Television is no stranger to loneliness, to fixating on the characters who brood in corners, who crave companionship and affection but can never commit to anything beyond a night of meaningless sex and heavy drinking. We see it in Mad Men, Casual, You’re the Worst, Mr. Robot, House of Cards, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Vanderpump Rules, and in BoJack Horseman, the Netflix original animated series that dropped its third season today. There's an abundance of lonely characters who are dependably lonely, and they never fail to remind you how lonely they feel.
BoJack Horseman is about several things. It’s about Hollywood personalities, the brutal ebb and flow nature of the entertainment industry and pop culture that can leave one in a constant state of instability and insecurity, but as simply stated by New York Times critic James Poniewozik in his glowing review of this latest season, “At heart, BoJack Horseman is a comedy about lonely people (and animals) who are never by themselves.” BoJack Horseman offers one of the most powerful depictions of modern day loneliness, particularly in the way it captures an interior alienation, one that has little do with actual human interaction. It’s the kind of seclusion you feel at a gathering, when you notice everyone in conversation, perhaps yourself in conversation, and still don’t feel the comfort and warmth you’d expect the company to provide.
In its first season, we’re introduced to BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett), a loafer with a booze problem who spends his days locked up in his Hollywood mansion watching reruns of Horsin’ Around, a saccharine ‘90s sitcom about a horse (several characters on BoJack Horseman are anthropomorphic animals) who takes in and raises three kids. Despite the efforts of his enthusiastic agent Princess Caroline (a pink cat played by Amy Sedaris), the cheerful presence of freeloader and fellow slob Todd Chavez (Aaron Paul), and the pressure from newly hired ghostwriter Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), BoJack is unable to move past what he views as his glory days and find contentment in the present.
In this current round of BoJack, BoJack is coming off the success of Secretariat, a big budget Oscar Bait-y adaptation that has launched him into the stardom he’s always craved but unsurprisingly doesn’t seem to enjoy. In the first episode of the new season, an interviewer at Manatee Fair asks him what’s next, and it’s an immediate trigger, an alarm for BoJack and viewers alike. Our central character is confused, afraid, and he has no one. In a bottle episode that comes soon after, BoJack is forced, as part of his press tour, to attend the Pacific Ocean Film Fest, which takes him to an underwater cityscape where everyone speaks a different language and holds different customs. The episode, which often feels like a nod to Lost in Translation (isolating an American in the the unfamiliar), is almost entirely free of dialogue, and serves to show how he moves around a gorgeously animated world, but also a foreign world where he feels just as alone as he does above ground, in Los Angeles, surrounded by a group of characters who speak his language, often share his values—however twisted—and actually care about him. So much of BoJack’s personality is him complaining about his unhappiness and alienation to his friends that when we see him in a place where he is truly, physically alone, it’s jarring to realize there’s no real difference.
The appeal to BoJack and shows like it is in this excess, in the unflinching examples of loneliness experienced to the extreme, like a mantra–aloud and a lot so no one can forget. We see our alienation mirrored on the screen, and in its repetition there’s comfort. And it’s not only in its frequency why we find depictions of loneliness on our current slate of TV to be appealing. BoJack captures something tricky about this state, reveals how so much of it is really mental. We love to complain to our friends and family about our loneliness even when, by definition, we’re not exactly alone as we do this. That’s not something easy to articulate, but TV has found a way to give us what we’re feeling.
USA’s breakout hit Mr. Robot shows how Elliot’s several mental illnesses serve to isolate him in a world that the series argues is maybe too connected. In a Guardian piece from San Diego Comic Con, Dave Schilling describes his mindset while attending a panel for the show. “I was surrounded by human beings, but overwhelmed by the loneliness of finding oneself consumed by strangers. Really, it was the ideal situation to find myself in after an hour living in the world of Mr. Robot—a TV series defined by isolation.”
It's not so much that we're entranced by the loneliness these characters are consumed by, but more that their experiences reflect ours, and in turn provide for us a comrade in the struggle against anxiety and existential isolation. These shows tap into the phenomenon of loneliness—all forms of it—and force us to relate and to explore the emotions it incites in ourselves.
In the pilot of Mad Men, a sort of “shout it from the rooftops” loneliness is immediately laid out. Don Draper says, “You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one.” Even though he has several relationships, two marriages, friends, and colleagues, and three children, we know there’s not a moment where he isn’t feeling alone. And, because it’s so familiar, because we understand that it’s just a feeling in your head that you sometimes can’t shake, we love to see it.