Rants, Feelings & Opinions

Why BoJack Horseman Is My Go-To Depression Show

July 24, 2017

“A middle-aged, self-sabotaging cartoon horse has become my depressive hero.”Lizzi Sandell discusses unreality and the depressive psyche.

I woke up last night in the middle of a panic attack. This has happened before. I was in the apartment on my own for the first time in a while because my girlfriend was away on a shoot— I guess I had been feeling uneasy, and I was also coming off a series of 5 a.m. coffee-fuelled edit sessions. I caught my breath and went into the bathroom, where I found myself eye-to-eyes with a previously unknown insect that looked like a millipede and a cockroach had made a traumatic, nightmare-festival baby. This only contributed to my unease. I knew what I needed to do; I turned on the AC, popped a Xanax*, and put on BoJack Horseman.

BoJack is my depressive hero. In case you’re not familiar, he’s the animated protagonist of the eponymous Netflix show, which has run for 3 seasons since 2014. It follows BoJack, a washed-up 90s sitcom star, as he attempts to make sense of his life, alongside his agent/ex-girlfriend Princess Carolyn (a pink cat), his ghostwriter Diane Nguyen, his frenemy Mr. Peanutbutter (a golden Labrador), and Todd—the dude who sleeps on his couch. Not since Sylvia Plath wrote, “I simply cannot see where there is to get to,” has anything spoken to me more about depression. I said this to a friend recently over Mezcal margaritas, and I realized how difficult it was to explain. Why do I relate so much to this cartoon horse?

BoJack and I are not, on the surface, similar. You’ll be unsurprised to discover that I am not a middle-aged horse with a fledgling showbiz career and a mansion in the Hollywood (called “Hollywoo” in the show for reasons I won’t go into) Hills. Nor am I strictly an alcoholic, although I can’t say that the label seems entirely inaccurate either. What I can relate to fully is BoJack’s complicated relationship with himself, as well as his imposter syndrome when it comes to success. The latter, in his case, is literalized: BoJack actually doesn’t deserve his Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy for his ghost-written memoir (lol at LA), or the critical acclaim for his performance in Secretariat, which was actually given by a CGI-replica of his face. All roads, for BoJack, lead to a bleak and/or poignant revelation.

I have been a card-carrying depressive for all my post-childhood life. Watching BoJack resonates with that vague, submerged, identity-seeking state that depression so often induces. Whether it’s lonely workaholic Princess Carolyn’s perpetual romantic disappointments—her longest relationship on the show is with Vincent Adultman, a child in a trench coat pretending to be a grown-up—or writer Diane’s struggle to create meaningful work (lol at me), there’s a prevailing melancholy to what is by no means a joyless show. Unlikeable narrators are nothing new, but BoJack lets himself down so relentlessly, borderline-ruining his and his friend’s lives in the process, that he begins to seem like a total embodiment of the self-sabotaging spirit of the depressive psyche. And yet, I still love him.

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I got into BoJack Horseman a little late, because I didn’t know how much it would eventually mean to me. It now holds 100% “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes, but I was surprised to discover that the first season was poorly received; the Chicago Sun-Times called it a “bizarre Seth Macfarlane-like show that seems to have stemmed from a trippy night on ‘shrooms.” BoJack does go on a number of surreal drug-addled binges, but this is no psychedelic Family Guy. There are plenty of visual gags, mostly derived from the animal-like forms of the characters, but BoJack exists in a fully realized world, as furnished with referential details (like the equine version of Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist that hangs on the wall in BoJack’s office), as it is with ennui. The characters change their clothes; they progress. Despite being part of the somewhat notorious Netflix OG oeuvre, you can’t call BoJack derivative.

I obviously grew up on The Simpsons, and also love the clever, cynical Rick and Morty, but BoJack Horseman’s tone is so consistently profound, and yet unlabored, that it offers something undeniably unique to the adult cartoon sub-category. It is funny, but doesn’t play for broad comedy, nor is it gratuitous in its treatment of more explicit themes. It’s also unusual in that its aesthetic is courtesy of gorgeously awkward female cartoonist, Lisa Hanawalt, whose obsession with drawing anthropomorphized horses and birds was the embryo for the entire look of the show. Somehow, living in Hanawalt’s colorful but ultimately disappointing world is supremely comforting to me—sometimes to a fault.

Last year, I spent a semester studying at a university in Canada. I didn’t fully anticipate how lonely and quiet it would be, living up in a leafy Toronto suburb so safe that it went ghostly-silent in the evenings, with a very lovely new flatmate who I nevertheless had nothing in common with. Between the intensity of the schoolwork and the weird, vast, anonymity of the city, I slipped into a depression that led me to spend one too many evenings drinking terrible Canadian wine on the sofa in my pyjamas. During this period, I watched BoJack Horseman constantly—from the first episode to the last, and back again—which was particularly embarrassing because my flatmate was familiar with the show. As he lived his functional life, he would pass me on the sofa, and remark, friendly-but-concerned: “You must have seen this one already, right?”

I don’t think I’m alone in this. I recently saw a thread on Facebook where people were discussing their go-to depression shows. Cartoons came up a lot, with BoJack frequently among them. There seems to be something about cartoons in general— of course, they’re formally escapist, and they seem to allow a certain level of comforting regression. A friend of mine once told me that his therapist told him to re-engage in things he enjoyed as child, so he started eating chocolate cereal again. I once went through (another) phase when I began making myself fish fingers, peas, and ketchup—a childhood favorite—every evening after I got back from my shitty hospitality job, so maybe BoJack provides something like this for me too.

Cartoons free us from the burden of literal representation. Something about the layers of unreality inherent in animation, and the presence of anthropomorphic animals in BoJack, stops the show from becoming too on-the-nose. My unpopular opinion is that Girl, Interrupted is an absolute shit-show, and the recent furore about both 13 Reasons Why and To The Bone indicates that something about making mental health problems explicit actually ends up making them obscure. Basically, I’m a total Zoë—as opposed to a Zelda, which is a made-up pessimist/optimist dichotomy outlined in the show—and BoJack’s slightly miserable existence soothes me in a way that doesn’t make literal sense. Somehow, BoJack Horseman resonates on my depressive frequency.

BoJack Horseman Season 4 arrives on Netflix on September 8th. Thank God.

(*This writer neither condones nor condemns the use of sweet, sweet Xanax.)

Lizzi Sandell is a writer and film student living in London and NewYork.

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