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The Other Side of BoJack Horseman

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

Why is a self-destructive, talking horse possibly the most relatable character in television?

Bojack Horseman and Diane

BoJack Horseman, a critically acclaimed animated series which aired from 2014-2020, portrays a dystopian world in which animals and humans tackle complex issues of the human condition.

This series explores themes of substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and suicide through a humorous yet informative approach. The show delves into nuances of mental health, reflected in the characters’ behaviours.

BoJack Horseman continues to be held as an exemplar. Time magazine called this show the “very best of the hundreds of [Netflix] series.” The show was nominated for 43 awards and has won 15. Unlike the animated series preceding it, BoJack Horseman is not a comedy but a tragedy with sprinkled bits of dark humour.

The series focuses on the life of BoJack, a depressed horse who was formerly the star of a ’90s sitcom, Horsin’ Around. Voiced by Will Arnett, BoJack’s past influences his outlook towards the world and taints his relationships. Throughout the six seasons, BoJack’s mental health deteriorates as he grows dependent on drugs and alcohol.

The other characters in the show include his ghostwriter, Diane Nguyen (voiced by Allison Brie); his roommate, Todd Chavez (voiced by Aaron Paul); his agent and former lover, Princess Caroline (voiced by Amy Sedaris); and his former co-star and the embodiment of what everything he envies, Mr. Peanutbutter (voiced by Paul F. Tompkins). The producers show how these characters interact with BoJack as well as build subplots around their individual struggles.

Despite its unconventionality, the series is celebrated by many. “I absolutely love the show,” says fan Omar Salem, 22. “It just kept me hooked.”

Viewers are drawn to BoJack, despite all his flaws, explains Salem, who found that the sympathy evoked for his character that made the show “more appealing.”

For him, the show’s success comes down to its subject matter and characterization.

The show’s plot tackles topics that are usually taboo on television. The producers address “real problems that people face,” says Salem, which he argues leaves an impact on viewers. “I can relate to some of the issues and that’s why I found it so interesting. Comedy and horror don’t have a lasting effect, but these topics really resonated,” he explains.

BoJack Horseman is a unique exception though, according to independent filmmaker for Sunset Pictures, Daniel Gabrielli, who praised the show’s success. Producers convey emotions by “hit[ting] an emotional nerve in discussing contemporary problems,” he explains. While it is “not trying to solve these problems,” its discussion of them impacts viewers emotionally and increases its appeal.

The show’s characterization is to thank for this, suggests Gabrielli. BoJack, a horse, Princess Caroline, a cat, and Mr. Peanutbutter, a dog, live freely alongside Diane and Todd.

By combining animals and humans, the producers evoke the notion of identity politics, he explains. Producers can input humour in the show by “making jokes on someone’s identity without attacking their culture.” Just as BoJack accuses Princess Caroline of acting “catty,” for instance.

Moreover, Salem suggests that this approach allows viewers to have more sympathy for stereotypically unlikable characters, like BoJack himself. “No one has any predisposition towards horses or cats,” he says.

Despite all the show’s success, it still faces criticism. Tess Bechet suggests that BoJack Horseman can be “damaging” to some. Salem and Bechet both admit to feeling “depressed” while watching the show.

If this show makes viewers depressed, then why are people drawn to it?

Bechet has an answer to this. She started watching the series at a low point, while in quarantine, after being recommended by a friend. She was immediately “sucked in,” despite growing increasingly depressed. “It is in human nature to be attracted to something that can hurt you,” explains Bechet. Since the mental health portrayal is so accurate, viewers are prone to “identify traits of [themselves] in BoJack, which is bad because he is a horrible person,” leading self-hating tendencies, she says.

Had the series not portrayed “BoJack as the hero” and included “trigger warnings,” it would have been “perfect,” she imagines.

For others, such details are crucial for its success. Producers can also create sympathy for characters using “victim culture,” explains Gabrielli. Under this notion, characters are created in such a way that allows the audience to “sympathize with them” because they “are at the lowest point possible.” BoJack’s flaws are ultimately the reason why so many people can appreciate his character and forgive his mistakes.

Nonetheless, there is no direct evidence that proves that watching BoJack Horseman leads to depression. While fans agonize over varying interpretations, the producers hint that the show will make an unexpected return.

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