Why BoJack Horseman Is One of the Best Portrayals of Mental Illness
It’s more than just that one episode in Season 4.
Beware of light spoilers ahead.
When Netflix’s BoJack Horseman first came out, it attracted a lot of instant fans because of the animal puns and obscure pop-culture references. But those fans quickly realized neither of those traits alone were the source of its strength. For a cartoon about anthropomorphic animals that lampoons the culture of celebrity worship and the entertainment industry itself, BoJack Horseman offers some of the most realistic portrayals of mental illness ever to grace the small screen.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five adults in America experiences mental illness in a given year. And unfortunately, many, if not most, TV shows, movies, and other forms of entertainment tend to mishandle portrayals of mental illness, even when they’re attempting to address or start conversations around the topic. Just look at the backlash to other Netflix vehicles 13 Reasons Why, To the Bone, and Insatiable. Obviously, entertainers are not solely responsible for how we, the audience, perceive or even stigmatize mental illness. But pop culture and media do play a huge part in our ability to understand and relate to these things.
Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the showrunner on BoJack Horseman, has spoken candidly about this. He and his writers take pains to make sure they’re exploring mental illness in a way that’s relatable and realistic. Although the character of BoJack is self-destructive, narcissistic, and relies upon drugs, alcohol, sex, and fame as crutches for his mental illness, the show is not about another Tony Soprano, Walter White or Hank Moody. Those characters are antiheroes whose negative characteristics somehow never stopped them from becoming admirable or cool to the collective audience. But BoJack isn’t held up as a rebel icon; he’s often more of a cautionary figure. It’s his unwillingness or inability to address his personal traumas and failings that causes the most damage to the people around him, but it’s not the traumas and failings themselves. Consider how many self-aware moments he has: “I’m broken” and “I’m poison” might as well be his overused catch-phrases. He’s able to blame himself for hurting people like Penny, Herb, and Sarah Lynn, but recovery is the real crux of his struggle.
The Season 4 episode “Stupid Piece of Sh*t,” framed by BoJack’s internal monologue in which he berates himself constantly and uncontrollably, has been praised for giving language to people who were never able to explain their experiences with depression or anxiety to others. But much of the power of the show’s portrayal of mental illness lies in its ensemble cast of characters. BoJack might have his name in the title, and he might be the only character suffering from the worst of childhood abuse and mental illness, but it’s the other characters who complete the show’s discussions of emotional health.
Season after season, BoJack damages and pushes away the people closest to him, but they always come back. He spends years berating Mr. Peanut Butter and even makes a pass at his wife, Diane; but Mr. Peanut Butter returns over and over to help BoJack, who he stubbornly refers to as his best and oldest friend on multiple occasions. Diane and BoJack fight over his memoir, which Diane ghostwrites and uses to discuss many of BoJack’s traumas and objectively awful personality traits, but they too establish a routine of understanding one another. Even Todd, BoJack’s professed best friend who spends most of their friendship enduring verbal abuse and negligence from BoJack, is able to alternately forgive his friend and establish boundaries to both their benefit.
Yes, BoJack Horseman’s sheer portrayal of mental illness is realistic, in that it can occur in people who seem to have wonderful lives from the outside. Think of Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade or Robin Williams; famous people who seem to have everything they could ever want still suffer. But the hopeful side of that portrayal is the support from people around BoJack. In the interest of full disclosure, my younger brother killed himself three years ago. BoJack Horseman and its displays of family and depression are wildly relatable for me. But rather than being triggered or overwhelmed by the show’s many portrayals of suicide, suicidal ideation and mental illness-induced tragedy, I continue to find myself bolstered by its frank ability to handle these subjects in the context of friends, therapy, support groups, and other, more healthy coping mechanisms than the ones we typically see BoJack landing on.
Another, far more offbeat feature of the show unexpectedly adds to its portrayal of mental illness and substance abuse: the talking animals. Bob-Waksberg has talked about the influence of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics in interviews, specifically the idea of iconography, when discussing why people might relate more to BoJack than to other, more ostensibly realistic TV shows and movies. The simplistic nature of a cartoon, and of cartoon animals in general, helps people understand real-life concepts by making them less overtly anchored in reality and more universal. It’s why comics and animated films probably won’t ever quit on anthropomorphic creatures. It’s likely that BoJack being literally a horse-man is one of the main things enabling empathy from the audience and separating him from the aforementioned, run-of-the-mill antiheroes. Since this aspect of him is surreal and divorced from our own reality, perhaps we’re better able to relate to his emotional truth without the distraction of a recognizable human actor, who comes with their own baggage.
Of course, it’s important to remember that above all BoJack Horseman is a comedy. You’re probably familiar with the old adage that comedy equals tragedy plus time, but another widely accepted theory about comedy is that, in its purest form, it’s empathy. Humans laugh at a cartoon man slipping on a banana peel because we know how easily it could happen to us; because we know what it feels like to be surprised by something that makes your stomach flip and then physically hurts you, and because we’re glad it’s happening to the poor chump onscreen and not to us in that moment. But the key part of that archetypal sequence is that the guy onscreen gets up afterward, and then we’re even more relieved, because he’s okay. In the same way, many people with a history of mental illness relate to this washed-up ’90s sitcom actor who’s also a talking horse. In a single scene during the first episode, we get the stark pain of BoJack struggling to accept that, as Diane tells him, “You’re responsible for your own happiness,” followed immediately by the absurd and cathartic image of him vomiting up a mountain of cotton candy over his balcony.
Perhaps the most important aspect of mental illness to be explored on the show is the fact that recovery is not a linear or orderly process. If the new trailer for Season 5 is any indication, BoJack’s continued efforts to understand himself and his surroundings are going to be an uphill battle every bit as replete with backslides as previous seasons have shown. But just because not everybody is a Princess Carolyn, who bounces back from adversity with seemingly exponential grit and determination, doesn’t mean there’s no hope. Ultimately, the show is about hope. Even with its constant sexual mishaps, drug abuse, zany misadventures, death, and, yes, the talking animals, BoJack Horseman is somehow the best possible iteration of a sitcom. In the words of its titular protagonist, it’s “a show about good, likeable people who love each other, where, no matter what happens, at the end of 30 minutes, everything’s gonna turn out okay.” The difference between this show and other sitcoms is that it actually shows us realistic ways that people respond to “what happens,” and how they learn the skills necessary to make sure everything turns out okay, eventually, hopefully.
BoJack Horseman returns with Season 5 on September 14th. September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, there are options available to help. You can start at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Lauren Lavín is a freelance writer and illustrator who loves a good redemptive arc almost as much as she loves Swamp Thing. Follow her on twitter @YasBruja.
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Why BoJack Horseman Is One of the Best Portrayals of Mental Illness