Why the profound sadness of an animated anthropomorphic horse is a public service.

“BoJack Horseman” is currently the best show on television about depression and fame, which is all the more surprising given that the protagonist is a washed-up former sitcom star in the form of a hard-partying anthropomorphic horse. Situating himself in the canon of antiheroes like Don Draper of “Mad Men,” Walter White of “Breaking Bad,” and Tony Soprano of “The Sopranos,” BoJack is as likable as he is detestable, moving between seemingly endless benders and moments of constructive insight throughout a show that is presumably about his comeback.

In the world of the animated show, which is currently in its third season on Netflix, half of the characters in a not-too-fictional Hollywood are animals, while the rest are just normal cartoon humans. Staples of high society and pop culture are made into animal jokes whenever possible, such as “Manatee Fair” magazine or BoJack’s publishing agent for his memoir being an anxious penguin of Penguin Random House.

The show features a star-studded cast, with Will Arnett playing BoJack, J.K. Simmons as the skeptical producer Lenny Turteltaub, Alison Brie as BoJack’s ghostwriter Diane Nguyen, and Aaron Paul as BoJack’s freeloading roommate Todd Chavez, and not to mention the numerous stars, such as Daniel Radcliffe, who have made cameo appearances on the show as either themselves or an animal version of themselves.

Beneath the glitz of the cast and the trippy animation lies a constant struggle in BoJack to find fulfillment in life. As viewers, we are often aligned with the journalists and friends of BoJack who are perpetually trying to figure out who he really is. The pilot of the show opens with BoJack being interviewed by Charlie Rose, which turns out to be one in a series of colossal failures for this one-trick pony. By season three, BoJack is asked by a Manatee Fair reporter what comes next in his career. “What’s next?” BoJack frantically replies. “Why does there always have to be a next?”

BoJack’s search for fulfillment is never fully resolved. Sometimes his 1,200-pound stallion desires are fulfilled, but only temporarily. Other times, BoJack is worse off seeking pleasure than he would have been simply not deciding to do anything at all. If this sounds a lot like Hamlet, you might be right, but please don’t quote this aspiring young journalist on that.

It’s important to keep in mind that the show is ostensibly about a memoir that a depressed BoJack thinks will resurrect his career. Even after his ghostwritten memoir is published, the viewer still gains tiny insights into BoJack’s past in the form of flashbacks, often into his childhood where we get to see his deplorable parents. In season three, these flashbacks are broadened out to specific years, like 2007, making fun of quintessentially 2007 things, like Uggs or new HD-DVD players. Beneath the satire, however, is a deep examination of temporality.

Something BoJack constantly wonders about is when exactly his career, and by extension his life, began to go downhill. In these flashbacks set in the early 2000s, we see BoJack repeating the same destructive behavior that brings him to the brink in the present. One profoundly sad example that extends beyond his behavior alone is a flashback to him sleeping with his future agent, Princess Carolyn, who swears that she won’t let herself be single and sleeping around at age 40 because of her career, when that’s exactly where she stands in season three. BoJack’s flashbacks argue that it is not the conditions of the past that determine future outcomes, but rather the decisions we constantly make in the present, whether we have control over them or not.

Perhaps the boldest technique used in season three can be found in episode four, which is almost entirely without dialogue and serves as an homage to silent cinema. BoJack finds himself lost in translation under the sea at a film festival where “Secretariat” is being shown, with an oxygen helmet separating him from communicating with anyone. Frustrated with his inability to apologize to his former director at the festival, BoJack is carried away on a bus packed with a school of fish—who hang onto hooks rather than handrails inside the bus—and falls asleep, only to wake up in a distant, rural, no-fish’s land of the ocean. There, he takes after a young seahorse, and for once we see that BoJack may have paternal potential. The episode features a beautiful soundtrack and a surreal landscape that augments the plot, so if you only have a chance to watch one episode, make episode four the one.

The series takes a dark turn after its midpoint, mostly involving the Britney Spears parallel character, Sarah Lynn, who played BoJack’s adopted daughter on BoJack’s sitcom, “Horsin’ Around,” and later burnt out in her career as more of a sex symbol than a movie star. BoJack’s paternal side is put in rather Freudian terms when it comes to Sarah Lynn, and unfortunately, BoJack does not take care of her in the way that he does for the young seahorse. The psychological anguish that comes with BoJack and his romances—especially with Sarah Lynn and Charlotte Moore—is unparalleled in its depiction with perhaps the only exception being “You’re The Worst,” airing on FX. BoJack carries an emotional weight that for some reason is made all the more powerful by the fact that he’s not even a human, at least in the way that we think we know humans.

Besides being funny and sad, “BoJack Horseman” does a public service by examining mental health, emotional anguish, and ephemeral fulfillment in a way that no other show can.

  • Aldous Huxley

    Very well thought out and thought provoking article. The show is indeed amazingly complex. I also enjoy Always Sunny in Philadelphia and if you have never seen the Movie Idiocracy- I strongly recommend that you do soon. Lastly, Narcos, season 1 and 2 are excellent.