Warning: Slight spoilers below ― but nothing that will really ruin the season.
There are many reasons that the cult followers of “BoJack Horseman” love a show about a horse who is kind of an asshole. There are the quietly hilarious jokes smattered about the background; the fully formed female characters; the disturbingly accurate depiction of the Hollywood machine; the simultaneously beautiful and strange artistic tone; the bizarre universe in which humans and human-like animals live side-by-side; the drug, sex and animal jokes; and, of course, the show's absurd concept: that a horse-man (get it?) is wasting away inside his Hollywood mansion in the years after his bad yet successful sitcom, “Horsin' Around,” went off the air.
But in its first two seasons, the Netflix show became primarily known for something else: the accuracy with which it depicted depression. In a single episode, BoJack will sort through feelings of loneliness, panic and hopelessness, only to then proceed into dazed period of apathy often accompanied or proceeded by an alcohol- and drug-infused bender that leaves many of the people in his life hating him ― but none more so than BoJack hates himself.
It was never our top priority to be the voice of depression.
"BoJack Horseman" creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg
To many people who silently suffer from depression, the show finally provided a sense that someone out there understands what it's like. Outside of a handful of series, depictions of depression in Hollywood have historically felt one-dimensional, as if writers Googled “depression” and decided it meant “sad.” In BoJack, we finally have a fully formed character that deals with depression in all its forms. We see BoJack suffocating as he grapples with the idea that he will never reach his own definition of greatness, that it is too late to turn his life around, that his best days are behind him and his worst ones ahead. It's not pretty, but it can be soothing to see someone who relates, even if that someone is a drunk horse with a temper.
The show's creator, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, is happy with however fans find interest in the show and whatever they want to take out of it. If that's the show's depiction of mental illness, so be it. But over the phone, Bob-Waksberg admitted, “It was never our top priority to be the voice of depression.” “BoJack Horseman,” he said, is not “trying to capture this thing [depression] as much as it is trying to capture this character and what he is.” But whether or not the creators of “BoJack” wanted to make a show about depression, they certainly have.
In Season 3, which premiered Friday on Netflix, Bob-Waksberg centers the storyline around the idea of BoJack's legacy, both among the people who know him personally and the people who know him through “Horsin' Around.” The season starts with BoJack at a press junket, equal parts hideously bored and hideously drunk. But his starring role in “Secretariat,” a movie based on BoJack's childhood hero, is garnering Oscar buzz, and BoJack is ecstatic, even though he was digitally replaced midway through shooting. Asked why he cares so much about the award, BoJack replies, “... I'll be remembered.”
When BoJack (spoiler!) eventually receives the nomination in a later episode, however, his reaction surprises him. “I feel … I feel … I feel… the same?” he says.
To Bob-Waksberg, this idea of BoJack finally receiving the praise he so desperately covets is central to the third season. “He's gotten everything he thought he wanted, and he's still not happy,” Bob-Waksberg said. “What does that say about him? And what does that say about the world?”
These are the sort of moments when “BoJack” is at its best: Through BoJack, we can question our own vanity. We all have something we want ― an award or job or recognition we believe would transform us into the person we would like to be. But, in truth, it's not going to change us. Sad or not, we are who we are already. With that, Season 3 forces us to consider another question, too: If the professional recognition BoJack desires doesn't fulfill him, what will?
It's frustrating to watch as BoJack realizes the answer over and over only to quickly forget and spiral downward once more. The answer, we realize, is the relationships he has formed throughout his life. And he does occasionally show that he is capable of prioritizing them. In a rare moment of selflessness in Episode 4, for example, BoJack desperately tries to swims as fast as he can to get a note to Kelsey Jannings, a director he wronged during the making of “Secretariat.”
“In this terrifying world, all we have are the connections that we make,” it reads. “I'm sorry I got you fired. I'm sorry I never called you after.”
For a brief moment, it feels as if BoJack has finally had a revelation that could last ― that he will stop his self-destructive ways, learn to prioritize the people he cares about and beat his depression forever. But soon enough, BoJack is back in the pit of despair, hating himself and hurting the people around him. It's a sad, familiar cycle. It's also what makes the show so good. “BoJack Horseman” doesn't excuse bad behavior. But it certainly can help those who are struggling with the depression that can cause that bad behavior to feel less alone.
Season 3 of “BoJack Horseman” premiered Friday on Netflix.
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