How ‘BoJack Horseman’ Grew From a Forgettable Animated Comedy Into TV’s Best Exploration of Depression

The first season of BoJack Horseman was a slow burn. Admittedly, I wasn’t a huge fan of the first few episodes, which relied too heavily on animated characters being raunchy, and took shots at Hollywood that felt trite and overdone. But when the series got good, it got really good — and also remarkably, hilariously depressing. 

That’s what sold me on BoJack Horseman during the second half of the first season: its careful, honest, and yes, funny, depiction of depression. As the show progressed into finding its footing and committing to a real, up-and-down emotional plot, rather than just repeating the usual beats of “adult” animated comedies, it grew from a forgettable comedy into one of the greatest shows on television. BoJack became more than a typical washed-up sitcom star (albeit a washed-up equine sitcom star) as he navigated his life and relationships, sabotaging both himself and others around him.

The second season of BoJack Horseman(some slight spoilers ahead, of course) is nothing short of a triumph. The silly gags are still there — some of my favorites include Todd’s ill-advised homemade Disneyland death trap and Mr. Peanutbutter’s misunderstanding that Diane’s desire for a ballroom means she wants a giant ball pit akin to a Discovery Zone (“I went balls-to-the-wall for this party!”) — and so are the puns you feel guilty laughing at, like the magazine  Manatee Fair or a Goatful Dead T-shirt, as well as the cheap banner gags. In fact, practically everything in the background is worth mentioning; the attention to detail by the artists/animators is fascinating and impressive, upping the series’ rewatch value. There are still lovely throwaway moments that rely on the characters’ true animal nature (Princess Carolyn has a cat tree on her desk at work, Mr. Peanutbutter temporarily wears a cone around his neck so he doesn’t bite at his stitches) and shockingly funny lines that come out of nowhere (“I gotta go get my blowhole bleached”).

bojac_ps2_013_hAlso still here, of course, are the pitch-perfect send-ups of Hollywoo(d) stories, which have become more finely honed and specific than they were in the first season. There’s BoJack’s co-star, an adorable child star turned death-defying adult drug addict (another instance of a character masking their sadness; BoJack’s preference is booze and horse tranquilizers), along with an insider look at agents-to-the-stars and stressful movie sets, with a particular emphasis on women directors’ frustrating career trajectories. BoJack Season 2 even includes a brilliant episode that parallels the stories of Bill Cosby and David Letterman: Hank Hippopopalous is accused — by multiple women — of sexual misconduct, but it’s Diane (who brought up the well-known accusations) who is treated with vicious hatred. In this familiar scenario, the victims are slut-shamed while Hank just disappears into the news cycle.

These are all aspects of BoJack Horseman that help to balance out the dark and very real sadness that pervades the series. BoJack is a miserable man (er, horse), and he doesn’t know how to not be miserable, so he’s committed to staying that way whether or not he consciously realizes what he’s doing. He self-sabotages, repeatedly, to the point where he ruins his career, his friendships, and his relationships. But it isn’t necessarily always his fault; this self-destruction, these mean moments and vile outbursts, the dogged determination to be alone even when he knows, deep down, that he doesn’t want to be alone are all various ways in which depression reveals itself. BoJack’s internal struggles with sadness cause him to react outwardly, and negatively, to those around him.

In fact, BoJack Horseman is perhaps the only series, comedy or otherwise, ever to commit so wholly to depicting various manifestations of depression. Outside of the show’s protagonist, the experience is present in Diane’s explicit revelation to her husband that she’s not happy, leading her to think maybe she’d be happier if she were doing good in the world — which only ends with her hiding at Bojack’s, more visibly depressed, and in the midst of a boozy, existential crisis. Todd, a lovable and ridiculous homeless slacker, isn’t finding happiness anywhere, either — and BoJack isn’t helping — so he throws himself into projects (like the aforementioned Disneyland) and tries to find support and acceptance elsewhere. This ultimately leads him to an improv group that is actually a cult (but definitely not Scientology!), full of people who prey on his fragile state and cracked friendship with BoJack in order to manipulate Todd to stick around (but again, this is definitely not Scientology). Even Princess Carolyn, arguably the most successful character in the series (putting aside her relationship with a man who is actually three children in a trench coat), turns her attention to helping Diane in an attempt to ignore her own growing issues. “My life is a mess right now, and I compulsively take care of other people when I don’t know how to take care of myself,” she explains to Diane.

bojac_ps2_058_hSeason 2 makes the case that even if you get everything you think you want, that doesn’t mean that you will automatically be happy. BoJack has found some fame again since his book release catapulted him back into the public eye, he  has his dream role as Secretariat (though he quickly learns that “sitcom campy” is his default acting mode), and for much of the season he is in a somewhat-functional relationship with an owl named Wendy who woke up after a 30-year coma to become an executive at Major Broadcast Network (MBN). Yet that doesn’t satisfy BoJack, who, despite his stock rising, can’t seem to move up with it. Again, it’s not exactly his fault. He just honestly can’t comprehend how good stuff works: “It’s amazing to me that people wake up every morning and say, ‘Yeah! Another day! Let’s do it! How do people do it? I don’t know how,” he says. And later, he scoffs at Diane’s assertion that everyone is responsible for their own happiness. “I’m responsible for my own happiness? I can’t even be responsible for my own breakfast.”

BoJack Horseman manages to be both subtle and explicit about characters’ various levels and forms of depression, and doubly so when it comes to BoJack’s. Depression isn’t something that lends itself well to the television screen. There are exceptions — Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff makes a compelling case for The Leftovers, while I’m a huge fan of Broad City‘s throwaway line about Ilana’s antidepressants —  but more often, television does the illness a disservice. Depression is usually depicted as men drinking too much (but never, ever talking about those less-than-manly feelings), or women hysterically crying in psychiatric wards, with loads of overly dramatic scenes of pills being flushed down the toilet and the subsequent going-off-the-rails montage. (For the latter, look no further than Black Box‘s frustratingly and borderline-offensive pilot).

This is partly what makes BoJack Horseman feel so important, but the sitcom is also notable for being an incredible character study that only works better because of its fantastical, magical, animated nature. The anthropomorphic characters  and the mixed bag of humans and animals create a wholly unique world that looks utterly ridiculous — and hilarious — even when the subject matter gets dark. And the season even ends on a decidedly optimistic, though not at all false, note: a metaphor comparing running and happiness, and considering the notion that succeeding at either is possible.