Contains spoilers for BoJack Horseman Season 5.
Plenty of modern TV shows depict or are driven by the mental health problems of their characters. Girls, Fleabag and Crazy Ex Girlfriend follow the chaotic lives of (mainly middle-class white) young women with personality disorders; End of the F***ing World and 13 Reasons Why take radically different but equally intense approaches to teen trauma; This is Us, Mr. Robot and Homeland are underpinned by anxiety, dissociation and bipolar respectively.
Though not without their complications, shows like these mark a turning of the tide away from ridiculous stereotypes – your "tragic heroines" like The OC’s Marissa Cooper or The L Word’s Jenny Schecter, and the "difficult genius" leading men of Sherlock, House and Dexter – and towards moving portrayals of mental illnesses. The more socially accepted ones, at least.
Enter BoJack Horseman: the cartoon dramedy about a celebrity horse that changed everything.
Premiering on Netflix in 2014, BoJack Horseman is about a hubristic former sitcom star who smokes too much, drinks too much, has sex with everyone and is awful. An equine Charlie Harper, essentially. Ostensibly, the show is a crafty satire of Hollywood in which humans and anthropomorphic animals co-exist for reasons unexplained. It has its fair share of physical comedy, pop culture references and a notable character who is three kids stacked on top of each other in a trench coat masquerading as an adult. But BoJack doesn’t fall into the same trappings as other adult animated sitcoms – Bob's Burgers, Rick and Morty, The Venture Bros – whose weightier moments are usually few and far between, or undercut by their overall bro-y tone. An honesty and compassion grounds BoJack as it navigates issues ranging from addiction to infertility, and that sets it apart – not just within animation, but on TV in general.
After its second season, The New Yorker heralded it as "one of the wisest, most emotionally ambitious" shows around. But its impact is perhaps better summarised by a recent comment left under a YouTube compilation titled "BoJack Horseman Top 10 Depressing Moments", which simply says: "Oh God."
Now in its fifth season, BoJack has only got deeper and darker. The new episodes grapple with grief, opioid addiction and, despite being written several months ahead of the Harvey Weinstein allegations last October, manages to summarise the fallout of #MeToo in a single line of dialogue ("There's no such thing as bad guys or good guys … All we can do is try to do less bad stuff and more good stuff"). Beyond meta-commentary, though, BoJack has brought something uniquely valuable to the way mental health is represented on TV because it visualises not only how depression can appear from the outside, but how it can feel. While live action dramas are in some ways limited by the parameters of logic, animation has more leeway to manifest emotions that are often abstract. BoJack is able to capture something deeply realistic about depression precisely because its environment isn't.
Whether it's the representation of BoJack's mother’s dementia (S4E11), in which faces are blurred out or scribbled over; the hallucinatory violence of a particularly heavy drug bender (S1E11); or an opioid-induced breakdown that causes BoJack to confuse his reality with scenes from the TV show he's shooting (S5E11), animation is consistently experimented with to simulate experiences and emotions that the viewer may or may not have reference points for. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never smashed a cocktail of so many drugs that sense and memory go out the window, for example, because watching a bugged-out cartoon horse wash his face and then look in the mirror to see the reflection of a real horse ought to make you feel similarly disoriented.
In his 2017 book, The Weird and the Eerie, Mark Fisher defines the weird as "that which does not belong", while the eerie indicates an absence where you would usually expect presence or vice versa (e.g. "the unseeing eyes of the dead", an abandoned village). These are qualities Fisher mostly ascribes to written fiction, sci-fi films and David Lynch, but you could just as easily pick them out in BoJack at its bleakest.
Fundamentally, BoJack is weird. It takes a setting (Hollywood) that we recognise because it exists, and fills it with creations that are alien. Combine that with the fact that it’s a cartoon, and everything feels inherently detached and silly; the laws that would usually apply to that setting become obsolete. So when the characters do something distressing – run their car off the road, strangle their partner, die – it hits you harder than it would in a live action series that more closely resembles our reality, because you’re not led to expect it.
