Like many recent sadcoms, BoJack Horseman offers viewers a gloss on a hostile affective world in which connections between people are easily shattered.1 BoJack is a horse in pain "all the time. My whole life. And you have no idea," as he tells his sister.2  Lisa Hanawalt's consolingly beautiful animations of him and his community together with Raphael Bob-Waksberg's moving, pun-heavy scripts work to reflect lives broken by a "Hollywoo" fantasy in which everyone feels inadequate and paranoid. Depicting humans and other-than-humans (mainly animals, although Hanawalt is a brilliant conjurer of plant being too) in relationships and as co-workers, the creative team behind the series showcases diversity and difference even as they bring the characters together through their shared experiences of failure, damage, disappointment, and sadness. But the show also makes explicit that these weak affective states are the condition for communication and affection in the modern world.3 Without them, individuals seek states of perfection and comfort that void both concern for others and the reality they share.4 Caught within a culture driven by an impossible ideal of happiness, BoJack struggles to communicate with others only when he refuses the sadness that would enable such connection.

The show is consistently aware of the relationship between a hostile affective world and the reparative quality of sadness. It self-consciously examines a celebrity industry in which even emotionally-nuanced story lines and characters falsely promise solace, family, or resolution. Viewers are invited to escape their own anxieties by following a fictional community with whom they can regularly "hang out."5 But Waksberg makes clear that the industry, mired as it is in power, fame, popularity, and wealth-accumulation, fails to offer real intimacy. As BoJack mourns about the vehicle of his stardom: "Why can't life be like it was on Horsin' Around? All our issues conveniently settled in twenty-two hilarious minutes."6 BoJack Horseman, however, willingly exposes narrative promises of resolution as deceptive and emotionally reckless. "Brand New Couch," for example, spotlights a nine-year old BoJack desperately seeking answers to the question of why he feels sad from Secretariat, to whom he has written for advice via The Dick Cavett show: "I am a good kid, and I like to play, and I like to go to school, but sometimes I get sad. What do you do when you get sad? How do you not be sad?"7 The response is buried by the sounds of his parents' yells and smashing plates before his mother enters the room to inform little BoJack that he has "ruined" her. His mother's anger is presented as analogous to Secretariat's inaudible response: her refusal to forgive BoJack for an existence she resents having given him parallels Dick Cavett's empty offer of comfort and happy endings.8 Like Beatrice, mainstream television substitutes human need and weakness with distracting fantasy narratives. The writers and illustrators behind BoJack Horseman, conversely, meticulously attend to every detail, visual and semantic, as a backdrop to affective complexity.9

BoJack's most distressing moments are thus parried by depictions of his gradual awareness of sadness as the condition of close relationships with others. As Anna Gotlib argues, the relatability of sadness keeps in place interpersonal relationships by softening antagonism and resentment between those involved.10 BoJack's experience of both sadness and depression, mourning and melancholia, illuminates the limitations of hierarchizing low moods and medicalizing everyday despondency. Pathologizing low moods like fatigue, stress, guilt, and mourning delegitimizes their normalcy and obscures the specificity and felt reality of their meaning for individuals.11 Hollywoo in particular sanctions the public exhibition of negative affective states, but encourages only superficial responses to them that collapse under the pressure of real emotion and pain. BoJack's relationships with women in particular Princess Carolyn, Charlotte Carson, Diane Nguyen, Gina Cazador, and his half-sister Hollyhock bear witness to this pressure, dependent as they are on an unexamined sadness that keeps him at a distance from those who feel affection for him.

Only Harper Horseman incarnates a loving warmth toward BoJack, a fictional daughter he hallucinates in Season 1.12 But Harper is more than a daydream: her blonde mane visually links her to Beatrice, whose own backstory offers a painful analogy to her son's. Like Harper, Beatrice is a gentle and happy child, but the death of her older brother, Crackerjack, and ensuing breakdown and lobotomization of her mother, Honey, leaves her in the care of an abusive and misogynist father. Escaping to Barnard where she becomes a politically active intellectual, Beatrice meets the aspiring author, Butterscotch. But as she is overwhelmed by an unattainable delusion of luxury and privilege, he becomes consumed by extramarital affairs and his failed writing career. Both project their regret onto BoJack as a child and later an adult. In the opening scene of "Free Churro," for example, Butterscotch berates his son and "that brittle wisp of a woman you made the mistake of making your mother" for ruining his "writing day"; while in "Brand New Couch," Beatrice demands her son acknowledge that the "ugliness inside" him is a "birthright" and that he was "born broken." The Horsemans, unremittingly shown to be embittered and despondent, are paralyzed in their misery and so unable to share even the slightest affection toward each other or anyone else. BoJack's distinction is that while he too acts out of despair in relationships, his eventual willingness to feel his sadness allows him to recognize how much he desires intimacy with others, even his mother.13

