'Bojack' Is the Perfect Cartoon
How the themes in 'Bojack Horseman' mirror those in every great TV drama
It took me a long time to warm up to the idea of Bojack Horseman. I was never a South Park fan, never super into Family Guy—the idea of adult cartoons was just extremely not for me. I didn't like animation; I liked cinema.
For me, this meant I had watched The Sopranos from beginning to end about six times. Mad Men, probably four. All those late nineties to early aughts dramas centered around a fundamentally bad, flawed man who is easy to distain, with almost no redeeming qualities, surrounded by beautiful, incredibly written female characters whose complexity you don't even fully appreciate until a second or third watch through because of how many subtleties the actresses are able to capture. And it's no big secret that these shows are great—after all, they're the greatest of all time. There's nothing unique in my love for them. But I would have never thought that a cartoon could capture the same intentions, grapple with the same themes, and leave me equally devastated after watching.
I'd like to compare two episodes of these shows, two of my favorite episodes of TV of all time. First, The Strong Silent Type, Season 4 Episode 10 of The Sopranos. Here's a brief synopsis of the piece of that episode that's particularly special to me:
"Adriana breaks down in tears when she finds that Christopher, in a heroin-induced stupor, sat on her dog and killed it. Her FBI handler, Agent Sanseverino, says Adriana should urge him to go into rehab, and she has arranged for material to be sent to their home. Chris is carjacked, robbed, and beaten up while attempting to purchase heroin in a low-income barrio. When he returns home, Adriana gives him a pamphlet for a rehab clinic. He is infuriated and hits her.
Badly bruised, Adriana goes to Carmela. Junior advises Tony to kill Chris, but he cannot do it. Instead, family and friends organize an intervention. It soon degenerates. Tony is enraged when he hears that Chris killed Adriana's dog. Chris verbally attacks those trying to help him and insults his own mother. The men turn on him and beat him up. The intervention ends with Chris being taken to the emergency room with a hairline skull fracture. Tony arranges for him to go to a rehab clinic in Pennsylvania and demands that he not leave until he is clean, telling him that Patsy will be watching him."
Christopher grapples with a drug addiction that's heartbreakingly portrayed—the viewer is constancly conscious of their anger with him, but can't help but feel empathy for his illness. Compare this with this following synopsis of the episode of Bojack, "That's Too Much Man," Season 3 Episode 11:
Sarah Lynn wakes up and is shown to have a more calm and positive life ever since she went sober. She is about to mark off her ninth month of being sober on her sobriety calendar when BoJack calls her and asks her if she wants to party. She immediately accepts and downs a bottle of vodka.
After a few blackouts, in which Sarah Lynn asks to go to the planetarium twice, only for BoJack to reject her as he thinks dome-shaped buildings are dumb. They end up at an AA meeting because Sarah Lynn wants to get her nine-month sobriety chip.
The two are then seen in the planetarium (as silhouettes) watching a show. Sarah Lynn is impressed by the dome shape of the building, and she rests her head on BoJack's shoulder and says "I wanna be an architect." This is the same statement, she made to her mother as a child, in a flashback from Prickly-Muffin. The narrator says, their lives are but short flashes in a universe, that is billions of years old.
BoJack tells Sarah Lynn there's nothing to worry about because it doesn't matter what you did in the past or how you'll be remembered, all that matter is this precious moment that they are sharing together. He asks if she agrees, but she doesn't respond. He nudges her and says her name multiple times, but Sarah Lynn never responds...
Ultimately, both shows portray the pulls of addiction, the complexities of loving an addict, and the harm—and ultimately the death—that the illness can cause.
If you're someone like me, who absolutely loves The Sopranos, I implore you to give Bojack Horseman a chance. It's not a cartoon as you know it—it's a heartbreaking look into masculinity, substance abuse, mental illness, and it's as beautifully written as any TV drama out there.