Note: I have tried to keep this article as spoiler-free as possible.
Mental health can be a tricky subject to write and show on screen. Many shows and films make the mistake of downplaying mental illnesses alienating those that are suffering from it. While, others take another route and romanticise the idea of having one. Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why is one example of a show that has stepped on all of those landmines regularly (in fact, it has even been called ‘harmful’ by mental health experts) under the pretence of ‘raising awareness’ about suicide. But not all awareness is good awareness, and spreading misinformation on such matters may hinder the prevention and rehabilitation of those that may struggle with this.
On the other end of the spectrum with regards to the treatment of this theme is BoJack Horseman, another Netflix original which began six years ago and has now concluded at the end of January. Many of you may have passed on the show based on its trailers and first few episodes, which mislead the audience into thinking that this is little more than just another animated adult sitcom. Yes, it is a hilarious, occasionally crude comedy. Yes, BoJack’s world is filled with anthropomorphic animals whose character designs appear distracting at first. But take away all of that, and what we are left with is a scathing satire of modern society and celebrity culture which leaves no thematic stone un-turned (concepts such as abortion, feminism, sexual assault and gun control are discussed in great depth) and a portrait of a flawed and broken man-horse as akin to Mad Men and The Sopranos as it is to South Park and Family Guy.
“Back in the nineties I was in a very famous TV show”, the end credit song goes, and that family sitcom has become the eponymous BoJack Horseman’s one claim to fame and source of money. In present day, he is a fifty-something, washed-up, self-loathing, narcissistic, alcoholic mess who is agitated by his fading status as a celebrity and is seeking to make a comeback. The six seasons that follow concern itself with how BoJack’s attempts to do so open up old wounds and hurt himself and those around him.
The character of BoJack Horseman exists at the intersection of the show’s discussion of celebrity culture and its difficult-to-watch portrayal of mental illnesses, which include severe depression, anxiety and drug addiction. The choice to have this character be a wealthy, famous actor is fascinating because it poses the question: how can one have it all and still be unhappy with who they are? The answer that the show explores is that the pursuit of fame and money is not the cure to his unhappiness but rather a symptom of it. During his childhood, BoJack was starved of love and validation from his emotionally abusive parents, and so he spent the rest of his life chasing that validation from the world. This desire for love and attention has manifested itself as a sort of addiction to fame, one that is not as tangible or clinical as his drug addiction but is real and toxic nonetheless. For this reason, he first became a stand-up comedian (who annoyingly keeps asking his audience, “did you get it? Did you get my joke?”), then later an actor in a famous sitcom.
Repeatedly, we see him chase a new milestone – be it publishing a memoir or getting nominated for an Oscar among other things – that will help retain his relevance in Hollywood (or ‘Hollywoo’ in the BoJack-verse). He expects these things to change him as a person but it never does. He remains the same, self-hating horse that he has been for years. There are several episodes in the series in which we get to see him as he sees himself. The best of these (in my opinion) is one called “Stupid Piece of Sh*t” in which we hear the internal voice inside BoJack’s head, constantly bullying him and repeating the mantra which gives its name to the episode. Throughout the episode, the voice – which gets progressively harsher – tells him to make bad decisions then lambastes him for following through with these decisions. It is episodes such as these which really sells the show, and I often show this particular episode to people who are sceptical of its original premise.
No doubt, the show does an effective job of getting the audience to sympathise with our equine protagonist, however un-likeable he may be. But BoJack’s self-loathing spills over and damages others around him, therefore the writers (show creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg included) must also take a step back and address an uncomfortable, albeit necessary question: to what extent should we forgive and forget toxic behaviour from those who suffer from a mental illness? (Show creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg admitted that he raised this issue once he discovered that the notorious Harvey Weinstein watches and loves his show). Indeed, because the show takes us inside the mind of BoJack so often, we tend to see his perspective more than that of anyone who was hurt by him. But if he was a real person in our world, we would immediately brand him a bad person for all he has done. The show makes such an effort to elicit a sympathetic response for BoJack from its audience that one may think they are justifying his negative actions.
Except, this is not the case, and the series has made this explicitly clear multiple times. For the show creators, this is the difficult part because viewers do not always understand that compassion for a toxic character is not synonymous with encouragement or justification of their toxic behaviour. This fallacy on the part of the viewers often happens at the expense of the more virtuous (usually female) characters. We’ve seen this phenomenon countless times with anti-heroes in shows and films. Don Draper over Betty in Mad Men. Walter White over Skylar in Breaking Bad. Joker over…well, society. The pattern continues in BoJack Horseman, except this time the writers actually address this double standard and seek to hold its erring anti-hero accountable.
This is the delicate balance that the series so deftly succeeds to maintain. If the writers failed to send out the message that this is not a character to be emulated, then BoJack Horseman would not be a show that its viewers see and realise that they need to improve their behaviour and get help for themselves. If the writers over-corrected themselves and punished him without the hope of redemption, they risk telling the same viewers that there is no point in changing once they have crossed a certain line. Fortunately, BoJack Horseman hits the right notes and reminds us that even if we are moulded by circumstances that are out of our control, we are not entirely powerless and we can get help. Personally, I think that is a powerful message.
BoJack Horseman is arguably the best show or film when it comes to the discussion of mental illness because it depicts the matter as what it is: complicated, messy, painful but ultimately manageable, if the right steps are taken. Even though the show looks like a goofy, ridiculous cartoon from the outside, it is also philosophical, insightful, self-aware and incredibly helpful to those who need it.
I would like to end this article on a quote from it that have helped me through difficult times: “It gets easier. Every day it gets a little easier. But you gotta do it every day. That’s the hard part. But it does get easier.”