Yet such recognition is a long time coming. His uninterrupted twenty-minute eulogy for Beatrice in "Free Churro," for example, sharpens the show's fixation on the relationship between sadness and communication. The monologue's stand-up form barely veils his feelings of disconnection, abandonment, and anger, and the opening anecdote, in which a server at Jack in the Box gives him a free churro when he tells her his mother has died, represents a kindness his mother always refused him. Beatrice's tireless withholding of emotion is spot-lit throughout the eulogy in BoJack's repeated address to her casket for an ungiven response: "Knock once if you're proud of me," "Knock once if you think I should shut up," "Knock once if you love me and care about me, and want me to know I made your life a little bit brighter." But the humor betrays a character who at this point in the series is trapped in a cycle of seeking and needing recognition rather than mourning her death: he even mistakes a dying Beatrice's fleeting recognition of the intensive care unit (ICU) for the words "I see you." She does not see him, just as he does not see her or even his audience, a group of bewildered lizards that confirm he is in the wrong funeral parlor. And yet his eulogy reveals the same conflicted affection of his mother for his father, whose own eulogy for Butterscotch "My husband is dead, and everything is worse now" BoJack repeats at the end of his own "My mother is dead, and everything is worse now." Worse, not because he misses their fraught interactions, but because he is unable to grieve his mother or the loss of a childhood that offered him neither love and belonging nor the confidence to achieve independence.14

From BoJack's obsessive re-watching of his appearances on Horsin' Around to his attempts to secure love from his parents, we are presented with a figure frequently imprisoned in a debilitating grief that obscures his other felt experiences. He often appears to fulfil the definition of the Freudian melancholic, mourning for his childhood and now his mother, but unable to move on because he cannot comprehend his loss (or his audience). Freud's definition of melancholia, which stresses inhibition, low self-esteem, "self-reproaches and self-revilings," and "a delusional expectation of punishment," is woven into BoJack's affective being before and after his mother's death.15 But the show also emphasizes moments in which he comes to recognize the connection between the felt experience of negative emotion and communication and so moves back into a state of mourning and thus longing for connection. I conclude with two examples that epitomize this shift: BoJack's encounter with a seahorse fry in "Fish Out of Water"; and his final conversation with Diane in "Nice While It Lasted."

"Fish Out of Water" is set in the Atlantis-like world of the Pacific Ocean Film Festival (POFF), and stages BoJack's at-this-point melancholic inability to communicate with others through an almost entirely voiceless script.16 Under his soundproof diving helmet, BoJack assumes he cannot speak underwater, and is consequently detached and defamiliarized by his surroundings and the untranslated language of sea-creaturely residents. When he sees the director Kelsey Jannings, whose firing from Secretariat he inadvertently caused, he is visibly seized by an impulse to make amends, which he attempts to do in a series of clumsily written apologetic notes: "Kelsey, weird we haven't talked. Keep it real! BoJack!"; "Kelsey! Long time, no talk. So anyway, you're the Kelseyiest! Smell you later, BJ!"; "Kelsey, sorry you got fired. That sucks for you. BoJack Horseman. P.S. We're cool right?" At first a comic device framed by a multitude of fish puns (sardines packed into hotel rooms and taxis and so on), the apology develops into an urgent confirmation of BoJack's impeded yearning to overcome his sadness and loneliness through communication. Forced into silence and so liberated from the anxiety to verbally express his emotions, however, BoJack is able to feel, especially in his interaction with a baby seahorse. Accidentally charged with caring for the young fry amid Hanawalt's perilous yet enchanting underwater wilderness, BoJack is depicted as moving from frustration at his unwanted caretaker role into affection. He and the fry share a series of emotional, haptic, and loving moments as the exuberant baby clings to and softens his guardian, holds his hand, and so frees him to swim, bound, and dive in the otherwise alien kingdom.

Opened up through his momentary interdependence with the fry, BoJack finds a language to write something affectively intelligible to Jannings: "Kelsey, in this terrifying world, all we have are the connections that we make. I'm sorry I got you fired. I'm sorry I never called you after." Kelsey appears surprised, almost sympathetic when she receives the note and asks her taxi to pause while she reads it; but before she can, the words disintegrate into a washed-out scribble, and she turns away and drives on. Immobilized by yet another failed attempt to communicate, BoJack obstructs a tourist who rudely tells him to "move it, Buddy," at which he realizes by clicking the speaker on his diving helmet he can in fact speak. The episode cuts off his "Oh you have got to be ki" to a crescendo of Oberhofer's "Sea of Dreams" that creates an elegiac ending to an episode in which communication, connection, and shared feeling are always derailed. It is simply easier for BoJack to return to land and embrace the stardom and celebrity offered by the success of Secretariat than reflect on possibilities of interrelation.17 He consequently forgets about Jannings, and in doing so reverses the emotional work that might have offered him relationship and reprieve from underlying despair.

