BoJack Horseman: How a Cartoon Horse(man) is Tackling Mental Illness
Bojack Horseman’s fourth season premiered this past September.
The fourth season of BoJack Horseman premiered on Netflix this past September. It is not the most popular show in the streaming giant’s collection, and it has not received the same level of attention as critical darlings like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, or The Crown, but BoJack stands apart from its peers because it chooses to be truly daring.
BoJack is very easy to to scroll past when hunting for a new show; animated anthropomorphic animals are a kitschy idea that is easy to dismiss. But under the surface veneer of silliness is a devastatingly close look at one (horse) man’s struggle with depression and alcoholism and how his self-destructiveness negatively impacts the lives of everyone around him. In every season, we delve deeper into BoJack’s psyche whilst simultaneously expanding the view to include the struggles of the entire main cast.
By season four, BoJack has been forced to acknowledge his problems after a series of catastrophic mistakes, and heart-wrenching season finales, brought him to rock bottom. While he begins his process of recovery, we are treated to more in-depth looks at the surrounding cast and we soon see that none of the characters are paragons of mental health. Diane Nyugen is unsatisfied in her marriage and her job even though her life appears to finally be working out. Her inability to feel happiness with her seemingly idyllic life causes her to feel broken: she describes herself as “a pit that good things fall into.” Her husband, Mr. Peanut Butter, is a bouncy optimist, but under his ever-cheerful facade is a deep insecurity that everyone he loves will leave him when he ceases to be useful. Princess Carolyn reaches her lowest point in the series when she loses the family she was beginning to create, with her sense of hopelessness and lack of faith in her own future beautifully rendered in a plot-twist episode in the most recent season.
BoJack Horseman is certainly not the first show to depict a main character with addictions or mood disorders but rarely has any show looked at so many angles of mental illness while also spelling out that it is in fact an illness that should be treated. In shows like House, Nurse Jackie, Archer, or even Supernatural, the main characters have addictions that never seem to negatively impact their lives and the clear evidence of their maladjustment is brushed off for comic relief. And while BoJack is chock full of laughs, at the end of the episode it is clear that that these illnesses are not a laughing matter. There are consequences to addiction. There are consequences to untreated depression or self-loathing. The show discourages viewers from going “lol same” when watching.
That being said, there is a counterintuitive benefit to the “haha relatable” reaction. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately one in five Americans experience mental illness in any given year. And for those almost 43 million Americans, there is not really any show that treads the line of discussion the way BoJack Horseman does. I have mentioned the shows that treat the topic of mental health lightly but there are just as many shows where people struggling with theirs is pushed to the very extreme. Most acknowledged mental health problems are represented by the characters who commit suicide, are hospitalized, or sell their grandma’s jewelry for drugs. This representation stigmatizes mental illness and gives those without it a negative view of the struggle and those who have it a negative view of themselves. In BoJack Horseman, BoJack, Diane, Princess Carolyn, Mr. Peanut Butter, and even Todd are not defined by their problems. They may struggle with them, they may even be set back by them, but they have hopes, dreams and desires that are still fully possible regardless of disorders. It is important that they are successful. It is important that they have friends, people who love them and support them even at their lowest moments. If “take your mental health seriously” is an important message, it is equally if not more important to make sure that a message of support goes out just as loudly. BoJack tells any viewers in similar situations that their success is not inhibited because they feel sad sometimes, and despite how they feel it is still possible to maintain a close circle of friends. And most importantly, it tells them that they are not alone.
BoJack Horseman is a good show regardless of the state of your mental health. It is colorful, funny, and well-paced with gut-punches that get better executed every season. Yet what sets it apart is the way in which it speaks to an oft-neglected yet very large segment of the American populace. It does not shirk away from the difficulties and consequences of mental disorders, yet it functions in many ways as a story of constant progress and upward change. This meticulous and near miraculous tightrope walk executed by the writers make BoJack Horseman a feat for representation that hopefully will set the standard for more nuanced writing on the subject of mental illness in television.