A few weeks ago I was sitting on my couch, credits rolling on the BoJack Horseman season 4 finale. As I watched the names scroll by and ignored the Netflix recommendation on what to watch next I came to a realization. One that even as I write about it now I’m unsure how to feel about. I realized that BoJack Horseman made me feel terrible. It’s not an easy feeling to describe. I know I laughed and enjoyed the ride but when it was over it left me feeling a little sad, morose or maybe even a little depressed. Let me put it this way, it’s like getting on a ride at a theme-park, having a blast, but as you walk off the ride, you get sick. You know you had fun, but you also know it was the ride that made you ill. To make matters worse, you find out that the theme-park intentionally designed it to make you sick and that it’s all “part of the experience”. How upset can you really be after having so much fun? I’m conflicted.
As I continued to sit staring blankly at the screen, pondering my existential crisis I came to another realization. This wasn’t something reserved for just BoJack, but another one of my favourite cartoons as well: Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty. Both shows are arguably the smartest and funniest shows on television right now and they’ve been exploring some deep themes. Self-loathing, loveless marriage, drug and alcohol abuse, depression and dementia are just a few of the many heavy ideas that these shows touch on. It’s all sprinkled in between moments of hilarious absurdity, but it’s clear that it’s become a core part of each series. It’s designed to be “part of the experience”.
In this age of Peak TV, many a show can take me on an emotional rollercoaster, but there’s something about these two shows in particular that sticks out to me. Maybe it's that they aren’t billed as emotional explorations and adventures into one's psyche but instead the ads make them appear like fun, whimsical romps through wacko worlds.
Maybe it’s that I can’t just “shut off my brain” and ignore what the creators of these shows are trying to say. Many people use the TV as a way to zone out and just float through whatever they’re watching. A friend of mine watches Friends on repeat. It’s basically the only thing she watches, and it’s almost always on in the background. The mental effort it takes to “watch” a show like that is almost zero. Bojack and, Rick and Morty are so chock full of subtle references and jokes that they demand your full attention, only to have them drop these emotional bombs on you after you’re thoroughly engrossed.
Maybe it’s because we live in a world that’s more than a little messed up these days. I use TV and film to escape, so it hits that much harder when a show that I trust to make me laugh leaves me pondering my existence. It’s not even that these shows rely on being topical or even make an effort to reflect our modern world. Although they can and will. It’s that they use their social allegories to explore those core emotional throughlines further. In contrast, Southpark lives off of shining a light on current issues but rarely leaves me in a conflicted mental space. Matt Stone and Trey Parker are both geniuses in their own right, but Southpark doesn’t explore the depths of its characters; instead, it uses them as mirrors to reflect the issues of the real world.
After all this meditating, I think the answer to my crisis of conflict when it comes to these amazing shows is that I need to shift my expectations of them. These shows didn’t conform to my idea of what a cartoon should be and, as cartoons, they can examine difficult themes and ideas in ways many shows can’t. Yes, they are funny, witty and downright crazy at times but they aren’t JUST that.
So if these shows aren’t all about making me laugh but they also aren’t all about making me cry, what are they? The best way to describe them would be as a “dramedy” - an artistic work that blends elements of both comedy and drama.The term first became popular in the 90’s as sitcoms became more complex. Shows like Frasier or the previously mentioned Friends would often mix serious elements into their stories; the drama being used as a framing device for the situational comedy. The difference here is that we’re seeing it in animated form and although the concept isn’t new, animating it certainly is. Which explains why I was left flabbergasted after BoJack. I’m not used to feeling that way after watching animated programming.
It’s a testament to these shows that they can maintain their popularity without catering to the lowest common denominator. They are tackling complex themes framed inside crazy worlds with even crazier characters. It really shouldn’t be a surprise how well it works though. Especially with the likes of Dan Harmon, Justin Roiland, and Will Arnett involved. For years creators have struggled with trying to find ways of addressing these issues without alienating general audiences. It turns out that you just needed actual aliens and horse people to do it.
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