‘Bojack Horseman’ earns high regard with viewers

Critically acclaimed and masterfully made Netflix Original appropriately discusses mental health

Erik Konwinski, staff writer

In an animated version of sunny Los Angeles lives the titular character of Netflix’s Emmy-nominated program, “Bojack Horseman.” The show presents itself like any other adult animated comedy with outrageous situations and sarcastic humor, but it quickly evolves into something more.
The Netflix Original program released its first season in August of 2014, and the second half of its two-part final season was released Jan. 31, 2020. Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg and the cast, including Aaron Paul, Alison Brie, Amy Sedaris and Will Arnett, have been praised for a series based on complex situations.
The intertwining of comedic dialogue and dark humor with many characters’ bleak perspectives on life create a unique show that has been recognized with three Emmy Award nominations, two in the outstanding animated program category.
Each character deals with some form of struggle, whether internally or externally, and some cope better than others.
Though he is half man and half horse, Bojack Horseman struggles with many human emotions and problems in his cartoon setting.
Internal distress including depression and low self-esteem coupled with external battles with addiction and negative behaviors make Bojack a complex and real protagonist.
Cassidy Cartwright, a digital media communication student at Gannon University, says the show has a draw because of its themes that are not frequently talked about.
“I think that some of the portrayals are extra dramatic, but I think the writers do that to make hard issues easier to talk about,” Cartwright said. “I also think the way the anxiety and depression are dramatized makes it easier to relate to. We tend to be drawn to media that we find relatable in order for us to cope with the people and the world around us.”
The creators of the show depict situations of mental health that are often overlooked or ignored in much of American popular culture but are experienced by many.
A large portion of the “Bojack Horseman” audience are young adults, who deal with mental health struggles at an increasing rate in America.
Christine Agnello, a licensed professional counselor and staff therapist at Gannon, says addressing mental health topics in the ways the show does can help others identify things in their life they may be experiencing.
“I think the fact that they use the animation helps plant the seed for the audience about what mental health looks like and symptoms of,” Agnello said. “So I think that does good work planting the seed about getting help and showing what mental illness or mental health issues look like.
“I think another important portrayal is what getting help looks like. With different agencies, different entities, different types of mental health concerns or illnesses, the type of help somebody receives might look different, but that field of social services or counseling is also portrayed accurately.”
Bojack Horseman and other characters in the show do not always follow responsible steps to deal with their struggles, but Agnello says that even conveying those scenarios can be a positive thing.
“The sheer fact that they are talking about it, acknowledging it, and then recognizing that some of the coping mechanisms are not healthy, some of the decision making is more destructive, it helps the individuals in the audience maybe recognize that they are not alone,” Agnello said. “I think [that], coupled with how much more it is talked about in society, individuals recognize, ‘I can get help for this. I don’t have to keep making those same mistakes or that pattern of behaviors. I can break that pattern.’”
Luke Rosielle, Ph.D., the director of the psychology program at Gannon, says despite the premise of the series, which follows the life of a talking horse, its themes can still be helpful for some audiences.
“I’ve talked to some people who have struggled with depression who say that they love ‘Bojack Horseman’ because it seems to get the emotional nuances of this fairly correct on there,” Rosielle said. “It gives them somebody like them and somebody that’s struggling with the same things that they’re struggling with. And it does it in a sort of semi-accurate and relatable way.
“People I know who’ve watched it find it actually somewhat therapeutic because the writers of the show portray something in a way that they don’t often see portrayed like that. This can actually be a very healthy thing because it can make you feel like you’re less alone in the world. If Bojack is sort of experiencing the same thing that you’re experiencing and nobody else seems to get it, but freaking Bojack gets it? You sort of feel less alienated. Like, ‘Somebody out there understands me.’”
Simply because a character can be relatable to an audience, their negative responses in the show or movie can lead to something positive for the viewer, according to Agnello.
“I think that it is always a possibility they view it as, not necessarily a good quality, but they don’t want to be like that — with poor decision making or poor coping skills,” Agnello said. “Hopefully at some point they can recognize that it is best to seek help and process what is going on instead of continuing to make poor choices.”
Rosielle notes even if a person watching the show is not experiencing any form of mental illness or substance abuse problem, they can better understand what those circumstances look like and how they affect people’s lives.
Rosielle and Agnello both say the writing must be done correctly or else an opposite effect can be had and negative situations in media can lead to negative consequences for viewers.
“It could be a lot worse and a lot more irresponsible if they portrayed something like alcoholism or something such as depressed people as being weak, or ridiculed for being depressed,” Rosielle said. “With something like these very sensitive issues like drug abuse, depression, work-related issues, sexual assault and things like that, you really have to be careful. Portraying it unrealistically sort of hurts and alienates the people who are already suffering from this, and that could then exacerbate their symptoms and make things worse.
“Not every show has to be about depression, right? But if you want to include those kinds of things, then you need to be careful and smart. It’s also a reason to hire diverse writers. Not just racial and ethnic diversity, but writers with a whole lot of different experiences that are going to be better able to write about something like drug abuse or depression or other mental health issues. They’re going to be more in-the-know than someone who writes and it comes across as being uninformed and insensitive.”
The show “Bojack Horseman” does not have a universally happy ending, and some of the characters are left feeling just as lost as they were when the series began.
Though the themes of the show reflect nihilistic views, the overall message may not only have negative effects on viewers.
“I think it is important for individuals to recognize that unfortunately, not everything does have a happy ending, but that it is also important to feel, recognize and process negative feelings and negative situations,” Agnello said. “It is something that they can navigate those negative experiences or thoughts versus kind of succumbing to the view of, ‘What does it matter anyhow?’”
Rosielle said the existence of “storybook endings” may do more harm than good because they aren’t realistic. “Stories don’t end for the characters when the show or the book or the movie is over,” he said. “These people are going to continue to live lives and have struggles.”
Whether watching a television show or movie that follows stories of struggling characters will affect an audience with its personal situations may depend on the individual and the nature of the depiction.
One thing seems to hold true regardless of the situation: if mental illness is a theme in a piece of television or cinema, it should be deliberate, not just for the sake of inclusion.
“If somebody is dealing with anxiety or depression or whatever mental illness, it can look a little bit different in everybody, based on their experiences, what they’ve gone through and what their support system is like,” Agnello said. “The most important thing is that the individuals writing the scripts do appropriate and knowledgeable research on whatever mental illness they are portraying.”