‘Bojack Horseman’ and the Nuances of Mental Health Depiction

There’s an ageing TV star who was hugely popular in the 90s. He is trying to balance his acting career, relationships, alcohol addiction and mental health struggles.

Oh, and he’s a horse.

Set in a world that’s similar to ours (except that it is populated by anthropomorphic animals, creating several hilarious puns and tongue-in-cheek comments), Bojack Horseman is a dark, animated comedy by Netflix and is considered to be one of the most innovative shows of this decade.

What started out as a by-the-numbers satire of Hollywood and celebrity culture quickly morphed into a show with a diverse cast of characters, complex storylines and probably the most accurate depictions of mental health ever produced.

The show tackles issues like abortion, gun control, military worship and sexual harassment with finesse, inimitable wit and sharp dialogue. But what makes the show truly endearing is the layered depiction of mental health issues and its realistic portrayals of people.

Bojack may be a celebrity, but he is crippled with an all-too-familiar sense of anxiety and self-destructive tendencies. A glance at online fan forums should indicate how much it means for people who suffer from mental illness to have such nuanced representation on a popular show.

The episode “Stupid Piece of S**t” has been hailed as an extremely accurate representation of the experience of self-loathing and constantly undermining oneself. It helped give a platform to people struggling with these issues and undoubtedly sensitised others in this regard.

But the show is not only about empathising with broken people. It’s also about fearlessly holding them accountable – both personally and to the larger public. There is no attempt to sanitise the characters, and the show constantly situates them in the real world where they have to negotiate workplace and personal relationships. The show’s willingness to interrogate its characters through dialogue and plot points is commendable. Yes, these characters are extremely flawed, but as Todd (Bojack’s friend) noted, “You can’t keep doing shitty things and then feel bad about yourself as if that makes it OK.”

Mental illness does not absolve people of blame regarding their actions, and these characters understand that. They call out toxic and unacceptable behaviour on each other’s part, but they also support each other when necessary and make sure that they get the necessary help. Even after their worst fight, Diane (Bojack’s closest friend) helped him realise his substance abuse problem and helped him check into rehab. Their friendship is just one example of the refreshingly mature relationships on the show.

Also read: The ‘Burnout Generation’ – A Personal ‘Origin Story’

Bojack and Diane, both struggling with depression, had extremely turbulent early lives with negligent and verbally abusive parents. These unresolved issues from their past are manifested in their actions which destroy them and hurt the people they love.

The consequences of their actions, however, are disproportionate because of how privilege factors into the equation. Bojack is a rich male celebrity whereas Diane is a relatively unknown journalist. When Diane sets on a downward spiral, she has to deal with irreparable mistakes and a shattered life, whereas people more or less give Bojack a free pass, and it’s mostly a vicious cycle that goes on and on.

There is a perceptible inability in popular discourse and mass media to engage with the nuances of mental illness. For people outside academic circles and college campuses, their ‘awareness’ about mental illness revolves around statements like “mental health is just as important as physical health” and “the happiest people are the ones who are really depressed”.

While it is true that the people who seem extremely happy may suffer from depression (Anthony Bourdain and Robin Williams are some tragic examples) statements like these can be extremely misleading. Bojack Horseman uses this platform to depict the subtleties of having mental illnesses.

In season six of the show, Mr. Peanutbutter, an excessively cheerful character, faces a besmirched public image because of his infidelity. The following storyline where Mr. Peanutbutter becomes “the Face of Depression” and the dialogue surrounding this is another example where we see the complexity of this issue depicted in an accessible way.

Mental illness is layered, and we know so very little about it. The same standards of physical illness cannot be used here, and to learn from surface level awareness efforts is often detrimental.

The show depicts these struggles as something that people have to live with for a major part of their lives, which is a welcome change from most other portrayals. It is not only Bojack, but also the entire landscape of characters that struggle with mental illness and its ramifications.

In spite of all this, there is hope. Not a fairy-tale feeling, but a deeper, more realistic understanding that things will get better eventually. This is the sort of hope that follows accountability and self-realisation, and it is beautiful and heartwarming.

S.Mukundan is pursuing his bachelors in English, History and Political Science at Christ University, Bangalore