In 2014, Netflix hosted a show about a depressed cartoon horse man living off the success of his 90’s sitcom “Horsin Around.” At first glance, it didn’t seem all too special. Hell, critics panned it as an average show with mediocre humor, and you figure they were right, what with the first few episodes relying on slapstick and cutaway gags peppered with Bojack’s problems. But we were all wrong.
I remember when I caught wind of it myself. It was mainly on message boards reacting to the emotional bombshell dropped in season one’s 11th episode, and even then it only perked my curiosity. Much like the majority of watchers, when I checked it out via Netflix I found myself ready for the early episodes to get on with it, up until around the fourth. It was at that point I realized what was happening.
So what the hell am I talking about? Well, it’s hard to convey the idea a show about a talking anthropomorphic horse shook me to the foundations of myself. I don’t exaggerate when I say I was a wreck post season 1 and 2. I could hardly function. I didn’t want to face the day; I felt like I’d been subjected to some depressing haymaker and needed days to recover. And I did.
But why? Bojack Horseman is again, about a wash up sitcom star molding internal conflicts with black humor, clever references, and soul crushing depression. It’s a show which demonstrates one of the most deft, intelligent understandings about depression, and how it’s a tar pit which swallows you whole. Through Bojack we see there is no real light at the end of the tunnel. Wealth, relationships, projects, none of these are answers. None of these are parts to fix the broken Bojack.
You see when it comes to issues of sadness and depression, multimedia tends to handle it in a lot of polarizing ways. Even the general understanding of depression is still quite limited, from both experts and general public alike. To some it seems like a cry for attention, as society teaches folks sadness gets that. To others it’s just a matter of willpower, a concept you can shake off with the right attitude and energy. We’re lead to believe depression is just a result of external circumstances (which can certainly have a huge impact) but changing these circumstances leads to a solution. If you have endless wealth and nothing to stop you, surely you’ll be happy!
Well, this isn’t true, and the grim reality of it surfaces all through Bojack Horseman. It’s one of the show’s greatest strengths, demonstrating the unprejudiced reality of depression. Bojack tumbles through his living-in-the-past lifestyle mixed with dependency and desperation for people to like him. In season one, he works with Penguin Publishing, a company run by publishing penguins, to write a memoir about his life. For Bojack, as the audience finds out, he feels it’s his last shot at happiness, that if everyone reads a book about him and loves him for it, he’ll be happy again. But the specter of apathy is not so easily bought off.
Among the incredible amount of scene detail, side jokes and background gags, Bojack starts to offer far more than the average viewer expects. Amidst their zany struggles at an agency or shenanigans of starting a rock opera, the veil is pulled back. That’s what makes it so damn good. Again, in media, often you see the presentation of depression as a constant barrage of sadness or attempts of suicide. You see depression always at its bleakest. You see depressed characters as never ending figures of wallowing misery, and while it’s true there are periods when a depressed person just cannot operate like they want, it’s a misnomer. The depressed suffer in silence, or hide it behind something else, or sometimes even act in corrosive, selfish ways, much like Bojack. When you see a show with funny anthropomorphic animals handle a delicate subject with real understand, it’s kind of alarming. Not many can attest to the same accomplishments.
From the standpoint of someone whose never watched the show, it all sounds like a never ending series of sad and depressing things. Well, not entirely. Amidst the fracturing “happiness” of each character, Bojack Horseman is rife with clever jokes, careful details, and puns. Raphael Bob-Waksberg, creator of Bojack Horseman, demonstrates his take on comedy, pairing often terribly dark or depressing moments with a joke, side gag, or cut to new, cheerier scene. This bizarre flavour adds a mix of laughable moments and heart wrenching ones, lowering defenses of the audience as it slowly reveals its true colours.
One character, for example, is loaded with jokes in a war torn, disease filled country on the opposite side of the world. A Sebastian St. Claire, snow-leopard millionaire, is routinely cut to with his boisterous displays of good will amidst violence and chaos. Here’s a place where the image obsessed character has to sow on the arm of a mutilated soldier, but does so in a comedic, light hearted fashion. Shouldn’t this place be horrible and filled with misery? It is, and yet somehow the show makes it one of the most laughable bits on the show.
With all this accounted for, it seems like Bojack is ushering in a new era of show. Many fans wondered what else was similar to Bojack Horseman. What else would give them the same feelings of immense sadness, with characters so deeply tangible despite mostly being cartoon animals? Well, many consider it a short list. Other shows, like the Claymation style Moral Orel come to mind and the ever popular Venture Bros. too. Then you’ve got the newest sci-fi adult cartoon hit, Rick and Morty, which despite being peppered with hilarious jokes has incredibly grim undercurrents beyond the surface.
Now, Bojack Horseman joins the ranks, and delivers tolling emotional blows. This hybrid breed of comedy, depression, sadness, melancholy, and hope may yet form into its own brand of category. As it stands, with examples listed, it’s still quite niche. Yes, there are other non-animated shows which explore similar themes, though the former has always been something of a kid’s matter. Nobody looks at a cartoon and expects it to project tangible, relevant trials we go through every day.
Perhaps the emotional hammer hits all the harder thanks to its Netflix format. In most syndicated shows, a new episode starts on a certain day each week. It allows for speculation from fans while slowly building into the next. There’s time for hype and there’s time to process. Netflix changes this up however by dropping entire seasons at once, leaving it up to the viewer.
For Bojack, it makes it more effective. It’s like hard bourbon. Or one which causes misery, at least. You can choose to watch a few episodes, like taking a sip and enjoying the buzz. Or, you can binge the entire thing, get drunk on the turmoil, and deal with the horrid emotional hangover afterward. While it’s up to the viewer, watching the episodes one after the other doesn’t leave the viewer with much time to “guard” themselves or speculate. They have to take the events as they come, bit by bit. That was certainly my case and it made the metaphorical punch so much harder to take. The sadness didn’t come up until a day later, but it was there, and it felt like drowning in your own body.
Of course, the experience won’t be the same for everyone. Some viewers see similarities between themselves and Bojack, or empathize with personal pain/depression as they’ve been through it themselves. Some recognize the failure of relationships. Some remember the bitterness that drives loved ones away. Others may not relate to Bojack directly, but are still affected by the goings on of each character and how life hits them.
So, is it worth watching? Absolutely. Given time, the show has potential to reach into the audience and rattle the cage. The characters shed their deceptive “one note joke” appearance and reveal the struggles and layers hiding beneath. If invested enough, you want your favorites to succeed. You’re broken when they’re hurt, or failing, or wished events went differently than before. But, not everyone will enjoy it in the same way, if at all, and that’s entirely valid. Bojack Horseman is a unique breed of show which needs a little time to work.
As it stands, there are two seasons available for viewing on Netflix, with a 3rd season on the way in 2016, presumably around the same release date as the 2nd, mid-July. It’s hard to imagine things could get worse or better for Bojack, and harder to imagine the show will “go darker” in the words of the creator. Still, like its growing fanbase, I’ll be waiting anxiously, excited to experience another round of emotional pain.