Film philosophy: The representation of burnout in ‘BoJack Horseman’

Drawing of Bojack Horseman character Princess Carolyn looking tired and wearing a 'Claremont Colleges' sweatshirt
(Jadyn Lee • The Student Life)

While there are many signs of burnout, the lack of warning bells about deadlines that would normally cause stress may be the most alarming sign of the condition. In a 15 week semester, it is completely natural to be feeling burned out. No longer do deadlines strike fear, sleep seems like a completely appropriate method of studying and that little voice keeps begging the question, “Why should I do this?”

It can be difficult to manage burnout, especially in the midst of an increasingly busy semester. When vague, uninstructive phrases and the commercialization of buzzwords like ‘self-care’ and similar words are flippantly thrown about as potential remedies, it may be hard to actually enact helpful behaviors to avoid the worst of burnout. While articles or studies can be instructive, sometimes it can seem like too much effort to even begin to find tools to regain motivation, which can be a problem. 

So, instead, let me bring your attention to a TV show which contains some of the most classic, comical, quintessential coverage of burnout: “BoJack Horseman.” Written by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the six season show aired from August 2014 to January 2020.

The show follows the washed-up former TV star BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett) as he navigates his self-destructive behaviors after his peak of fame in the 1990s. While BoJack is a perfect example of some of the less helpful tendencies of burnout, such as procrastination, his ambitious companion and manager, Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), provides a more instructive perspective on burnout.

In particular, episode two of season six, “The New Client,” depicts the usually energetic Princess Carolyn at her most exhausted. As a single adoptive mother, head of her own business and fiercely protective friend, her life is pulled in a number of different directions.

Beautifully animated, the episode physically represents the numerous stressors placed on one’s body by their career, friends and family. Princess Carolyn is accompanied by various semi-translucent versions of herself throughout the episode, all doing different tasks. The singular, main Princess Carolyn appears as she normally does: collected, put-together and sharp. The episode beautifully, visually depicts the internal chaos that can ensue throughout a busy day.

The translucency of the copies not only differentiates the real Princess Carolyn from her fictitious counterparts, but also serves in isolating Princess Carolyn. As other characters do not interact with the copies, she appears to be alone in her universe. However, to the audience, it is clear that she is surrounded by a crowd of her own thoughts and tasks. 

The overlapping noises created by the different tasks her many selves are completing — such as tapping on a phone or negotiating an offer on a call — culminate to create a seemingly perfect representation of how burnout may sometimes feel: overwhelming.

The importance of the character Princess Carolyn specifically experiencing burnout is also notable. She generally acts as a foil to BoJack’s self-sabotaging, unmotivated character. Presenting her as a sleep-deprived, uncoordinated mess slurring her words with bags under her eyes hammers home the universality of burnout. You really aren’t alone.

So, is that it? Does having obligations to ourselves, communities and our families mean that we will always be overwhelmed, isolated in our own stress and burned out? Life seems like a lot more to handle than the tidy and concise resume we put together makes it out to be. 

In short, no; we do not have to be isolated. Let me refer back to Princess Carolyn. While she goes about her days, stumbling from one stressor to another with little to no sleep, there are brief yet important moments of connection. 

These short scenes, taking up a maximum of five seconds, showcase the importance of our connections. On the phone call with former colleague Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), Princess Carolyn allows herself a brief second of vulnerability with a close friend. In the grocery store, she derives happiness from the giggle her daughter lets out. In the car, she takes a second to offer her own support to BoJack.

While experiencing burnout, as Princess Carolyn was, friends and family are your greatest resource. The support system you build with them can be helpful, as her interactions with her baby demonstrate. As her phone call with BoJack shows, even when people themselves may feel burned out, support is still there for you.

This, of course, is not the only way to defeat burnout nor does it negate strategies to avoid or work through burnout by yourself. If scented candles or face masks (while both equally relaxing!) are not your choice, there are many online sources that can be of use to you. As one source mentions, limiting studying hours, identifying suitable study spaces and (most importantly) exercise can be significantly helpful when combating burnout. Most importantly, recognize that burnout is normal.

By implementing such ideas in a show as popular as “BoJack Horseman,” an accessible conversation regarding one’s mental health begins. Using talking cartoon horses and pink cats as their vessels, the creators are able to approach truly relatable, somewhat distressing concepts in an unconventional manner.

As her semi-rival, Vanessa Gekko (Kristin Chenoweth)​​, says in an uncommonly heartfelt conversation between the two, “You just have to do it the best that you can and know that that’s the best you can do.” The conversation provides a convincing argument. The world is very big; it needs a lot of good people. You do not have to be the best (a nonexistent thing to begin with) to be needed.

Simone Bogedal PO ’24 is from Chester, New Jersey. She regularly consumes excessive amounts of coffee and is interested in applicable philosophy found in TV shows.

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