Conor Ryan on Bojack Horseman and Mental Health: the creator´s statement, in conjunction with the video essay, both below, combine for a truly illuminating and perceptive work.
This video essay explores some of the ways Bojack Horseman engages with conceptions of mental health. I have used an exploration of the sitcom genre to mirror how the series’ subversion of these tropes is reflective of its unique approach to mental health. There are many ways in which the series engages with mental health and mental illness and thus I have specifically focused on how the series handles an individual’s personal experience with, and responsibility for, their mental health. The ideas of responsibility and consequence are of particular note as they are overtly linked to the traditional stylings of the sitcom. Similarly, I have for the most part kept my discussions on the sitcom centred around animated, adult comedies as these are most immediately relevant to Bojack as well as frequently embodying exaggerated versions of the tropes and conventions that I discuss.
It is important to note that during the process of writing and editing this video, the final season of the series was released. While some of the clips I have drawn on and use to support my argument are from this season, I have not had time to fully consider and engage with the implications the show’s ending has for my argument. As such, this video essay predominantly addresses the first five seasons of the show.
In discussing narrative complexity, Jason Mittell makes the argument that The Simpsons is overtly conscious of its episodic form, embracing an “excessive and even parodic take on the episodic form, rejecting continuity between episodes by returning to an everlasting present equilibrium state of Bart in the fourth grade and general dysfunctional family status”(Mittell 33). Mittell is concerned with the implications this “reset” (Mittell 34) has for narrative engagement and satisfaction however my focus on Bojack’s representation of mental health has relocated my understanding of this to its effects on character. Ideas of growth and consequence have clear relevance to mental health, yet both are effectively impossible within the traditional sitcom form. This conflict is at the heart of how Bojack Horseman presents mental health and positions its characters in direct opposition with the diegesis of the series.
I wanted to propose the concept of hyper-seriality with this video essay. Just as Mittell argued the forced reset to a status quo enabled a kind of absurdist reflexive comedy, the absolute commitment to carrying over any and all consequences from previous narratives as embodied by Bojack Horseman is equally capable of drawing out comedy. Jeremey Butler describes how serialised characters “carry a specific, significant past” (Butler 44) and the characters of Bojack Horseman are constantly trying to escape that past. While Bojack undoubtedly draws on hyper-seriality for comedic purposes, the lasting impact these events now possess, invariably has dramatic consequences. This enables the show to subvert much of what is traditionally considered problematic about the sitcom genre. Ronald Berman describes how “The predicament of sitcom is that it exploits social issues without making sense of them. It leaves itself without a punch line” (Berman 18). Given the way Bojack so overtly engages with the social issues at the core of its narrative, its differences in both form and content are readily apparent and enable it to build a nuanced take on the genre.
While there are many facets to how the series depicts mental health and mental illness, I wanted to focus on the idea of responsibility as I felt this was the series biggest departure from traditional representations, as well as being directly linked to its subversion of the sitcom. One of the more problematic trends with regards to mental health in film and television is the frequent demonisation of mentally ill people, with mental illness and poor mental health often being framed as the excuse for an individual’s violent actions. While there is not an inherent problem with depicting mentally unstable people in media, it tends to become problematic when the text does not engage fully with the implication that people suffering from mental illness inevitably become violent or ostracised. In a study on the effects of film and television in regards to the perception of mentally ill people, Wahl and Lefkowits found that “Portrayals of mentally ill people as violent and dangerous, of mental health professionals as unable to protect the public from such threats, do appear to encourage harsher beliefs, or at least consistently harsher statements, about mentally ill people and their community care” (Wahl, Lefkowits, 526). This position also normalises the idea that people are then at the mercy of their own mental illness and thus without responsibility for their actions. Bojack’s engagement with these ideas and questioning to what extent the individual is responsible for managing and maintaining their own mental health, is a significant departure and one of the more important ways it explores discourses around mental health. This also links very clearly to my aforementioned discussions on the series hyper-seriality as consequence and responsibility are key tenants of that mode.
The introduction of Camus’s take on Sisyphus toward the end of the essay was intended to cast a new light on the implications of the shows comments on responsibility. There is an implication in the sentiment I express that by being responsible for ones own mental health, the individual is entirely at fault and thus should deal with it by themselves. This is obviously problematic and not what the show is expressing in its comments on responsibility and so I used Camus’s philosophy to highlight how the shows sentiments of self-improvement and understanding can be read as ways to deal with mental wellbeing in a healthy way.
Bojack Horseman tackles mental health and mental illness in a considered and comprehensive way. The series does not pretend to have answers to the wider social issues these conceptions of mental wellbeing take on and instead leaves the spectator to draw their own conclusions from its representations. The resonance of this show is emblematic of the fact that these questions need to be asked and the discourse the series has built is significant in its own right.
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Berman, R. (1987). Sitcoms. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 21(1).
Camus, A. (1942). The Myth of Sisyphus. France: Éditions Gallimard, pp.1-24.
Chaney, J. (2019). Raphael Bob-Waksberg on Beginning BoJack Horseman’s Ending. [online] Vulture. Available at: https://www.vulture.com/2019/10/raphael-bob-waksberg-bojack-horseman-ending-interview.html [Accessed 4 Nov. 2019].
Chater, A. (2020). From Real Housewives to The Brady Bunch: Bojack Horseman Finds Its Place. Kino: The Western Undergraduate Journal of Film Studies, 6(1).
Chi, T. (2019). Is Addiction a Mental Illness? | Talkspace. [online] Talkspace. Available at: https://www.talkspace.com/blog/addiction-mental-illness/ [Accessed 4 Nov. 2019].
De Koster, L. (2018). Animals and Social Critique in BoJack Horseman. MA. Ghent Univerity.
Diefenbach, D. and West, M. (2007). Television and attitudes toward mental health issues: Cultivation analysis and the third-person effect. Journal of Community Psychology, 35(2), pp.181-195.