Cartoons are doing things impossible for their live-action counterparts
There’s a sketch from the British comedy show That Mitchell and Webb Look in which Jesus is telling the story of the Good Samaritan to a gaggle of listeners. “Who should wander by but a Samaritan of all people and he actually helped the man! What I’m saying is, he was a Good Samaritan — if you could imagine such a thing!”
Turns out, the crowd could imagine such a thing. “What I’m finding offensive,” one of the would-be disciples says, “is your unreflecting acceptance that all Samaritans are wankers.”
“No, I’m saying he was good!” Jesus protests.
“But you’re implying that the fact that he’s good is worth a story in itself.”
After each new season of BoJack Horseman, every television critic and fan, for at least a week, becomes Robert Webb’s Jesus, trying to convince people that it’s actually possible for an animated show to be good. It’s about a horse, but if you can believe it, it’s actually intelligent. Just think of that for a minute: a smart animated show! Astonishing!
But in a post-Futurama world, where The Simpsons has been on the air for nearly three decades, and when Archer gets a shout out between Stranger Things and The Americans at the Emmys, how can it still be fair to assume that an animated show is going to be inherently less worthy of being taken seriously than its live-action counterparts?
Perhaps some of the bias against animated shows comes from their perceived viewership. A recent VICE article describes a very vocal section of the Rick and Morty fandom as “the kind of pseudo-intellectuals who fit within that Venn diagram sweet spot of GamerGate agitators, vape expo attendees, and people who read Nietzsche on the train.” Pointing out that BoJack Horseman is actually a show about depression is so annoyingly commonplace that’s it’s become a Twitter punchline. Widespread and varied as the humor is between shows like BoJack Horseman, Bob’s Burgers, Archer, Rick and Morty, and South Park, to a layperson, the audience for “adult cartoons” might be comfortably lumped together into the category of “twenty-something older brother smoking pot in the basement.”
But for thoughtful creative teams, a show being animated is far from a handicap for sophisticated storytelling; animation itself offers tools to reach emotional depths that wouldn’t be possible in live-action. The format can be a Trojan Horse for complicated themes or sadness, made surprising because they’re delivered in primary colors—something BoJack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg said they discovered in the first season and have been challenging themselves with ever since.
“A lot of the stories we do, in a live action show, would feel overdramatic or maudlin or over the top or indulgent, or just too sad,” said Bob-Waksberg. “But because we live in this elastic universe that is bright and colorful and cartoony, you give a little more in all directions.”
Animation became an especially brilliant storytelling tool in season 4’s penultimate episode, “Time’s Arrow,” which follows BoJack’s mom, Beatrice, whose older brother died in World War II and whose father, Joseph Sugarman, had her grief-stricken mother lobotomized. In the episode, Beatrice’s childhood and maturity are depicted through the memories of the now elderly woman clouded with Alzheimer’s. Faces are scratched out as if by an angry pencil or otherwise left entirely blank, lost to memory; the background brightens as her life seems to improve for a moment before reverting back to muted browns; scenes skip forward in time, transition-less, with the threaded logic of dreams. The episode’s emotional weight would have crippled a live-action comedy, and the episode’s structure would have been impossible.
The world of BoJack Horseman is tragic, and all the more tragic because the enemies are real: abuse, Alzheimer’s, broken relationships, drug addiction, regret. There are no Big Bads whose death would hose down Hollywoo and clean it of all its misery like a pressure washer.
“What’s really interesting about that character Joseph Sugarman is, I think, if you asked anyone before this season, ‘Who is the villain of BoJack Horseman? Who’s the bad guy if there is one?’ I think a lot of people would point to Beatrice and Butterscotch — BoJack’s parents — as the origin of his wounds,” said Bob-Waksberg.
“And so, its very funny for me — to come out of this season where we see Beatrice’s backstory and we learn about her and we see why she is the way she is and we paint the other sides of her — to see people go, ‘Oh actually her dad is the bad guy; he’s the real problem,’ as if we couldn’t make another episode that was all about his backstory, or even just the stuff we see: He lost a son in the war and has to just cover that up and be the strong dad. We don’t see him grieve over it or how he feels about it or his own regret about what he did to his wife.”
The only villains in BoJack Horsman are the inevitable tragedies of real life. It’s dark, and oftentimes bleak, verging on nihilistic. And because we experience it through the story of a cartoon horse, it’s palatable, balanced by a universe that also has room for “drone thrones” and a cat with a copy of Jonathan Franzen’s Purrity.
Even animated shows ostensibly aimed at children, particularly Steven Universe on Cartoon Network, are able to discuss incredibly weighty subjects in a way that doesn’t ever feel overly heavy. Although the premise sounds slightly deranged to someone unfamiliar with the show, I’ll try my best: Steven is the youngest, and only half-human member of the Crystal Gems, a group of alien beings who protect the earth from others of their kind. Steven inherited his gem from his mother, who gave up her physical form to allow her son to exist, and this guilt over responsibility for his mother’s death, in addition to his shame at not being as valuable a member of the team as she might have been, form much of the show’s major arc. It gets more complicated from there, but never so complicated that the show loses its core: a delightful, colorful, often musical celebration of friendship and bravery.
Rick and Morty, on Adult Swim, is not notable for its emotional depth (or child-friendliness), but it’s gained a massive and devoted fanbase for its exploration of scientific and philosophical questions with a zany flippancy.
Episodes zing between increasingly implausible premises made possible only by the show’s unapologetic declaration that plausibility doesn’t actually matter here. The multiverse theory, the question of determinism, the ethics of cloning, and a dozen more philosophical conundrums are dipped into at will, the framework for whatever bizarre adventure the universe-hopping mad-scientist Rick drags his grandson Morty into that week.
Whereas BoJack benefits from animation’s increased tolerance for tragedy, Rick and Morty more often takes advantage of its forgiveness towards violence: a single episode might contain countless stabbings and unspeakable maiming and misshaping, bodies turned inside out or limbs removed, all depicted fully but never quite nauseatingly thanks to their cartoonified detachedness (Rick’s ubiquitous vomit drool is yet another animated element that, in live action, would immediately put a viewer off).
The multiverse is literary boundless for the writers of the show to explore, constrained by neither financial limitations nor the laws of physics (or biology).
Another strength of many animated series emerges from something most people might view to be a weakness: the time it takes — often as long as eight months — for an episode to be produced after its been written, which limits a show’s ability to be topical (South Park’s cursory stop-motion paper style makes it an exception).
“Knowing that we can’t be topical helps us be a little more timeless, and helps us talk about issues a little more broadly and in ways that doesn’t feel like it’s about this specific person or this specific situation but about this wider trend or general thing that’s happening in our world and our industry,” Bob-Waksberg said.
“Certainly there are elements of the national election that seep into our narrative just because we’re all thinking it and all talking about it all the time, but we really didn’t want to do any sort of one-to-one metaphors or symbolism because we knew it would immediately feel dated. We’ve been pretty lucky with big plots because we don’t try to be too specific about it.”
We live in a golden age of cartoons because creators recognize animation not just as the only plausible way of conveying a universe with humanoid animals, but also as a tool for a new kind of storytelling. BoJack Horseman and its ilk are deepened by an ability to toggle between the absurd and the profound, to one-two punch an audience that still doesn’t realize how much it should be expecting from an animated show.