Spoilers ahead for BoJack Horseman.
Years into America’s deadliest drug-overdose crisis, characters struggling to overcome addiction have become a TV staple. Hyperrealistic dramas like Nurse Jackie (opioids and benzos) and Breaking Bad (meth) portrayed the desperation and havoc of chaotic drug use, while the horrors of addiction are usually depicted through physical torture: crippling withdrawal symptoms, insomnia, and sores and scars on the body.
When shows have turned their focus to recovery from addiction, like in Netflix’s Flaked and CBS’ Mom, it’s rightly depicted as stressful and uncertain. But few shows offer a critique of how America treats addiction, both clinically and culturally. Netflix’s BoJack Horseman, a brightly colored cartoon about a literal horse-man, manages to humanize addiction while satirizing treatment-industry tropes that pervade the genre.
The agony of BoJack’s boozing and pill-popping is palpable across the show’s six seasons, as is the mess he makes in the lives of those around him, but it’s balanced by humor and a biting satire of the for-profit treatment industry. Whether BoJack is drinking or not is almost beside the point: His growth as a character is less about being abstinent from all drugs and more about confronting trauma and trying to mend broken relationships.
The show’s two-part final season opens with BoJack (Will Arnett), a washed-up ’90s sitcom actor, undergoing a stint of absurdly unscientific addiction treatment at Pastiches Malibu. While struggling to maintain his newfound sobriety, BoJack is haunted by a tragedy from his past: the death of his former Horsin’ Around co-star, Sarah Lynn (Kristen Schaal), who fatally overdosed on his stash of heroin. It’s not just a celebrity story line, but one that tens of thousands of people experience in America. Each and every overdose affects numerous loved ones, and added to the guilt and blame felt in the aftermath, people often want to know who’s responsible and then punish them. It’s a gutsy story line to pursue.
Criticism of the billion-dollar for-profit rehab industry starts the very moment BoJack walks through the door. A receptionist says, “You can’t put a price on clean living!” Well, you can, and the “six-week package” costs BoJack $100,000. In treatment, BoJack tries to participate in preposterous therapies: “Hike therapy,” “yoga therapy,” and “plant therapy.” (Detoxing and shaky, he breaks a vase during “art therapy.”) The rehab satire continues during “horse therapy,” a play on the very real and ridiculous “equine therapy,” where people pet horses on Malibu ranches. But as BoJack’s therapist, Doctor Champ (Sam Richardson), says, “I’m not a therapist! I’m a therapy horse, a subtle but legally important distinction.”
The absurdity is all too real. According to a 2017 investigation by the Orange County Register, “no degree, medical or otherwise” is required to open a rehab center in California, even though the consensus view in medicine defines addiction as a brain disease best treated by therapy and medication. BoJack is rightly calling out the rehab industry, which is rife with fraud and hucksters and marketed as a sunny vacation with posh amenities, promising vulnerable people that for a sizable investment and just 30 or 90 days, their addiction will be treated.
Unlike BoJack, most TV shows rarely question the standard formula for treatment: detox, 28 days, and keep going to AA meetings. In the first season of Netflix’s You, for instance, a character with an opioid addiction is locked in a cage to detox without her consent. After days of agony, she thanks her capturer, and the viewer is left to believe that she has kicked her addiction. A more likely outcome of coerced treatment is going right back to using, and if opioids are the issue, then that could be fatal.
Reality TV is even worse. Since 2005, A&E’s Intervention has celebrated the for-profit rehab industry. The more expensive, confrontational, and dramatic, the better, never mind the terrible success rates and rejection of best medical practices. In VH1’s Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew — who, unlike Doctor Champ, is an actual doctor — celebrities sat in a circle and discussed their so-called rock bottoms. Dr. Drew ended Celebrity Rehab after six seasons, largely due to the numerous deaths of those that he treated; in 2018, California’s health department shut down the facility where the show was filmed after a string of patient deaths.
BoJack rejects the central tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous that are preached by the likes of Dr. Drew. “While we’re at it,” BoJack says, “why 12 Steps? That’s way too many. Nobody wants to do 12 of anything.” BoJack rants to his therapy horse: “I came here to take responsibility for myself, and all I keep hearing is that it’s not your fault, you’re powerless over your addiction!” Later, in a post-rehab interview, BoJack is asked if Sarah Lynn’s death was his rock bottom. “I don’t believe in rock bottoms. I had a lot of what I thought were rock bottoms only to discover that there were rockier bottoms underneath.” BoJack is right to reject the idea of “rock bottom.” When 70,000 people a year find fatal overdose as their rock bottom, it is past time that the term is retired, both in treatment and as a narrative device.
The back half of the show’s final season is about posttreatment BoJack, and the conflicts in his life that make him reach for alcohol and pills. He gets a job as an acting professor at Wesleyan University, looking for a simpler life outside of Hollywoo. He is abstinent, goes to AA meetings, and focuses on his students’ theater production. But the consequences of his actions from years of addiction are still very much alive — so is the loneliness that led him to find comfort in drugs in the first place.
When the past comes to haunt him in the form of reporters digging into Sarah Lynn’s death, BoJack is confronted with whether he can really own who he is. “Since I got out of rehab, I have been on my best behavior,” he says. “They can’t get me on old shit! I’m a different person now.” It seems wholly unfair to BoJack that his past is fair game while he’s trying to change. He makes that case in a string of exclusive, tell-all interviews, revealing how he lied to the cops and his best friends about where Sarah Lynn got the heroin and the circumstances in which he found her.
BoJack is torn. He wants to own his actions and take responsibility while also feeling like he doesn’t deserve to pay for old BoJack’s sins. But the truth BoJack confronts is that he’s not a different person. Whether he’s sober and nurturing his acting students or giving drugs and alcohol to high-school students on prom night, it’s all him. What the show understands is that overcoming addiction is about much more than detox and treatment and AA meetings. The real addiction story is about learning to be okay with who you are, and living life without the tools of anesthesia to escape pain.
The pain became too much for BoJack. After the world sees his manipulative and abusive side, including a Me Too reckoning with his treatment of women, BoJack is left alone. He starts drinking again. While drunk, he breaks into his old house, scours the medicine cabinet, and ends up facedown in the pool — unclear if accidentally or in a suicide attempt. All the satire and humor in BoJack doesn’t mean that the stakes for using again aren’t high.
Still, the show neglects another critical aspect of the issue: harm reduction, a radically different perspective of addiction that saves lives. Unlike Euphoria, which deftly dramatizes harm-reduction views, BoJack misses several opportunities to do so. The question that surrounds Sarah Lynn’s death is “Who gave her the heroin?” — a hint to the troubling trend of prosecutors charging people, usually friends and family, with murder for sharing heroin. But the question that no character asks BoJack is “Why didn’t you have naloxone?” It’s the antidote that reverses opioid overdoses, and it is readily available all around the country (or at least it’s supposed to be). It’s the drug that saved Demi Lovato’s life and countless others. A show trying to reflect the realities of addiction should’ve nailed this.
In the final scene of the show, while BoJack is on furlough from jail for breaking into his old home, his onetime best friend Diane (Alison Brie) tells him, “Sometimes life’s a bitch and then you keep living.” There are over 20 million people in America who are in recovery today. They survived their addictions. After all of BoJack’s self-destruction, fueled by his longing to be loved, you get the sense that he will go on living, too. His “recovery” is far more complex than simply not drinking. It’s about confronting who he is.