'BoJack Horseman' and the Pinnacle of the Psychiatric Memoir

This article was originally published in a Wesleyan Honors Thesis for the College of Letters, entitled The Forbidden Genre: The Evolution of the Psychiatric Memoir and the Narrativity of Madness. Some edits have been made for context. The full project is available on WesScholar

Somehow, the pinnacle of the psychiatric memoir in pop culture has come in the form of an animated, hard partying, washed-up anthropomorphic horse whose comeback memoir is the butt of a joke that needs no explanation. BoJack Horseman, released by Netflix in 2014 under the guidance of showrunner and auteur Raphael Bob-Waksberg, details just how ludicrous the literary memoir of mental illness is in its construction, lack of authenticity, and its hypocritical boon to the careers of the elite who deploy it as a sort of comeback tool.

Centering around its titular character, a washed up sitcom actor who hit it big in the 90s with a show called Horsin' Around where he adopted three human children as a horse fatherly figure, BoJack’s first season is ostensibly about a mentally ill star who looks to resurrect his career with a memoir. Later deciding to hire a ghostwriter, BoJack himself faces similar problems as F. Scott Fitzgerald and in some respects William Styron despite being in an era and cultural milieu that mock memoirs of mental illness because of their ubiquity. In fact, because of this cliché, BoJack finds himself hesitant to disclose his darkest hours and real insights into his past, choosing instead, in a remarkably similar way as Fitzgerald, to put his interior anguish in broadly existential terms rather than in explicit confession along medical and biological lines.  

BoJack’s power in engaging its viewers with mental illness comes precisely in its rejection of the literary memoir in favor of an outside-in approach, where viewers see the full picture of BoJack through various interlocutors, ranging from Charlie Rose to a neurotic penguin looking to make a quick buck in publishing off of his ghostwritten book. Horseman’s faux memoir blindsides him when his ghostwriter, Dianne Nguyen, includes glaring insights into his isolating depression that are in fact blind-spots to the horse who is supposed to be narrating this story. The subsequent resurgence in fame and even reverence that reward BoJack upon the release of his book reinforce the hypocrisy engulfing memoirs of mental illness in the 21st century.   

For one, like many celebrity comeback memoirs, BoJack's best-selling book One Trick Pony bears no resemblance his own work, but rather that of a ghost writer. Secondly, the appeal of BoJack's internal turmoil is inherently inauthentic and hypocritical, which Waksberg displays transparently by juxtaposing how BoJack's problems often stem from his privilege and fame instead of from the more quotidien sources of turmoil for his fans. Aware of this, BoJack more often than not uses it for his advantage in one night stands rather than as a way to level with the public over mental health.  

While BoJack not only follows the legacy of The Sopranos, but indeed surpasses it in terms of critical acclaim surrounding its depiction of mental illness ("How BoJack Got So Good at Depicting Mental Illness" - Vice, "TV Finally Gets Mental Illness Right with BoJack Horseman" - Salon, "Is BoJack Horseman the Saddest Show on TV?" - The Guardian, "How BoJack Horseman Became TV's Saddest and Funniest Show" - Rolling Stone, "BoJack Horseman and the Comedy of Despair" - The New Yorker). However, inversely to David Chase, Raphael Bob-Waksberg has resisted any semi-autobiographical traces in the show, as well as avoiding a firm diagnosis for BoJack or a source of his discontent.  

"The goal was never like, Let's really create an expose, let's really investigate this kind of thing, let's diagnose BoJack in a certain way. I think it was more about just trying to write this character truthfully, and taking him seriously. The idea [was to take] a character trope that is maybe a little archetypical, or that we've seen before, but really believing in it, and trying to be honest and respectful to it," Waksberg told Vice in a July 2016 interview.  

The BoJack flip, as it may be called, is that unlike the Sopranos and much of the canon of the psychiatric memoir—which seeks to unearth mental illness from the glossed over version of everyday life that gets created in pop culture and the public consciousness—Waksberg's show actively avoids tropes of mental illness among celebrities that are now so ubiquitous that they are easily turned into jokes, and that the audience can easily identify them in a protagonist without heavy cues. BoJack Horseman's critical acclaim and cult status among TV fans looking for nuanced shows about mental illness is illustrative of a particularly strange moment in pop culture that memoirs and the DSM have not only informed, but, in many ways, formed.  

Jake Lahut