Tuned In: ‘BoJack Horseman’ Is A Surprisingly Honest And Insightful Look At Depression

From 'Friends' to 'Community', sitcoms are often stories of sadness in disguise.

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Tuned In is Junkee’s fortnightly TV column. This instalment has no spoilers, unless you would be feasibly fooled by three kids in a trenchcoat pretending to be an adult. Then you really only have yourself to blame.

Depression is many things, but it’s not cinematic. There’s the oft-used convention of a montage of a messy apartment, blinds down, empty bottles piling up, and an unwashed and unshaven hero sitting blankly in the middle of it all. Probably the blinking light of unanswered messages if the point really needs to be driven home. But all this lasts a minute or two, and then there’s a knock at the door which drags our hero out into the sun and back into action.

Anybody who has been depressed knows this is a fantasy. The doorknocks come, of course, in the form of worried friends and work opportunities and the things you used to enjoy, but you ignore them, don’t hear them, don’t connect what is waiting on the other side with any semblance of a meaningful and enjoyable life. If you’re going to get out of that dank room, you need to open the door yourself and be prepared to deal with the mess you made before you left.

There are two shows right now that deal with depression and disillusionment head-on. One is True Detective, whose characters are trying desperately to hold on to some sense of who they are amid losses of loved ones and pursued dreams and self-realisation. Their actors are dark eyed and wizened and drawl, seemingly too weighed down by the world to open their mouths. The other is a cartoon about an ex-sitcom star who coincidentally happens to be a horse, and is a far more nuanced, more sophisticated and more insightful look at depression than the former could ever hope to be.

BoJack Horseman‘s second season was released on Friday, Netflix style, perfect for shutting the door on the world and consuming whole, as depressed people are likely to do. Episode by episode, it’s hilarious; Will Arnett, Amy Sedaris, Paul F Tompkins and Alison Brie are the main cast; Kristen Schall, Amy Schumer, Ben Schwartz and Ricky Gervais make appearances; and line for line it’s the best gag machine on TV at the moment (unless you count Modern Family’s incessant stream of tepid one-liners, in which case thanks for coming, the door’s right over there).

BoJack is the remnants of a star from cheesy sitcom Horsing Around. He’s gotten older and fatter, as washed up people are wont to do. His perfect, smiling, beloved TV children are grown, and hate each other. His on-again, off-again girlfriend/agent Princess Carolyn (a cat, if interspecies relationships are your thing) wants him to commit to her, despite not liking him very much, and is lonely and confused enough to date three children stacked up in a trenchcoat, ‘Vincent Adultman’. (“He has a full time job at the business factory!”) He’s in love with his biographer, Diane, despite it being her job to pick apart the threads that hold him together and reveal the worn-out stuffing underneath. (This metaphor works best if you imagine him as a toy horse. Otherwise it’s just pretty weird.)

Comedies are generally about family, in one way or another. Of course there’s a fair share of people who are actually related (I Love Lucy, The Addams Family, Full House, Family Ties, all the way through to Everybody Loves Raymond and Two and a Half Men) but more often, at least lately, it’s about a motley bunch of people who find each other and form a family of their own creation; Community, The Big Bang Theory, Friends and the like all feature characters who have glommed together as a defence mechanism against an often-hostile world. Despite being comedies, there’s a fear of loneliness at their core.

The show that best typifies this is Cheers, which is on its surface is a cheerful workplace drama with all the tropes of the genre; the fish out of water, the will-they-or-won’t-they tension, the sassy waitstaff and the collection of wacky side-characters. Spend a little more time in that bar though, and look into their eyes; these people spend every night drinking with people they don’t know from work, or through other friends, or from their life outside the bar at all. They come because those traditional structures of emotional support have failed to do the job. In being the place whose defining feature is everybody knowing your name, the theme tune raises the possibility that it may be the only place like that for these people.

BoJack’s characters are not a family, and never will be. There are too many missed connections based on unequal affection, too many links where the fear of isolation is far too prevalent. BoJack, even with his supporting cast, is alone, sitting in his luxury fishbowl of an apartment, looking down on the city full of people, trapped behind glass. Having a book written about him forces him to confront an ugly truth that he has made a mess of his life and the lives of people around him.

This is one of the lies depression likes to whisper in your ear, late at night. The life that came before it, the one where you were happy and surrounded by warmth — that was all fake, and you could live it by pretending you were a different person. In BoJack’s world this is literal; his former life was actually fake, existing as it did on a TV set, and he genuinely was a terrible person (or horse, if you will) pretending to be good.

And now, like everyone who is trapped in their own fishbowl, he knows his chickens have finally come home to roost. “This is who you really are,” they whisper, “sitting here in your own filth, and now everybody knows it.” And you know they know it. So what are you going to do about it? Are you ready to open the door?

BoJack Horseman is available on Netflix. The first two series are out now.

Maddie Palmer is a writer, broadcaster, TV and digital producer. She tweets from @msmaddiep.