Film and TV

BoJack Horseman: the Smartest TV Show About Major Depression

BoJack Horseman presents the titular character (voiced by Will Arnett) as a washed-up sitcom star in the Netflix animated series that also includes anthropomorphic dogs with clothes and jobs.
BoJack Horseman presents the titular character (voiced by Will Arnett) as a washed-up sitcom star in the Netflix animated series that also includes anthropomorphic dogs with clothes and jobs. Courtesy Netflix
BoJack Horseman streams on Netflix

It’s not a huge surprise that my sensitive and kind-hearted spouse could be left sobbing by an episode of a popular TV show. She’d say herself that she’s an easy mark, TV showrunners. But it’s definitely a surprise when any show even tries. TV writers like tearfully joyful stories more than tearfully devastating ones.

The episode that made my wife cry is S04E11 of BoJack Horseman, titled “Time’s Arrow,” which, if you’ve already watched it, you know is the single most emotionally wrenching half-hour of any series produced in 2017 or 2016, and it’s seriously in the running for that title for every year back to 1983, when Bob and Maria explained to Big Bird that Mr. Hooper was never coming back.

“Time’s Arrow” finds BoJack (Will Arnett) driving his mom (Wendie Malick) to a ghastly geriatric hospital where he intends to dump her forever. As they travel, she drifts through a fog of deteriorating, Alzheimer’s-clouded memories of a lifetime of heartbreak and disappointment. Previously, Beatrice figured in flashbacks as an embittered, alcoholic wife who belittled the heroes and aspirations of her son; here, she’s revealed as having been a sensitive and incandescently brilliant young woman who cultivated sarcasm as a defense against a crushing masculinist world that offered women no path to self-actualization.

A rebel, Beatrice ditched her own debutante ball in the mid-1960s to sleep with charming party crasher Butterscotch Horseman; impregnated, she left home, moving with Butterscotch, an aspiring beat novelist, to San Francisco. (We see a snapshot of the couple posing in front of a sign: “Hippies welcome, gays not yet” — there are, like, 10,000 of these tiny background details in every episode; it’s always good to check out Princess Carolyn’s bookshelves.)

The marriage is a disaster, and after young BoJack leaves home, Butterscotch has an affair with the housekeeper, Henrietta, who becomes pregnant. Henrietta refuses to get an abortion, and in desperation, Butterscotch asks Beatrice to take care of his problem. Her solution: She offers to pay Henrietta’s nursing school tuition on the condition that she give up her baby for adoption. With this sacrifice, Beatrice ensures that her own cuckold’s independence isn’t derailed by accidental pregnancy, as hers was. The conclusion is a gorgeous, elegiac crescendo of births, departures and sacrifices across time, Beatrice reliving all of the pain of childbirth, loneliness, frustrated aspirations and childhood losses at once, even as her son installs her in a nursing unit with a dumpster view.

It is glorious and heartbreaking, and it made my wife cry. I have tremendous difficulty crying myself because of the emotional dissociation I learned as a kid. That’s one of the most difficult depression symptoms to overcome, even after years of weekly therapy. I was a stone through the ending of Schindler’s List.
BoJack Horseman presents the titular character (voiced by Will Arnett) as a washed-up sitcom star in the Netflix animated series that also includes anthropomorphic dogs with clothes and jobs.
Courtesy Netflix

The Season 4 episode that hit me the hardest and spoke the most loudly to my own experience of major depressive disorder was No. 6, titled “Stupid Piece of Shit.” Earlier in the season, BoJack’s mom was kicked out of a previous nursing home after a violent incident resulting from her Alzheimer’s confusion. She’s living in BoJack’s house along with the sweet, teenaged Hollyhock (Aparna Nancherla), who might be BoJack’s daughter.

The episode is notable for its narration by BoJack’s internal monologue of relentless negative self-talk, which goes like this: “You piece of shit. You’re a real stupid piece of shit. But I know I’m a piece of shit. That at least makes me better than all the pieces of shit who don’t know they’re pieces of shit.”

It’s the first time I’ve ever seen that inner voice portrayed on a TV show with such unsparing realism. “Idiot. Stupid animal. Oaf,” it tells him. The voice predicts all possible worse-case scenarios about his friends and family, assuring BoJack they’re talking behind his back about what a total piece of shit he is. It stokes his anxieties and predicts failure and alienation from his friends.

We learn that BoJack hasn’t spoken to Diane in over a year because the voice tells him she thinks he’s a stupid piece of shit. That really hit home: The months I’d let pass without calling my dad or visiting my grandmother — that voice never stops, and the worse thing about it is that it’s very, very convincing. It’s the voice of God telling you that you’re shitty, subhuman, completely unlovable.

At the end of the episode, Hollyhock discloses that she has her own internal voice that tells her she’s fat and stupid, and that nobody likes her. “That voice, the one that tells you you’re worthless and stupid and ugly? It goes away, right? It’s just, like, a dumb teenage-girl thing, but then it goes away?” she asks.

“Yeah,” BoJack lies.

But the show’s depiction of despair is embroidered with joyful silliness. My wife loves it when anthropomorphic animals with business suits and jobs burst into animal behaviors like pouncing on yarn or barking at cars, so BoJack Horseman really has her number. Contrast it with (for instance) Louie, a depressing show that is seldom joyful. I’ll bet you 10 bucks that Louis C.K.’s hiatus from the series doesn’t last as long as the one I’m taking from it.

Mr. Peanutbutter, the celebrity dog voiced by Paul F. Tompkins, most fully embodies this spirit of comic silliness. Unlike BoJack’s other friends, Mr. Peanutbutter has a boundless capacity for forgiveness. Nonetheless, BoJack’s internal monologue insists, “He knows. He knows you’re terrible. He’s the biggest idiot in the world, and even he knows you’re terrible.”

But Mr. Peanutbutter absolutely does not think that.

BoJack, concerned about Hollyhock, says, “Now I can feel her getting attached, and I just know I’m gonna ‘BoJack’ things up.”

Mr. Peanutbutter replies, “You mean, show up somewhere and be the life of the party? And then share a laugh with your good friend, Mr. Peanutbutter?” He’s the show’s most guileless character, and he really means it.

Letting in those voices — the affirmative ones — is nearly impossible against poisonous negative self-talk. Maybe you know someone who actively behaves like an asshole when you give them a compliment. Chances are good there’s an oppressive voice, one you can’t hear, drowning out your own. My therapist once praised a piece I wrote for this paper, and then made me sit and internalize her words until I could respond without deflecting, kind of the way you’d make a kid eat his vegetables.

I’m better equipped to deal with depression, now, and way more awake to the affirmative voices. The negative one still comes around, but it’s tentative and sheepish most of the time, and drowned out by people who know better. The best is a girl who cries at TV cartoons and thinks anthropomorphic dogs with clothes and jobs are fucking hilarious.
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Chris Packham is a regular film contributor at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.