BoJack also leans towards the eerie, and that’s where the representations of abstract emotion tend to come through. In the same way Bob in Twin Peaks is scarier than the the Zodiac Killer in American Horror Story, BoJack’s exploration of issues through the surreal while having a foothold in reality is what makes it so affecting. Although it’s formatted like a typical sitcom, it’s styled like a graphic novel, lulling you into a false sense of security on both sides. The impact of watching depression, or addiction, or dementia, or the knock-on effects of childhood trauma, or gendered violence unfold is greater because you have to suspend disbelief to invest in the universe in the first place. Flashes of our own reality, then, sneak up on us.
Speaking to Vanity Fair about a scene in season five where Bojack strangles his co-star and girlfriend, Gina, producer and production designer Lisa Hanawalt said, "I still find [the scene] really, really upsetting […] Even more so because animation is seen as almost childlike in a way. So whenever the cartoons do something super-real like that, it’s almost even more upsetting."
The fact is, it’'s difficult to make mental distress visually interesting. Speaking to VICE last year, Jenni Regan – senior media advisor at mental health charity Mind, who works directly with soaps and dramas – said, "Depression is so boring to show. If someone is depressed they don't want to do very much – they want to stay under a duvet, and that's not very dramatic." According to Regan, soaps and dramas are constantly searching for plots that feel "dramatic without the stigmatising knock-on effect".
Animation side-steps that problem entirely. It can play with formats that either wouldn’t work or would come off as cheesy if they were done with people. The season four episode "Stupid Piece of Shit" gives voice to BoJack’s inner monologue through crude illustration as he relentlessly castigates himself throughout the day, accurately depicting a massive aspect of depression that most shows are unable to capture: that what's said or done often doesn’t reflect what’s being thought or felt. Conversely, though it may have its fair share of doled out wisdom, the heart of BoJack Horseman is frequently found in moments that are shown rather than articulated.
One of its most critically acclaimed episodes – "Fish Out Of Water", in which BoJack tries to reunite a baby seahorse with its parent and apologise to a director he'd gotten fired – contains no spoken dialogue. The episode takes place underwater at the Pacific Ocean Film Fest. Isolated in an environment where he can’t communicate or fall back on his usual coping mechanisms (scathing comments can’t be made; cigarettes, obviously, can’t be lit; when he tries to drink, the contents of his flask float away into the sea), BoJack is forced to reckon with how he actually feels. Twenty minutes of silence would have been difficult to sustain without the detail and intrigue in the animation (which is foregrounded in place of the show's usual witty dialogue in a similar vein to Walt Disney's Laugh-O-grams), let alone make several metatextual points about pain and loneliness.
BoJack Horseman isn’t the only cartoon to accurately depict complex emotional states through the surreal. Adventure Time became increasingly devastating over its ten season arc, dealing with themes of identity, sexuality and death despite being aimed primarily at children (and stoners). The Cartoon Network mini-series Over The Garden Wall is a fairytale about two half-brothers trying to find their way home through a supernatural forest. With moody skies, looming trees and an autumnal colour palette, it mixes a melancholic visual style with elements of folklore to vividly convey vague emotions. Rather than a cartoon's typically dramatic stations of anger, fear or joy, Over The Garden Wall is full of anxiety, embarrassment and worry. That atmosphere of uncertainty is cultivated on purpose to capture what goes on between being faced with something, and reacting to it. In this case it's the pause between life and death, childhood and adulthood, optimism and realism. Taking a slightly less haunting route, Netflix’s Big Mouth manifests the forces of puberty as giant, horny monsters – functioning not only as an educational show but as a comedy that takes the stigma away from talking about boners and periods by making them funny.
BoJack is different because it inhabits a specifically adult universe. While Adventure Time, Over The Garden Wall and Big Mouth navigate existential themes with a sense of hope and bravery particular to childhood, BoJack is the crushing blow of disappointment dealt to us by adulthood packaged as a fun cartoon. It shows us the dark corridor without the comfort of a light at the end. After five seasons of cyclical behaviour you’re left wondering if BoJack – a character you’re supposed to recognise but not idolise – is doomed to repeat the same narrative forever, the same way Dale Cooper is left suspended in several different worlds, doomed not to save Laura Palmer in any of them.
There are some issues, feelings or states of mind that can feel so grim it’s difficult to confront them head on. You need to cushion them with a joke or a fictional universe or by making the words come out of a horse in a Cosby sweater. Through its childlike qualities, BoJack offers the safety of distance it sometimes takes to properly communicate something. But the fear creeps in – as it always does – through the weird and the eerie.