A cartoon television show featuring a town of co-existing humans and animals, labelled as a ‘comedy’ seems impossible to be sad, right? Well, it’s not as amusing all of the time as you would perhaps think. Bojack Horseman is a Netflix cartoon targeted at adults and teens with a literal horse-man as the protagonist. There is also a talent agent cat, a yellow Labrador as a game show host, and a meerkat accountant as well as possibly every other animal you can think of. Even land-living killer whales as exotic dancers! There are humans too… but they’re less shocking. This world of animals and humans co-existing and reproducing is something you get used to pretty quickly – it’s actually the show’s realistic and raw depiction of mental illness that throws you off.
Bojack Horseman is a protagonist that you root for, but you can’t help getting frustrated with him. A washed up actor who hasn’t caught a good break since his 90s sitcom ended, and it’s completely obvious that he experiences depression. Bojack will sit around his expensive house in ‘Hollywoo’ (yes, the ‘D’ fell off the sign and it’s now known to the residents as Hollywoo) refusing job offers and shouting at his housemate Todd – a lazy young adult who just never left after sleeping on his sofa after a house party. Throughout the show, Bojack will time and time again make awful drink-induced decisions that affect himself and everyone around him, but he sees himself as too far gone to better himself. Depression can often persuade people that they are unworthy of love, success, or happiness, and this is very relevant in Bojack as a character. He will begin to help his friends however he most often gives up as he falls into selfishness and deceit. This leads to fans trying to root for a character who can make himself hard to even stick up for sometimes, let alone look up to. Yet still, sometimes, he is likeable.
The protagonist is not the only character with mental health issues though. The ghost writer of his memoir, Diane, falls into a pit of situational depression in season four. Diane is an author who wants to change the world, but now in her early thirties she begins to find herself in an existential crisis, wondering who she is as a person and how she can make a difference. She knows she wants to do good, but she can’t help but wonder if it’s for others or for herself. Because of this, she returns home early from humanitarian work abroad after realising people around her were only taking the opportunity to make themselves look good in the news. She proceeds to camp out in Bojack’s house for two months. Living on Bojack’s sofa, eating pizza all day, smoking, and making half-hearted attempts at thinking up new app ideas, it is visible that she is just trying to postpone life and its responsibilities as she tries to figure out who she is. But as the opposite to Bojack, she gets better.
Many characters in the show suffer from depression, yet they all experience it differently. This is rare in entertainment, with characters being given the same stereotypical depictions across various shows, but Bojack Horseman gives us the reality. It takes on different forms, it can happen to anyone and for many reasons. Bojack struggles mainly because his career has appeared to fail and he’s now realising all the chances he lost in being selfish. Diane is completely unsure of herself and the motives of everyone around her – even Diane’s brother-in-law (she is married to a dog, but you get used to it) is engulfed by depression as he loses all hope of life, love, and people as he gets ill with a twisted spleen. Some, like Diane and her brother-in-law, begin to get their hope back, they try to build themselves back up to the people they used to be and learn to live with their depression. Then there is Bojack.
Over the seasons, Bojack Horseman explores depression in a devastating way that television doesn’t often show, and especially in a cartoon. Through Bojack’s poor decision making we learn how mental illness can ruin friendships, careers, relationships, and take lives. Bojack allows his pain to throw him into a never-ending cycle of despair as his decisions hurt others.
Luckily, Bojack is often not a character we can entirely relate to, but Bojack is a warning; don’t let it consume you, don’t let it destroy you. If we reach out for the help when it is offered, we can be okay. We just need to remember to take it.