BoJack Horseman is a weird cartoon about a washed-up sitcom star (who’s a horse), a snappy social criticism of the entertainment industry, and the kind of in-jokey cartoon designed to tickle the internet. It’s also one of the most aggressive portraits of depression I think I’ve ever seen. Look past the anthropomorphic animal characters and the satire of toxic celebrity culture: This show is radically sad. I love it.
Netflix’s BoJack is about BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett), the onetime star of the ‘90s sitcom Horsin’ Around, but now a vaguely, persistently miserable louche. He’s supposed to be writing a memoir, partially at the insistence of his agent, a cat named Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris); partially at the insistence of his publisher, a penguin named Pinky Penguin (Patton Oswalt, in one of many roles on the show); and partially because, well, what else is he doing? Eventually, he hires Dianne (Alison Brie), a ghostwriter and regular human, to help — only the two become way more than memoirist and ghostwriter. Unfortunately for BoJack, Diane’s with Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), BoJack’s golden retriever rival. Mr. Peanutbutter’s also kind of a dum-dum.
Mr. Peanutbutter: We are calling [my new VH1 show] Peanutbutter and Jelly. Get it? Because I’m Mr. Peanutbutter!
BoJack: Okay, who’s jelly?
Mr. Peanutbutter: No, no, no. It’s like a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. It’s wordplay.
BoJack: You may have too forgiving a definition of the word wordplay.
Mr. Peanutbutter: Well, it’s a working title.
BoJack: Well, it could be working harder. [Beat] And that’s wordplay.
BoJack’s funny and smart, but he’s also unbelievably lonely — so lonely that he sabotages his sort-of-assistant Todd’s (Aaron Paul) rock opera so Todd won’t be able to leave his side. (The first draft of the rock opera is bad, though. “That was, and I don’t say this lightly, worse than a hundred September 11ths,” BoJack tells Todd.) At every opportunity to be kind or supportive or even neutral, BoJack winds up being abrasive, cruel, or damaging, sometimes on purpose, but not always. The relatively bare-bones animation emphasizes these moments where BoJack loses control of his nastiness; his eyes bulge a little, shocked by his own reflexive awfulness, but then he retreats, eyes relax, and he doubles down, insisting that he’s merely stating the facts, that he doesn’t care if he hurts anyone, that he’s just being honest or whatever. 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.
In addition to its frighteningly accurate portrayal of clinical depression, BoJack has lots of jokes. Thank God! Otherwise this would probably be the saddest fever-dream in the world. Some of the jokes pertain to the particular species of animal — Princess Carolyn’s hold music at her office is “Jellicle Cats,” a Navy SEAL is a seal, etc. There are tons of Easter egg jokes, with setups in the first two episodes and a payoff that doesn’t show up until episode 10 or 11, plus some pretty obscure references: BoJack et al. are at a party, rattling off the stars they see. “And that’s Ubu, the guy who sits!” one of them says. We hear an offscreen bark. “He is a good dog.” (“Sit, Ubu, sit” was the title card for Gary David Goldberg’s production company. You might recognize it from the end of Family Ties.) That’s one of two Ubu jokes in the series.
BoJack’s deep despondence gets hidden in a sea of strangeness — a sea that includes a bizarro-world version of Margo Martindale, a pop song called “Prickly Muffin,” and a character who’s literally three children standing on each other’s shoulders. There are so many background jokes and one-liners and silly animals that the show’s emotional depth caught me by surprise, and I didn’t pick up on it in the first few episodes. Over the course of the 12-episode season, though, the pattern emerged over and over; jokes and sorrow, jokes and sorrow. When BoJack appears on a cable news show, the ticker across the bottom includes items like “Milk, milk, lemonade, around the corner — gentrification?,” “UN declares war good for absolutely nothing, says it again,” and “AIDS still a thing.” And then, buried among these gems, is “I wanted to write novels, you know.” Everywhere you turn, someone’s struggling. A horse sitcom actor. A ghostwriter who’s worried she’s not making a difference. A nameless, faceless entity typing out the tickers for cable news shows. Everybody, maybe.