Back in the ’90s, BoJack Horseman (protagonist of the Netflix original series BoJack Horseman) was the star of a sitcom named Horsin’ Around. The clips we see of that show reveal sentimentality at its most toxic: Every line is either a bad joke or an unearned expression of affection; every problem is easily solved; and every lesson learned is simple, direct, and painfully obvious. The sitcom’s shallowness is an ever-ready punchline set against the ambiguity and misery of BoJack’s “real” life. Yet the former star remains obsessed with the show that made him his fortune, watching and re-watching taped episodes even as his world falls apart. Those lessons may be obvious, but at least they’re something.
It’s a tension that’s practically universal: The knowledge that life is complex, often unfair, and generally mysterious wars with our innate need for simple answers. The airwaves are littered with TV shows that exploit that conflict by offering straightforward escapism, or by scoring surface points off of life’s strangeness without requiring any deeper investment. Then there are the shows that want to achieve a more lasting impact than simple distraction. The challenge being that audiences for that kind of show pride themselves on being jaded and harder to reach. The popularity of the type of sitcom that Horsin’ Around parodies informed a generation of cynics, eager to pick apart even the slightest hint of false sincerity. The trick is to find a way to tell stories that get past those well-honed defenses, stories that seem to believe in nothing but ultimately believe in everything.
BoJack Horseman is very good at this. So is Rick And Morty, a sci-fi comedy mindfuck currently airing on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block. Both in their second seasons, the two are the latest example of a by-now recognizable genre: animated series hiding a rich emotional life behind a thick layer of dark comedy and borderline nihilism. While neither would seem to have much in common—BoJack’s surreal, melancholic take on Hollywood and stardom is light years away in texture and tone from Rick And Morty’s frenetic cosmic absurdity—they both demonstrate an affection for their ensembles and a need for audiences to share that affection. Both have beating, vital hearts, even as they do everything in their respective powers to pretend otherwise.
It’s a neat trick, and one that requires a considerable amount of effort and balance to pull off. The format helps. Animation inspires certain assumptions, even when it’s immediately evident those assumptions aren’t true. Most cartoons are made for children, which means bright colors, trustworthy authority figures, and happy endings. There’s nothing subtle about the way BoJack and Rick And Morty’s adult themes (death, sex, drugs, ennui) undercut the presumed family-friendliness of animated entertainment, but that doesn’t make the effect any less, well, effective. On a basic level, it’s funny to see a talking horse getting drunk and screwing groupies, or a drunken grandfather forcing his grandson to decide the fate of the world. It’s even funnier when those scenes are animated because the surprise that drives the humor becomes more subversive.
That subversion is a key element in earning an audience’s trust. Having cartoon characters do horrible things signals that these shows are clever enough to recognize cliche and work against it. But that cleverness only goes so far, and BoJack and Rick And Morty take great pains to make sure the specificity of their respective worlds adds to the irony. There’s no real plot reason why BoJack should be a horse-man, or that his show’s reality should be populated by talking animals. But those animals offer story and joke potential as well as being familiar to anyone who’s watched many children’s movies, which, again, sets up those quickly subverted expectations. Talking animals are supposed to be cheerful and funny, not morose and self-destructive.
Rick And Morty’s premise sounds like something that wouldn’t be out of place on Disney Channel: A brilliant inventor takes his grandson around the multiverse, meeting aliens and having adventures. But just as BoJack and his friends belie the expected behavior of cartoon beasts, Rick and Morty’s escapades are a far cry from Doc and Marty McFly bopping around time. The show presents a reality which is brutal, merciless, and cold, one where the smallest mistake can kill millions. And worse, Rick, the ostensible authority figure, is loopy, regularly drunk, and openly contemptuous of just about everybody. It’s horrifying to imagine a houseplant under his care, let alone a teenager.
So that’s the cynicism: showing the dark reality under the smiling-happy-people surface of familiar concepts. Both shows deal in morbid humor, but if that were their only interest, neither would have the impact they currently enjoy. BoJack’s initial shallowness and animal puns gave way over the course of its first season to a frank, and often devastating, portrayal of depression and unhappiness, a portrayal the show’s second season expanded and enriched. (The animal puns remained.) Rick And Morty, while more of a comedy at heart than BoJack, made the case over its first run of episodes that Rick’s amoral attitude was arguably the only sane response to an insane universe, and that his callousness actually concealed a sincere affection for his family—not the Hallmark kind of love, maybe, but no less meaningful.
Each series began with apparent indifference, even hostility to its leads, encouraging viewers to laugh in shock and disgust over their behavior. They established a pattern of apparent assholery and then disrupted that pattern with flashes of honest feeling, which land all the harder because they’re unexpected. It’s a model that respects an audience’s unwillingness to settle for easy heartwarming moments by burning the bridges that lead to those moments, and then slowly, patiently rebuilding them. No one’s going to pretend that BoJack isn’t an ass, or that Rick and Morty have a functional relationship. But once that pretense is off the table, it’s possible to find other, more challenging but still affecting veins of emotion. The surprise of realizing you care about a story that, up until five minutes ago, seemed to be the antithesis of caring, is what makes loyal fans for life.
BoJack and Rick And Morty are hardly the first animated series to use this approach (intentionally or otherwise). While The Simpsons’ cock-eyed take on the nuclear family may seem sweetly wholesome today, its mild disruptions were received as borderline offensive when the show first aired. In its later seasons, Futurama was able to generate a frequently astonishing amount of power by interspersing its usual grab bag of mildly cruel sci-fi silliness with raw heartbreak. But the best example in the modern era is The Venture Bros., which turned an inventive but fundamentally mean-spirited take on Jonny Quest and other boy adventure shows into an unsparing, humane examination of masculine failure.
It’s hard to say how much this style of storytelling is a conscious decision by showrunners, and how much it’s just writers improving as they go. It could be the natural expression of a worldview whose depths only become evident with time. Regardless, the results are the same: shows that flatter a viewer’s knowledge of tropes by deconstructing those tropes, only to reveal the hilarious but wounded soul underneath.