BoJack Horseman, Netflix's cartoon look at the life of a washed-up, '90s sitcom star horse doesn't advertise itself as a show you could conceivably cry over. Silliness abounds. BoJack Horseman's (Will Arnett) agent and ex-girlfriend, Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) is literally dating three kids stacked on top of each other in a trench coat. His roommate Todd (Aaron Paul) writes a rock opera set in space with "heavy erotic overtones." A David Boreanaz dummy made largely of salami makes an appearance in one episode. You get the picture.
As the first season wears on, the gags keep coming, but sadness starts creeping in. BoJack repeatedly takes drugs, undercuts his friends, fuels his own narcissism and sabotages his own career. By season's end, BoJack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg offers a responsible portrayal of depression that's both impressive and uncommon in pop culture.
Consider the narrow-mindedness of archetypical looks at depression. Garden State's Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) takes medication to manage his clinical depression. That is, until he falls in love and miraculously sheds his problems. During most of the film, Andrew is melancholy, uncommunicative and on edge. Somehow, he spins those qualities into quirk and sex appeal, as if every depressed person is just waiting for Natalie Portman to come along.
There's another approach to depicting depression on screen that's wildly different, but equally illogical. Young Adult features Charlize Theron as Mavis Gay, a divorced ghost writer in the throes of depression and alcoholism. Where Andrew's problems add to his charm, Gay's make the other characters see her as psychotic, reckless and needy. She seemingly can't go anywhere without ruining someone else's day.
The truth of depression, of course, is somewhere in between these two perspectives. It's not glamorous, but it's also not typically volatile. That's where BoJack comes in with a healthy, sobering take.
One of the biggest factors in the show's nuanced outlook is the structural continuity. In a lot of shows (think: Seinfeld) each episode ends as it began, in terms of how the characters feel about each other. The writers hit a giant reset button, ensuring Kramer won't stay mad at Jerry, George won't have a life-long girlfriend and everyone will continue to congregate at the diner. Problems are started and solved in 22 minutes flat.
BoJack shirks this strategy almost to an extreme. Continuity is everything. There's a comic advantage to this, of course. When BoJack steals a letter off of a Los Angeles cultural landmark, Hollywood hilariously becomes "Hollywoo" in all mentions. But besides being amusing, continuity at this level of detail provides another purpose: accountability.
BoJack must live and grapple with reminders of his past mistakes and failures from episode to episode, sending the firm message that depression and its effects are not transient or escapable. People don't forgive and forget overnight. The show doesn't peddle unearned bliss for BoJack, or, for that matter, anybody else.
This idea so deeply ingrained in the show that it's furthered even by minor characters, like Diane's ex-boyfriend.
"We're cynical and we're sad and we're mean," Wayne tells Diane. "There's a darkness inside you. And you can bury it deep in burritos as big as your head, but some day soon that darkness is gonna come out."
And BoJack's darkness does come out in full force. He routinely does things that perpetuate his own loneliness, in not opening up to his ghostwriter Diane (Alison Brie) or Todd, in continually rejecting Mr. Peanutbutter's earnest attempts at friendship. He has meaningless sex instead of cultivating close relationships.
Margaret Lyons of Vulture nails the significance of showing BoJack's detachment on TV:
We're seeing BoJack's mean streak in these moments, sure, but we're also seeing how detached he is, that weird delay between saying something and realizing you're saying it. That's depression! Alienation of self is a classic manifestation of depression! And not that clichéd, fake-ass TV depression of just laying on the couch for an afternoon. The real, life-altering, is-this-who-I-am kind. This is so rarely articulated or portrayed on TV in any way; somehow a cartoon horse dude is teaching us about ourselves, you guys.
Most people with depression are quite likable. BoJack is no exception. When he puts his mind to acting, he's actually quite good. He's also wickedly funny. But what grounds BoJack in reality is this: People don't help or necessarily even like BoJack just because he's fun to be around.
He's attracted to Diane, but Diane doesn't up and leave leave Mr. Peanutbutter for him. Princess Carolyn doesn't put her life on hold, waiting to see if she and BoJack can work things out.
This principle goes for his work life as well. Diane gets her way with BoJack's book, and the honest portrait she writes isn't the least bit flattering for him.
That BoJack's friends and colleagues don't coddle him when he's especially moody is the whole point. Depression, unfortunately, tends to be about suffering in silence — and, hopefully, eventually healing from within. It's hard to ask for help. Diane won't ever tell BoJack he's a good person, because he's not. His depression doesn't mean he deserves only saccharine interactions with her, nor does it mean she abandons him entirely. Diane is sensitive and honest, making the show infinitely more so.
When Diane and BoJack butt heads over the book release, she leans on the great reception her work is getting.
"See, people respond to the flawed portrait I painted of you. They see themselves in it."
Of course, Diane is exactly right. Readers in the world of the show can see BoJack fight just to stay relevant, get jobs and navigate friendships, which makes for an appealing, familiar account of a previously untouchable Hollywoo star. It also means, as real-life viewers, we too can see ourselves in BoJack.
Julie Kliegman is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. She contributes regularly to TheWeek.com, and has written for the Tampa Bay Times and PolifiFact. Follow @jmkliegman.