To the average person, cartoons are viewed as a form of stress-free entertainment. This genre of television is rarely expected to dive deep into philosophical 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 that many people view television animation in that it has bluntly introduced an abundance of raw 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 would argue the opposite; that we were created with innate purpose granted to us by some greater power.
The reason why Rick and Morty is the highest rated television series in American animation is, in my opinion, the fact that it doesn’t try to sugar coat the existential question: What is the meaning of life? This 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 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 is the foundation to the character Rick Sanchez and, to a less direct degree, Bojack Horseman, the protagonist of the series of the same name. Both 0f these series showcase an, in theory, unappealing main character who drowns in pessimism and the egotistic-based entitlement to live a self-destructive life; however many people adore these characters enough to tune in every season to follow them through their journey. The reason behind this seemingly ironic enjoyment through watching these characters is the fact that they are relatable.
Their thoughts and actions coincide with those of someone struggling with depression. Believing that there is no true substance to human life and leading a self-destructive life that rejects any ounce of perceived meaning as soon as it comes within the vicinity of the person is evidence of this.
The reliability of these characters come from understanding that depression is a void in which, once one enters, is difficult to get out of; and something that 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 in simply enjoying life free from expectations of what it has in store for him. The 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:
a) Those who believe that life has innate meaning
b) Those who believe that meaning is not innate, but can be created
c) 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 progressed, we have witnessed some character growth that hints to there being a possibility that their mindset is slowly beginning to change; and that no matter how much each of them deny meaning, they both carry hope for something greater.
In terms of Rick, it’s his appreciation and love towards his family which, although well-hidden, as been showcased through him being willing to give his own life for Morty; freezing time for months to hang out with his grandchildren; and staying with the family even after being demoted to the lowest status following Jerry’s return in the season 3 finale. In this same episode, Beth even tells Rick to change dimensions once again in response to his comment about their choice to stay together as a family not having an inch of significance in the multiverse.
What is important to note here is that rather than hitting restart, 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 to stay with his family who 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, or at least the Morty of dimension C-137, as holding a special place in him.
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, but after this high point was over, he realized that there is no other direction to go in but down. In season 4, we begin to see a change within him. Since his long-lost half sister Hollyhock made an appearance, Bojack begins to see that he is capable of caring for someone outside of himself; and 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 him in the Hollywoo scene; rather as his values are beginning to change, Bojack is seeing that there is so much more in the world that he is capable of achieving in different areas of his life.
The main difference between Bojack and Rick, despite their many similarities, is the fact that Rick tries to convince himself that believing in the meaning of life is an illusion design for those of lesser intellect. He constantly denies the fact that nothing matters because he believes that emotions are synonymous to being weak, and that this is essentially demeaning to the “God” that he sees himself as. We have witnessed that Rick is capable of caring for others and about life in general, but consciously chooses to hide these emotions and to convince himself that he doesn’t care.
Bojack however, is a different case. Starting from the firsts season, we see that he truly wants to believe that life has meaning. He wants to care about something outside of himself. But alongside depression, Hollywoo’s high standards of success, and ___ he ends up acting self-destructively when anything positive comes his way. Bojack 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, he instead believes that he will never amount to anything, no matter how successful he becomes. Coming around full circle, it makes sense that his existential crisis and depression has rooted from mistreatment from childhood, but is slowly being fixed by him upbringing Hollyhock and seeing how an adult figure can positively impact the younger generation.
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 video by 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 the mental state of the person. In this sense, maybe we can learn something from a line Rick Sanchez has mentioned a couple of times: “The answer is, don’t think about it”.
And finally, to end on a more uplifting note, and to quote the Anonymous Baboon from 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”.