. He ran away from his troubled past and towards the allure of the showbiz industry. This pursuit of stardom, however, changed him for the worse, turning him into an arrogant, self-loathing alcoholic.
Only when he reads Diane’s draft of his autobiography, does Bojack realize that he hadn’t been a good person for quite some time. He also realizes that hadn’t been happy in a long while either.
Princess Caroline compulsively gets into bad flings. These include people like Bojack himself and a suspicious looking, trench-coat wearing man named Vincent Adultman (who is actually three kids standing on top of each other). She feels acutely lonely and often expresses that she wants to settle down in a steady relationship.
When she eventually finds such a partner, however, she just finds an excuse to immerse herself in work again. Like many of us who are only competent at their jobs but know little about anything else, she is terrified about handling the quieter moments in her life.
Human Connections Are All We Have, But We Can’t Help but Hurt Each Other
These characters don’t struggle with these various forms of depression alone, with no one to help them. Rather, most of them have a support network of friends and family who do reach out to them. Those suffering from bouts of depression, however, can’t help but hurt their loved ones and push them away. The show portrays this in a stark and harrowing way.
Bojack is an expert in doing this. He ends up betraying and sabotaging his close friends even as he tries to cling on to them. Every person he falls for- including the handful few that fall in turn for him- he hurts them or worse, damages them. Bojack even realizes this after a point, but he can’t stop. He is convinced that he is too broken to ever become a better person.
The root of this abuse lies in Bojack’s disturbingly troubled relationship with his mother. She has taken out her frustration of an unhappy marriage by dropping nuclear-powered blame bombs on Bojack. To see what I mean, you can check out the clip below if you aren’t faint of heart.
Even Diane, who is normally well adjusted, does this after she slinks into a slump after she grows disillusioned with chasing her ideals and dreams. She hides herself away in a corner and shuts her husband off completely. She becomes a complete mess. Even as Mr. Peanutbutter adores her and tries to support her, she keeps hurting him.
It’s a terrifying depiction of depression at its worst.
It’s Too Much Man
Perhaps the most tragic of Bojack’s victims is Sarah Lynn, the breakout child star of Bojack’s show. Thrust into show business from a very early age, she becomes convinced by her parents (and by especially bad advice from Bojack) that she has to do anything and everything to stay in the limelight. She goes on a Britney Spears-esque journey over the years as she falls into and out of popularity. She deals with this fall from grace by indulging heavily in substance abuse.
Sarah Lynn sees Bojack as a surrogate father figure. Every time they get together, however, Bojack enables and fuels her addictions and insecurities instead of helping her. When Sarah Lynn opens up about how she feels lonely and untrue to herself, Bojack reacts only by going deeper into a bender. This toxic relationship leads both of them to depths that neither will probably come back from.
Fish Out of Water
Bojack comes to understand the power and preciousness of human connections in a surreal, brilliant episode. Aptly titled Fish Out of Water, this is a masterpiece reminiscent of Lost in Translation. He travels to an underwater city to promote his latest movie but finds himself stranded and isolated in a place and culture he doesn’t understand, filled with people he can’t communicate with.
When he finds one of the many people he has wronged, he tries to make amends. In the process, he ends up discovering love and affection in this unlikeliest of places. Unfortunately, he still doesn’t get to tell the wronged person that he was sorry about what he did to her. In Bojack Horseman, forgiveness doesn’t come easy.
We Can Get Better, But it’s Not Easy
In fact, Bojack Horseman rarely lets its characters off the hook when it comes to their mistakes and flaws. Everyone who screws up gets caught and called out, often in harsh fashion.
Herb Kazzaz is one of the many friends Bojack screwed over. They started out together in the industry back in the 80s. In fact, Herb gave Bojack his big break by casting him as the lead for his show. When the going got tough, however, Bojack abandoned Herb and let him get booted off the show.
Years later, when Bojack learns that Herb is dying from cancer, he tries to apologize. The way the show was progressing up to that point, you would expect Herb to accept this apology too. Bojack is barely coming to grips with his depression and shitty attitude. He desperately needs a tick in the win column.
