Bojack Horseman: An Animated Portrait of Mental Illness

The following contains spoilers for Bojack Horseman. Proceed with caution.

Netflix recently announced that the third season of its adult animation series, Bojack Horseman, would be available for streaming on July 22. I’m not ashamed to say that multiple people posted on my Facebook timeline or privately messaged me to make sure I heard the news. There are a lot of amazing things I could say about Bojack Horseman. The vocal cast is incredible, from Will Arnett to Paul F. Tompkins to Amy Sedaris, just to name a few; the running gags, including the many appearances of character actress, Margo Martindale, and a multitude of animal-themed puns, never fall flat; and, while at first glance, Bojack Horseman may seem like your typical Seth MacFarlane-style adult cartoon, the humor in the show is intelligent and often addresses deeply-entrenched societal issues, one of which is mental health.

The titular Bojack Horseman (Will Arnett) is a middle-aged anthropomorphic horse whose claim to fame is playing the dad on the Full House-esque sitcom Horsin’ Around back in the ‘90s. Bojack’s life is steeped in nostalgia for his days as a TV star and the viewer sees him struggle with both the positive and negative aspects of his past.

Bojack Horseman isn’t a nice guy. The depression he has struggled with for most of his life has led to his becoming an alcoholic, abusing drugs, and destroying many of his close relationships. Within the first two seasons Bojack has had a frightening string of lovers, including his agent, Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) and the actress who played his youngest daughter on Horsin’ Around, Sarah Lynn (Kristen Schaal); in season two, Bojack visits his old friend Charlotte (Olivia Wilde) and, after his attempts to woo her go awry, he tries to hook up with her 17-year old daughter instead. Bojack treats his best friend, Todd (Aaron Paul), like absolute garbage, berating him constantly and sabotaging any opportunity Todd has to become successful and move out of Bojack’s house. While it’s clear to the viewer that these terrible actions are very directly related to Bojack’s depression and addiction, Bojack is held accountable for each and every one of them.

Bojack’s mental illness doesn’t give him a free pass. When Bojack is an asshole, the viewer knows. No one makes excuses for him (well, except Bojack himself). In fact, most of the other characters on the show call him out when he’s being a jerk, and the viewer sees the dire consequences of his actions. Yet despite all of the horrible things Bojack does to the people around him, his struggles make him relatable. Everyone who has struggled with depression or addiction, or has grown up in a home lacking in parental affection, or has even tried and failed to tell someone how they feel, can find something to empathize with in Bojack. This is something that we as media creators and consumers tend to struggle with. Characters are either “beautiful cinnamon rolls” or “pieces of shit”, with no in-between. Far too often we excuse our favorite characters’ poor behavior when we learn their tragic backstories, or demonize them without any sort of context for their actions. Real people rarely fall completely to one side of this dichotomy, and Bojack Horseman recognizes this in their treatment of their titular character.

Despite the fact that he is a horse, Bojack Horseman is undeniably human in his actions and emotions. Bojack Horseman not only creates representation for people with mental illness, but it does so in a very real way. People living with depression are just that: people. Bojack Horseman says to its star, “Hey, I know that what you’re going through is difficult and I want to help you, but the way you’re treating the people around you isn’t ok.” Bojack isn’t a perfect, “quirky” YA novel protagonist; his mental illness isn’t cute or endearing. It explains his actions, but by no means justifies them. Bojack Horseman may be a silly cartoon, but it’s one of the most authentic reflections on mental illness I have yet to see on TV. I have no doubt that season three will live up to its predecessors in that regard.

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