Film, News & Commentary

Depression and anthropomorphised animals: why BoJack Horseman is one of the best shows on television

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Who would have thought that one of the most interesting explorations of depression in film or TV would be an animated sitcom about a washed-up celebrity who happens to be a talking horse? 
Connecting Netflix’s surreal comedy BoJack Horseman to mental illness is far from a revelation; tens if not hundreds of thousands of words have been written on the subject by critics and fans, some of whom have identified with it so strongly they’ve resolved to change their own lives.
The premiere this week of BoJack’s second season, which extends the show’s universe in a number of interesting ways, is a good a time to reflect on Netflix’s most colourful and complex surprise package.
Also to remind those yet to indulge to stop horsing around: BoJack is one of the best things on television at the moment; a modern classic that fuses the story of a fading celebrity schlep with frank and at times scathing satire of the American entertainment industry.
If the story of the titular lonely, depressed, alcoholic, self-sabotaging layabout (voice of Will Arnett) living in Hollywood doesn’t grab you from the start, stay with it. This eminently re-watchable show (created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg and designed by cartoonist Lisa Hanawait) gets better, not necessarily in strength of the writing but with the cumulative effect of filling out a landscape of flawed characters experiencing varying forms of mental illness and anguish.
A sense of sadness permeates the zinger-laden scripts. BoJack himself is a piece of work: a selfish entertaining idiot who never relived his glory days as a ’80s and ’90s sitcom star and views virtually everything in life as either a hassle or a disappointment. In the first season he struggles to write his memoir and procrastinates, much to the chagrin of his stressed-out agent at Penguin, who is himself a penguin (in this universe humans and anthropomorphised animals co-exist).
With BoJack’s book finished and published in the second season, the pages come back to haunt (or at least annoy) him. Women he dates now reference not just the old TV show but things they’ve learnt from the memoir – his behavioural tendencies, mistakes, foibles, idiosyncrasies, previous dramas and disasters – meaning his life story is now a series of pop culture references, another thing to live up to.
BoJack’s housemate is Todd (Aaron Paul), an unkempt man-child who sleeps on the couch. His on/off again girlfriend is his agent, a pink Persian cat named Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) who is growing so desperate for love and companionship she starts seeing a young boy pretending to be a man.
Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie) is BoJack’s ghostwriter, a Vietnamese-American and third-wave feminist. She is dating his former sitcom rival Mr Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), a positive thinking but neurotic Labrador Retriever. Diana initially appears to be mentally one of the strongest characters but the writers chip away at her to find frailties and what may well be another case of chronic depression.
The animated style affords the creators an aesthetic playfulness; they also tinker unconventionally with structure. An entire episode, last year’s Christmas special, is devoted to BoJack and Todd watching a holiday episode of BoJack’s old sitcom – the show within the show, intentionally bad but also a sharp send-up of pappy ’80s and ’90s programs of the Full House and Family Matters ilk.
In an episode in season one, when BoJack is cramming to write his book, he takes LSD and more than ten minutes (of a 25 minute running time) captures his bad trip. He sees visions of his deceased best friend who died hating him, discovers himself back on the set of his old show with a new line – “this is all I am and all I’ll ever be” – is whisked back to childhood to visit his bitter mother then finds himself in a graveyard where he collapses in front of a headstone that reads “BoJack Horseman Whom No One Remembers.”
BoJack sidles over to what looks like a lemonade stand manned by a character from Peanuts, who asks him what the problem is. Sitting on a tiny stool looking forlorn, BoJack responds: “I’m so depressed. I just want everybody to love me but I don’t know how to make them do it”. It’s a terrific scene, and one hard to imagine working in live action.
BoJack kicks off the second season resolved to act positive —  jogging, drinking shakes, listening to a self-improvement app on his smartphone and trying to talk himself into a healthy attitude. “Every morning is a miracle,” he says. “Hashtag miracle. Hashtag every morning. Hashtag every morning is a miracle. Hashtag BoJack thoughts.”
But BoJack’s curmudgeonly mother soon sends him into a relapse. “You were born broken,” she tells him. “You’re BoJack Horseman. There’s no cure for that.”
That’s a hell of a line to level at the protagonist of a sitcom. This ridiculous horse, who might just become the defining small screen character of our time, is Mr Ed reimagined for an infinitely more cynical era: Ed grew up, corroded his liver and sinuses, became a sex fiend, guzzled down pills, whittled his life away and fell into a deep dark funk from which he may never emerge.
In this world talking animals are not in the slightest way magical and BoJack’s very existence is postmodern — as if his entire life is predicated on creating new punchlines or reminding us of old ones. In a sense this is absolutely true, and we wouldn’t want it any other way.

Previously by Luke Buckmaster
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