But Herb doesn’t accept Bojack’s apology.
Later on, one of Bojack’s other friends/victims articulates the shows’ stance on taking ownership of your mistakes, when Bojack fucks up for the umpteenth time. This is what he says:
The Pursuit of Happiness
The 3 seasons of the show so far have tracked Bojack on his journey to happiness and becoming a better person.
In the first season, Bojack understands that he isn’t a good person and that he is unhappy.
In the second season, he tries to find happiness by working on his passion project and trying to make amends with friends both old and new. However, he finds the concepts of happiness and genuine closeness so alien that he ends up screwing up once again. In fact, he screws up very badly.
In the third season, he tries to salvage his life and legacy when he finds himself as an unlikely candidate in an awards race. However, he is so afraid of achieving true success and getting what he wants that he repeatedly self-sabotages his chances.
Even worse, he slowly realizes that even getting he wanted will probably never fill the gaping void in his center. When he crashes and burns, he falls to his lowest point yet and drags others down with him.
How Can You Get Better?
Bojack Horseman offers scant, tantalizing glimpses on how depressed individuals can get better. One of these moments comes at the end of the second season when a jogging baboon stops by an exhausted Bojack and offers up this gem of wisdom:
Bojack Horseman also suggests that opening up to people who care about you works as well. One of the most poignant moments in the show is a phone conversation that takes place between Mr. Peanutbutter and Diane. At this point, their relationship is strained. Diane has been distant and lying about being abroad covering a peacekeeping mission.
Mr. Peanutbutter, however, has just spotted Diane at a restaurant and realized that his wife had been lying to him all this time.
Instead of blowing up at her and getting into a devastating argument, he calls her. He invents a bullshit story about not being able to find batteries for the TV remote and asks her to come back and help him find them. Diane, relieved, agrees.
This doesn’t mean everything is hunky-dory for the two of them afterwards. Diane still has her own demons to fight, but for the moment, she managed to rise above them.
Everybody Has a Story to Tell. Even the Depressed Ones.
Bojack and Diane’s bouts of depressions are not the same, because no two depressed individuals are alike. Diane had a moment of crisis, whereas Bojack is fundamentally unhappy. The show doesn’t offer easy answers or hints as to where he or any of the other characters are going to end up in regards to the happiness spectrum.
Bojack Horseman’s forays into existential nihilism are darkly compelling. The show discusses how people may not actually have a deep down, where they are good or bad. Perhaps, all that the we really are the things we do and say, and maybe all our mistakes truly do define who we are. The show goes even so far as to ask, if you find life so hopelessly bleak and are toxic to yourself and your friends, then is that life really worth living?
Bojack Horseman isn’t so crass as to say yes or no. It simply suggests that we always have a story to tell.
It’s Still a Very Funny Show!
It felt like this needed to be reiterated after such a heavy exploration of the show’s pathos. Bojack Horseman is still a brilliantly funny adult comedy.
There are, for instance, the simple but funny visual gags. In just the first three episodes, we get to see a Penguin Publishing house run by an actual penguin editor and a US navy seal named Neal McBeal who is also an actual seal. And we meet Neal McBeal because Bojack stole a meal off him.
The show’s surreal environment also makes for hilarious takes on real world controversies. WhaleWorld, a pastiche of Sea World, is a family-friendly strip club pimping out killer whales. To show her pro-choice colors, dolphin pop star Sextina Aquafina comes out with her new single Get Dat Fetus, Kill Dat Fetus, complete with a ridiculously over the top music video.
According to creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Bojack Horseman didn’t even start out wanting to be the voice of depression. The show just does an uncanny job of depicting it in many of its forms. What’s more, the show keeps on evolving and maturing, going deeper into the rabbit hole as it goes from strength to strength.
Can Bojack Horseman be the first animated show to join the lofty ranks of the likes of Breaking Bad, the Sopranos and the Wire? Only time will tell. As it stands, however, the show isn’t simply must-see television. It’s must-see fiction.