Mental health issues have been a punchline in sitcoms since the dawn of television, but recently, they’ve been having a real moment. Writers and comedians are turning to the dark side of comedy to explore mental illness in increasingly compassionate ways, and one of the best examples of the form is, oddly enough, a cartoon about an aging celebrity who’s half man, half horse.
BoJack Horseman’s third season starts streaming on Netflix today. We haven’t seen it, but if the last two seasons are anything to go by, we’re expecting heartbreak. Yes, the show has its wacky moments–and plenty of them– but while BoJack (voiced by Will Arnett) is never specifically diagnosed, he and the people around him cope with issues that are often painfully familiar. BoJack mourns his lost celebrity. He lashes out at the people around him and fails them when they need him. He isn’t particularly likable, but he’s not at his best. His roommate Todd (Aaron Paul) can’t seem to get his life together, and never manages to get the approval he so desperately needs. BoJack’s ghostwriter, Diane (Alison Brie) tries to live a good, authentic life, but her struggles with imposter syndrome and impossible expectations leave her on unsteady ground. His agent, Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) struggles with loneliness. Even the bubbly, irrepressible golden retriever Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins) has a dark side.
Because the show is serialized, with plots that carry on between episodes, BoJack often winds up dealing with the unpleasant consequences of his actions — and so do his friends. It isn’t easy to watch, and it’s never particularly uplifting, but it can be satisfying to see the complicated reality of unacknowledged depression portrayed onscreen, especially when there’s always a laugh waiting around the corner to ease the darkness.
VICE spoke with show creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg about BoJack Horseman’s portrayal of mental health issues, and teased out some valuable insights:
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.
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.
BoJack Horseman can be streamed on Netflix, and season 3 is available now. The show regularly deals with dark subject matter, including sexual harassment, suicide, violence and substance abuse.