Bojack Horseman, and Mental Illness on TV
Trigger warning for discussions of suicide.
So, I recently finished the third season of Bojack Horseman. If you didn’t already know, it’s pretty much straight-up one of the best shows on TV right now, and I fucking insist you go watch it before you do anything else (especially reading this article, which contains just so many spoilers).
I think one of the things that made the show so successful- certainly, one of the reasons I watch it- is the way it deals with mental health problems. This season, it went harder than it ever had before on the topic, which the final episode closing out on our main character putting his foot down in his car, taking his hands off the wheel, and staring up at the sky, apparently intending to kill himself, an culmination to three seasons of depressive episodes. It’s a powerful moment for a show that revolves around sentient animals, I can tell you, and a really striking one, and it’s an example of how the depiction of mental health is changing on TV.
When I first really started paying attention to pop culture (probably about a decade ago), finding a character who dealt with long-term, well-articulated mental health problems was tough. Usually, mental illness was an issue-of-the-week affair, all wrapped up in forty minutes and not to be dealt with again (which is not to say some shows don’t still go with this method- The Walking Dead, I’m looking at you). But more and more frequently, shows are dealing with entire arcs revolving around mental health- Outlander is taking on PTSD, UnREAL’s lead character deals with manic periods alongside crippling depression, and You’re The Worst features a co-lead struggling to overcome their recurrent clinical depression. Bojack Horseman is, for my money, probably the best of the lot- but whichever show is your particular poison, dealing with mental illness as an ongoing struggle is a new and important thing for television.
One of the hardest things I had to deal with regarding my own mental health problems was the realization that they weren’t just going to go away. I convinced myself for a long time that a particularly bad period in my life had been just that- something to leave behind and walk away from, something I would look back on and be thankful never happened again. I managed to tell myself this was the case for a really, really long time, because the thought of those feelings haunting me for the rest of my life was, and still is, a really fucking scary one. There came a point, however, where I had to accept the fact that no, these things hadn’t gone away just because I wanted them to, and I had to face up to that and get the help I needed to assuage things, even if I knew I would likely not cure them. And, in accepting that and not seeing my illnesses as a weakness, I was able to accept them as part of who I am.
Not to discount those for whom mental illness is a one-time occurrence, but I know many people who’ve gone through a similar path accepting their own head-problems.Which is why I think pop culture moving towards a place that embraces these problems as big, sprawling, messy affairs is important- mainly, because they are. Mental illness is rarely a one-shot deal, and whether it is or not, sufferers may have to deal with the aftereffects for the rest of their lives. Shows that embrace this are not just doing a better job at depicting reality than shows that treat it as an issues episode to be forgotten about the next week, but helping articulate that mental illness is not just something sufferers can walk away from and be done with once it’s over. Whatever metaphor you like to use for it, mental illness can pursue people their entire lives, ever-threatening to reappear.
And, for me personally, seeing shows that depict people with these problems in a realistic light provide something of a lifeline, as it’s proof that someone, somewhere, has dealt with something similar enough that had a big enough impact for them to write it into their show. Representation, and someone to relate to, can be a powerful thing at a time when you feel like you can’t connect to anyone- so it’s profoundly brilliant to see these shows taking on the harder aspects of mental illness, and depicting it in all it’s strange, sprawling, ugly facets.