Mental illness, depression, addiction, human condition, sexuality, trauma and self-destructive behaviour. These are just a handful of issues addressed in Netflix’s animated programme BoJack Horseman. Yes, you did read that correctly, an animated programme. It follows the exploits of the titular BoJack, a washed-up, narcissistic, alcoholic, drug addicted, former 90’s sitcom star, as he attempts to stage his comeback surrounded by his roommate, his agent and his ghost-writer.
…offers solace and comfort to the viewer, it signals that they are not alone in what they are experiencing
Time Magazine called it ‘the most important animated series since The Simpsons, and Indiewire named the series ‘the best of the 21st century.’ Mental health and mental illness have been addressed in entertainment before, but why has BoJack Horseman been so lauded for its portrayal of these disorders, and why has it been so successful in doing so?
A key reason the show has resonated with so many viewers, including myself, is that it does not offer any concrete solutions or a cure to the issues it presents. The show explores the root causes of these afflictions and in presenting them in such a realistic (almost jarringly realistic) way, offers solace and comfort to the viewer, it signals that they are not alone in what they are experiencing. By the end of the show, BoJack isn’t healed or a completely new person, he is simply on a path of rehabilitation and personal development.
BoJack’s addictions and mental state not only affect him, but those who surround him. His toxicity and corruptive nature are best illustrated through the character of Diane – his friend and ghost-writer. Her personal growth throughout the show is reflected by her physical appearance. After suffering from severe depression due to her work, she begins to take anti-depressants, causing her to gain weight. The beauty of the show is this change in Diane is never mentioned or pointed out, it exemplifies self-improvement and is left at that. She is noticeably happier and more confident when she takes the medication, her relationship with her boyfriend improves, and so does her work. Yes, she gained weight physically, but emotionally and mentally she has been completely transformed, and is healthier because of it.
Not only does this address toxic relationships but also the need for separation to become healthy.
However, this is again shown to be part of one step on her road to recovery. Her final step to recovery is cutting BoJack out of her life. After a candid conversation on a rooftop, she says to him, ‘I think there are people that help you become the person that you end up being and you can be grateful for them, even if they were never meant to be in your life forever.’ Not only does this address toxic relationships but also the need for separation to become healthy. Sometimes in order to improve your mental wellbeing, it means you have to cut people off. Part of the recovery process is recognising the problem, and sometimes friends are invisible problems.
The show also addresses the idea of one’s mental health being affected through hereditary issues, with trauma being something that is passed down from parents to the child. BoJack’s parents were about as uncaring and unloving as one could expect. His mother would regularly tell him how much he ruined her, and his father became too preoccupied with his book and his mundane life. His father’s anger about not being remembered or complete, trickles down onto BoJack, leaving him with issues of completion and fulfilment. A recurring struggle BoJack feels throughout the show is his legacy. What will he be remembered for? Who will be left to remember him? This idea of not being complete or fulfilled lingers over BoJack throughout the show and contributes to his depression and addictions. This seeps further into the realism of the show in depicting these conditions.
In other portrayals of mental health in entertainment, the character’s mental illness is shown to be caused by an isolated event. This is what makes BoJack Horseman so authentic.
Mental health issues are not caused by a singular event but a combination of internal and external factors. In BoJack’s case, his mental wellbeing has been worsened by his drinking, his drug use, his parents and those he surrounds himself with. In other portrayals of mental health in entertainment, the character’s mental illness is shown to be caused by an isolated event. This is what makes BoJack Horseman so authentic. It takes its time to unravel its titular character and his personal demons.
A fundamental philosophy the show follows is ‘every day it gets a little easier. But you’ve got to do it every day. That’s the hard part.’ Recovery won’t occur overnight. It’s a process. For BoJack, it involves first recognising the issue, then going to rehab, then going to prison, before finally making amends with those he’s hurt the most. When the show ends, BoJack isn’t restored. He is nowhere near healed. His journey of recovery has only just begun. BoJack isn’t doomed or irredeemable, nor is he a completely different person when the frame cuts to black.
So, I hope now you’ll go and watch the show if you haven’t already. Even if you have maybe give it a re-watch. I’ll leave you with my favourite quote from the show, ‘It takes a long time to realise how truly miserable you are, and even longer to see it doesn’t have to be that way.’
In-article trailer courtesy of Netflix via YouTube.
In-article image courtesy of bojackhorseman via Instagram. No changes made to these images.
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