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Sadness as Art 4 min read

Sadness as Art

Sometimes our "lows" are the richest sources of human storytelling

By Cary Littlejohn
Sadness as Art Post image

There is no novelty in making art out of one’s sadness. It’s an oft-traversed path for artists of all stripes, like the blues guitarist or the writer. But now, more and more, so too does the TV show runner, and often it’s the comedic ones who make the most impactful art that delves into the depths of depression.

This week, BoJack Horseman, the animated hit from Netflix set in an anthropomorphized version of Hollywood where some characters are people and some are animals but nobody seems to care, returned for the first half of its final season.  It’s an incredible bit of television writing, and I, speaking for many, will be incredibly sad to see it reach its conclusion.

The world of the show follows BoJack, a ‘90s TV star of a Full House-like sitcom, and despite the popularity of his show, his career plateaued in the following two decades. He’s constantly seeking something to distract from his crippling depression, turning to the usual attempted remedies of sex, drugs and alcohol. His selfishness is monumental, and his manners are dubious, constantly retreating to his prima donna tendencies of his height of fame. He’s imminently unlikable, but then he’s not, because he’s relatable. His life is constantly beset by Seinfeldian commentary on numerous aspects of the mundane, from bad service at restaurants to terrible drivers to annoying friends. The first half of the final season is his closest brush with feeling better about himself and his surroundings and his lot in life, but the second half of the season, which will be released in January 2020, will surely see that unravel in spectacular fashion.

Beyond BoJack, the show is incredibly adept at rendering supporting characters as fully formed, complex in their own rights and also dealing with some form of internal sadness. Whether it’s Princess Carolyn, the sherbet-colored cat agent and former love interest of BoJack’s dealing with the overwhelming stress of single-motherhood and lingering doubts about her fitness for it all, the slacker Todd, who continues to fail upward by sheer dumb luck, or Diane, the perpetually unhappy, intellectual journalist striving not to self-destruct her own chances at happiness, each of the characters are searching for something.

It’s hard to recommend a show knowing someone just starting would have to commit to six seasons in order to catch up, but this one is absolutely worth it. It is the saddest, smartest, funniest show on TV. In this Season 6 trailer, BoJack narrates some of his letters from rehab, and as a microcosm of the show, they go between the hilarious and the deep.

But what of the sad part of it all? The show has become one that I’ve viewed in its entirety multiple times now, easily put on as background noise, something I could fall asleep watching and not be mad at myself because I’d have to go back to see what I’d missed. More than something to put on whenever I want, it’s become something I’ve turned to whenever I’m feeling down, like the time-honored tradition of playing the saddest music when you’re sad. It makes zero sense that it should make us feel any better, but somehow it does. Whether it’s by brute force simply overwhelming our human capacity for sadness or there’s a superior beauty in minor chord progressions, it helps. BoJack is the cartoon equivalent of that; when you get beyond its multi-layered jokes and nonsensical gags (of which there are many), it’s an incredibly heavy show, and in no way should be a pick-me-up of choice. But it is. You may not end up returning to the show over and over like I do, as I realize that’s a fairly unique trait, but I cannot recommend the show highly enough.

On the topic of sadness as art and the simple kindness of letter-writing, I’m pulled back into the archives of Esquire magazine, where I’ve been spending so much time for my master’s thesis. There’s a story that was publish exactly one year before I was born, December 1, 1986: Styron’s Choices, a profile of the celebrated author of Sophie’s Choice, The Confessions of Nat Turner and Lie Down in Darkness.

Philip Caputo was given the opportunity to profile the famed author on the occasion of the latter’s newest novel that was in the works, The Way of the Warrior, a World War II epic set in the South Pacific in 1945. But before the book could be completed, Styron fell victim to a serious battle with depression, and he never returned to the novel. Caputo ends up writing about Styron’s sickness by the end of the piece, and at one point, he talks with some embarrassment of a letter he sent Styron. After learning that he was abandoning the novel, Caputo wrote to lift the famed writer’s spirits, to push him back into the ring by way of positive affirmation. But he included in the article Styron’s response, and it was a touching appreciation:

“Let me say again how grateful I am to you for your letter, “ he wrote. “Corny as it may appear, it seems that only a Marine can be truly aware of another Marine’s suffering; you gave me a nice jolt of good cheer. Thanks from the depths. I’m pleased and proud of your friendship.”

Though Caputo was embarrassed of the letter he initially sent, perhaps because of a lack of perceived sympathy and a talking-out-of-turn quality, it strikes me how powerful written words of affirmation can be. There exists a permanence by being written down, in careful handwriting or a jagged scrawl, or typed in an email or a text message, and the retrievability of these notes, the fact that their physical form somehow makes the sentiments more real, is something I’ve been reminded of lately. Words of affirmation from those I admire, lifting me up from the depths or punching me in the gut in the best kind of way, the way that makes it tough to swallow and tears unable to be contained, are kept and revisited whenever I doubt myself, which is often.

Take care of those closest to you, and if you get a chance, write down your kind words for them. You never know when they’ll need affirmation, and having written words to which they can constantly return, might just be their new sad song, their new BoJack Horseman, their new anchor in the storm.