'BoJack Horseman' is TV's Best Show About Depression

Will Arnett is the voice behind Bojack Horseman, a former ’90s sitcom star. Netflix

BoJack Horseman, the animated Netflix series about a has-been TV star who happens to be a horse, has the weirdest shifting tone in television. In one moment, characters—some animal, some human—are debating the nature of the soul in a vapid universe. In the next, there are cat puns.

Somehow, this adds up to the most powerful evocation of clinical depression in pop culture. I am not a psychiatrist, so by diagnosing BoJack I will not be breaking the Goldwater Rule. I am, however, clinically depressed, so I recognize the symptoms.

BoJack, the inspired creation of writer and comedian Raphael Bob-Waksberg, is a self-sabotaging character desperate for love but unable to accept or give it, and oblivious to the damage he does. He is just the latest in a long line of compulsively watchable, emotionally stunted sitcom characters—Michael Scott, David Brent, Homer Simpson, Cliff Clavin, Martin Payne, Gary Shandling, Kenny Powers, Liz Lemon, the entire Bluth family—who flirt with change without ever actualizing it. (Will Arnett, who voices the epically cynical BoJack so winningly, is arguably our greatest interpreter of arrogant losers.)

But here's where animation has an advantage—and where the animal puns start to make sense. If this were live action, the show would feel too small and didactic. The wisdom/life advice/devastating observations land harder because they are preceded by, for example, Keith Olbermann voicing the blue whale—and news anchor—Tom Jumbo-Grumbo. Bob-Waksberg has figured out that the best way to keep audiences glued to four seasons of existential angst is to surround it with inanity.

Here's an example: In an episode from Season 3, BoJack is arguing with his longtime agent and occasional lover, a 40-something cat named Princess Carolyn (voiced by Amy Sedaris). They are outside a restaurant, at the valet stand, which is staffed by a collie. The collie hands the car keys to Princess Carolyn, who, in a fit of anger, throws them across the street. The collie eagerly fetches them. BoJack accuses Carolyn of "fetishizing her own sadness" (plagiarized from his manager, who lobbed the same insult at BoJack). Princess Carolyn throws her keys again. The collie eagerly fetches again. BoJack goes on to fire Carolyn, his friend of 20 years, and stalks off. Oblivious to her broken heart, the collie simply hopes for another toss. Life, in other words.

Amy Sedaris is the voice behind Princess Carolyn, the agent Bojack dumped at the end of Season 3, in Netflix’s “Bojack Horseman.” Netflix

In the trailer for the fourth season, Princess Carolyn says, "The world is dark and scary and full of creepy clown dentists, but we've gotta push through and hope there's better stuff ahead." The sentence has solid advice, gravitas and an absurd joke in the middle. Everything, in other words, that I love about BoJack Horseman.

The entire fourth season of BoJack Horseman will be available to stream at Netflix on September 8.