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How 'BoJack Horseman' Got So Good at Depicting Mental Illness

'BoJack Horseman' creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg told us BoJack could still bottom out. He's not sure yet.

Mike Pearl

Mike Pearl

'Bojack Horseman.' All images courtesy of Netflix

Netflix releases the third season of BoJack Horseman on Friday, July 22—a big relief to the poor souls who actually identify with the show's deeply unhappy protagonist. BoJack (voiced by Will Arnett) and his friends may live in a cartoon alternate universe where humans and bipedal animals with human bodies happily coexist and intermarry, but the inner struggles of those animal-people, and the fictional Los Angeles in which they live, reveal one melancholic truth after another about life in the 20-teens.

So when a horse-headed man drinks himself into oblivion while endlessly re-watching DVDs of himself at the height of his fame, it makes for a darkly funny tableau at first—something you might see any night of the week on Adult Swim. But unlike other recent dark comedy protagonists, BoJack craves deeper happiness, and he seems to know that finding it will be hard work.

Show creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg clearly wants the people on BoJack to be entertaining when they literally lose their minds, but he also keeps the scenes rooted in bone-deep humanity—or horsemanity, or whatever. We got in touch with Bob-Waksberg to ask how he pulls it all off, and to find out if season three will finally put BoJack on a path to inner peace.

VICE: Did you set out to make a show about mental illness?
Raphael Bob-Waksberg: I don't know if that was something we were really that conscious of when we were writing and pitching the show. The goal was never like, Let's really create an expose, let's really investigate this kind of thing, let's diagnose BoJack in a certain way. I think it was more about just trying to write this character truthfully, and taking him seriously. The idea [was to take] a character trope that is maybe a little archetypical, or that we've seen before, but really believing in it, and trying to be honest and respectful to it.

"I still don't know if we're telling the story of, ultimately, BoJack's redemption or more of BoJack bottoming out." —Raphael Bob-Waksberg

The first episode of BoJack placed that character trope front and center, and I remember that turning a lot of people off. Did that disappoint you?
The first episode has a two-minute scene between BoJack and Diane talking about the ephemeral nature of happiness, and it's like, "Yeah! That's the heart of the show." That's what we're interested in. And all the other stuff, of like BoJack having sex with a groupie, and him vomiting cotton candy over the side of a building—that's all fun and games. I think some people were looking in the wrong direction. I don't blame them, because why would they automatically know what we're trying to do?

Do you feel like the overall conversation around the show got more favorable after season two?
Actually, I've seen some reactions recently of people not liking the show that really excite me, because at least they're not liking the show for the right reasons. They get what we're trying to do, and they still don't like it, and I applaud those people. "It thinks it's so deep, but it's not actually that deep, and it's manipulative, it just kind of makes me sad, and it's not really funny." I'm just like, OK! That's a fair critique. Good. You gave it a fighting chance at least. You're not accusing it of being something that it's not trying to be. Or, you're not accusing it of doing a bad job of something it's not trying to be.

Will Arnett, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Paul F. Tompkins, Alison Brie, and Aaron Paul at the 'BoJack Horseman' special screening

BoJack feels like a lot of struggling people in my life who have crossed a line of destructive behavior and made me want to write them off. But BoJack doesn't quite cross that line. Do you walk that line on purpose?
I was talking to Michael Eisner [whose company finances the show] about this. We were talking about the character, and there's one joke, where he was like, "I think this is going too far."

Which joke?
I think it might have been the September 11 joke, in episode 104. That was so long ago. [But] he said the beauty of BoJack is exactly what you described—that he goes right up to the line but never crosses it. And it was in this conversation that I realized, no, actually, everything about the character is that he does cross the line, and then he crosses back, and then he crosses back, and you're never quite sure if you're supposed to "like" him or not.

Do you worry that BoJack will become one of those antihero men that have become kind of a new TV cliché?
I think there are a lot of shows like this—I don't want to single anyone out, but Californication, for example—where you have this kind of unlikable, asshole character, but he's also, like, really cool. And you like him, and you're into it. I wanted BoJack to be more of a cautionary figure than someone that you aspire to be.

In your own mind, do you know where BoJack's mental and emotional problems come from?
I don't think there is one origin. Something that we have tried to explore is that there are lots of explanations for why BoJack is the way he is, and there isn't just one interpretation. I always think that's really lazy, when I'm watching a TV show or a movie or something, and there's a flashback and the idea is, "This one moment is the reason that everything happened. This character saw this guy, and this guy said this thing to him, and that's why he is this way."

Because I think in real life, it's not so one-to-one.

"You see him working at things and he is doing work on himself, but there is always going to be that backslide."

But to be specific, his mother's insanely high expectations, and Secretariat's suicide had a major effect, right?
One thing we're trying to show is that a lot of stuff that's happened to BoJack—both as an adult and as a kid, and whatever is in his genetic makeup already—combine to make him who he is. Some good things, and some bad things. We're not necessarily pointing at one thing and saying, "This is why. This is where this comes from. This is why somebody feels inadequate or self-loathing or self-aggrandizing; this is what makes someone like this." To me that feels lazy, but also convenient—I understand why writers do it, because it can make for a cool moment.

BoJack has had some false starts, but when we last saw him, that baboon had just told him running gets easier, but you have to do it every day, and it seems like BoJack really took that to heart. Is he on a real path to happiness in season three?
I think if you watch season three, you'd have to say no, unfortunately. I think you can see in the beginning of this season, him trying to be better in small ways—as opposed to the beginning of season two, where he just kind of refreshed his whole life and thought that would be the answer. You see him working at things, and he is doing work on himself, but there is always going to be that backslide. I think, really, what the baboon is telling him, is that it's more complicated than just a straight path up a hill. That it is very two steps forward, one step back, eight steps forward, eight steps back.

Is BoJack necessarily headed in a better direction at all?
I still don't know if we're telling the story of, ultimately, BoJack's redemption or more of BoJack bottoming out. That is what's kind of exciting about this show—the audience not necessarily knowing where we're going. I have a little bit of an idea of what story I want to tell ultimately, but I don't want to give that away and hopefully, we'll be on the air for many years, and the story we're telling is a long one, but it's not as simple as: BoJack gets a pep talk from a baboon, and then he's on the up and up, and everything's going to be fine.

Last question: I've been worried about Mr. Peanutbutter ever since he punched that mirror. Does he have rage problems?
That also is for the audience to decide. What his problems are, I leave that up to you.

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BoJack Horseman season three premieres on July 22 on Netflix.