To the average person, cartoons are viewed as a form of stress-free entertainment targeted at children. This category of television is rarely expected to dive deep into philosophical concepts centering reality as we currently know it. And it is most definitely not synonymous to an immersive vehicle that evokes thought-including questions about life, death, and existence as a whole. However, the series Rick and Morty and Bojack Horseman have truly altered the way in which many people view television animation, in that they have introduced an abundance of blunt self-awareness which centers many plot points and character qualities within the two programs.
More importantly, these elaborate series have showcased the fact that animation as a genre can have a relatable layer of existential complexity within its storytelling.
Existentialism is the philosophical thought that “existence precedes essence”, meaning we as humans are brought into the world primarily, and then decide what the point of our existence is. The majority of religions on the other hand, would argue the opposite: that we were created with innate purpose granted to us by some greater power.
The reason why Rick and Morty and Bojack Horseman are among the top most critically-acclaimed television series in American animation is the fact that they don’t try to sugarcoat the existential question: What is the meaning of life?
This question can be broken down even further: Is there any meaning to life? If so, what is it? Where can I find meaning? How can I create it? The former series takes a nihilistic approach to this question in constantly repeating the idea that life is essentially pointless, and that nothing that anyone does really matters.
This perspective is foundational to the character Rick Sanchez and, to a lesser degree, Bojack Horseman. Both of these series showcase an, in theory, unappealing main character who drowns in pessimism along with entitlement to lead a self-destructive life; however many people adore these characters enough to tune in every season to follow them through their journeys. The reason behind the seemingly ironic enjoyment gained through watching these characters progress, is the fact that they are immensely relatable.
Their thoughts and actions coincide with those of people struggling with depression. Believing that there is no true substance to human life and rejecting any ounce of perceived meaning as soon as it comes within their vicinity, are evidence of this.
The relatability of these characters come from understanding that depression is a void that, once entered, is difficult to escape from; something that (statistically speaking) many of us have experienced at least once before. Let’s be honest here, people who drown themselves in cartoons as a form of escapism don’t exactly represent the epitome of happiness, but then again, there are many reasons why people of all ages watch animated works. The point is, for the most part, depression seems to live right alongside existentialism, and both are very common experiences.
An important question to ask is:
What comes first, existential dread or depression?
The answer is quite simple when you think about it, and also helps us to unravel the mystery behind these complex characters. Depression is preliminary. Happy people do not question existence—they simply take it as a given that they are alive, and they live. Take the character Mr. Peanutbutter of Bojack Horseman for example, he embodies this frame of mind by simply enjoying life free from expectations of what it has in store for him. To quote his character:
“The universe is a cruel, uncaring void. The key to being happy isn’t to search for meaning, it’s to just keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense and eventually, you’ll be dead.”
Mr. Peanutbutter carries a contrasting frame of reference to that of Rick and Bojack, which demonstrates that people can be divided into generalized segments:
- Those who believe that life has innate meaning
- Those who believe that meaning is not innate, but can be created
- Those who are convinced that life is truly a meaningless void with no exit outside of death
Rick and Bojack fall into the third category; however as both series have progressed, we have witnessed character growth that hints at an alteration in the protagonists’ mindsets—in that no matter how much each of them deny meaning, they both carry hope for something greater.
In terms of Rick, his will to remain alive is rooted in his appreciation and love towards his family which, although well-hidden, has been showcased through his willingness to give his own life for Morty; freezing time for months to hang out with his grandchildren; and staying with the Smith family even after being demoted to a low status following Jerry’s return in the season 3 finale. In this same episode, Beth even tells Rick to swap dimensions once again in response to his comment about their choice to stay together as a family not having an inch of significance within the multiverse. What is important to note here is that rather than hitting the restart button, Rick decides to go out of his way to fix his poor standing with the President of the United States in order to remain in America—all in order to stay with the family that he has grown fond of, despite being in denial of the fact. No matter how much Rick tries to convince himself that the people closest to him aren’t special because of their infinite nature, it is clear to see that he views these characters as one-of-a-kind relative to himself.
On the other end of the spectrum, Bojack has lived a self-destructive life after reaching his prime two decades prior starring in a popular television sitcom. His existential dread stems from believing that he had already reached the best and most successful moment of his life; and since this high point is over, he realizes that there is no other direction to go in but downwards. In season 4, we begin to see a change in his perspective on life. After his long-lost half sister Hollyhock makes an appearance, Bojack begins to see that he is capable of caring for someone outside of himself—he discovers that making a positive impact on someone else’s life can bring him genuine joy and provide him with the meaning he has been searching for.
This tells us that there is nothing left for Bojack in the Hollywoo scene; rather as his values are slowly changing, he is beginning to understand that a wealth of purpose awaits in different areas of his life. His only challenge is to re-evaluate what he currently defines as his priorities.
Their many similarities aside, the main difference between Rick and Bojack is the fact that Rick tries to convince himself that believing in the “meaning of life” (whatever it may be) is an illusion designed for those of lesser intellect. He constantly preaches the fact that nothing matters because he believes that emotions are a weakness, and that this essentially demeans the “God among humans” that he sees himself as. We have witnessed the rare moments in which Rick genuinely appears to care for others, but he consciously chooses to hide these emotions and attempts convince himself that he simply doesn’t need to feel anything.
Bojack however, is a different case. From the first season, we see that he truly wants to believe that life has purpose—he wants to care about something outside of himself. But alongside his tormented childhood, Hollywoo’s high standards of success, and his long-term depression, Bojack acts self-destructively when anything beneficial or uplifting comes his way.
He is plagued by an unfortunate family dynamic that was both negligent and verbally abusive. As much as Bojack would like to believe that he deserves his success and that he has made it far in life, he instead has the words of his mother ingrained into his conscience: that he will never amount to anything, no matter how far he soars. Coming around full circle, it makes sense that his depression and existential crisis has rooted from childhood mistreatment, and that his emotional wounds are slowly being healed in acting as a supportive adult figure towards Hollyhock—something that he has lacked his entire life.
As layers are constantly being revealed of these characters, we as the audience can begin to understand what their true conscious and subconscious emotions are. Despite what may be displayed primarily, deep down, both Rick and Bojack are both very vulnerable characters who truly care about those closest to them, and are beginning to see that the concept of “meaning” is dynamic—it’s subjective, and therefore can be created.
Overall, many series in television animation are beginning to develop in complexity and progressiveness; however, only a select few tackle themes of depression and nihilism. The problem with the existential question in reality is that fact that it is asked far too often. As a YouTube video by user rauserbegins states: Depressed people introspect far too often. They question the meaning of life to almost an obsessive degree. Although self-reflection can be positive, too much of it can become self-destructive depending on one’s the mental state. In this sense, maybe we can learn something from Rick Sanchez when he says: “The answer is, don’t think about it”. Or to follow in Mr. Peanutbutter’s lead as a similar alternative: ” . . . keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense”.
And finally, to end on a more uplifting note, and to quote the Anonymous Baboon in Bojack Horseman:
“It gets easier. Everyday it gets a little easier. But you gotta do it everyday, that’s the hard part. But it does get easier”.