And yet the fact of BoJack's confession to Kelsey and his realization that connections are a counter to fear and anxiety foreshadows the show's final scene. My second example of BoJack's shift into embracing sadness as the grounds of communication is his final conversation with a now-married Diane at the end of the last episode.18 Following rehab and a short-lived career as a college professor, BoJack returned to his addictions and was imprisoned for breaking and entering. Now furloughed for Princess Carolyn's wedding, a newly clean BoJack seeks out Diane on a rooftop for a conversation that offers the same aperture into a different way of being and thinking with sadness as his liaison with the fry. She reminds BoJack of the last voicemail he left for her, a drunken and manipulative distress call alluding to suicidal thoughts to which she felt powerless to respond. Her tentative line, "maybe it's everybody's job to save each other," registers their shared sadness but also their shared capacity for connection and joy. It gestures in the affective silence on which the episode, and show, ends, one that echoes both the consolatory quiet of the fry's underwater world and the glimpse of forgiveness from Kelsey. The closing scene moves the viewer from anger to affection to humor and finally into the stillness of a starry night, intimating as it does that connection comes as a result of acknowledging sadness with others rather than dissecting and scrutinizing it at a distance. Hollywoo and the social media that props up its celebrity industry bypasses such experience by translating good and bad feeling into curtailed performances that invite compressed reactions rather than considered responses. BoJack Horseman is such a response, a show faithful to a character caught in his own sadness, but willing to explore and celebrate his fragility and weakness as the foundation of his relationships.

Emma Mason is Professor and Head of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick. She has published widely in the field of religion and literature, most recently Christina Rossetti: Poetry, Ecology, Faith (Oxford University Press, 2018).


  1. The term "sadcom" has been in circulation since at least 2016; see Rachel Aroesti, "No laughing matter: the rise of the TV 'sadcom'", The Guardian, October 11, 2016. []
  2. BoJack Horseman. "Ancient History." S5E09. Directed by Peter Merryman. Written by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Rachel Kaplan. Netflix, September 14, 2018.[]
  3. I use the word weak here in an echo of Gianni Vattimo's work on weak thought; see Gianna Vattimo and Pier Aldo Rovatti, Weak Thought, translated by Peter Carravetta (New York: State University of New York Press, 1983); and Gianni Vattimo, Belief, translated by Luca D'Isanto and David Webb (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999).[]
  4. See Martha Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of the Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). See especially 174-237 ('Emotions and Infancy').[]
  5. Evan Kindley et al, "Bojack Horseman: Season Three," LARB, August 23, 2016; Kindley draws on Larissa MacFarquhar's definition of the "hangout movie" in "The Movie Lover," The New Yorker, October 13, 2003.[]
  6. BoJack Horseman. "That's too much, man!" S3E11. Directed by JC Gonzalez. Written by Elijah Aron, Jordan Young. Netflix, July 22, 2016.[]
  7. BoJack Horseman. "Brand New Couch." S2E01. Directed by Amy Winfrey. Written by Raphael Bob-Waksberg. Netflix, July 17, 2015.[]
  8. As the adult BoJack declares: "You can't have happy endings in sitcoms, not really, because, if everyone's happy, the show would be over [and] there's always more show" from BoJack Horseman. "Free Churro." S5E06. Directed by Amy Winfrey. Written by Raphael Bob-Waksberg. Netflix, September 14, 2018.[]
  9. BoJack Horseman. "The Face of Depression." S6E07. Directed by Aaron Long. Written by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Shauna McGarry. Netflix, October 25, 2019.[]
  10. Anna Gotlieb, "The Topographies of Sadness: An Introduction," in The Moral Psychology of Sadness, edited by Anna Gotlib (London and New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2018), 1-17, 7.[]
  11. Roland Barthes, The Neutral: Lecture Course at the Collège de France (1977­­-1978), translated by Rosalind E. Krauss and Denis Hollier (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).[]
  12. BoJack Horseman. "Downer Ending." S1E11. Directed by Amy Winfrey. Written by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Kate Purdy. Netflix, August 22, 2014.[]
  13. On BoJack's search for connection with his mother, see: BoJack Horseman. "The View from Halfway Down." S6E15. Directed by Amy Winfrey. Written by Alison Tafel. Netflix, January 31, 2020.[]
  14. See D. W. Winnicott, The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment (New York: International Universities Press, 1965).[]
  15. Sigmund Freud, "Mourning and Melancholia" (1917), in James Strachey, ed., The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (London: The Hogarth Press, 1957), vol. XIV, 243-258, 244.[]
  16. BoJack Horseman. "Fish Out Of Water." S3E04. Directed by Mike Hollingsworth. Written by Elijah Aron, Raphael Bob-Waksberg. Netflix, July 22, 2016.[]
  17. BoJack Horseman. "Love And/Or Marriage." S3E05. Directed by JC Gonzalez. Written by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Peter A. Knight. Netflix, July 22, 2016.[]
  18. BoJack Horseman. "Nice While It Lasted." S6E16. Directed by Aaron Long. Written by Raphael Bob-Waksberg. Netflix, January 31, 2020.[]