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Illustration by Vivi Zhu

The Rise of the Nihilist Animated Sitcom

Animated shows for adults spark a debate over their nihilist motive and attract admiration and criticism at the same time.

Mar 16, 2019

“The universe is a cruel, uncaring void. The key to being happy isn't a search for meaning, it's to just keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually, you'll be dead,” said Mr. Peanutbutter, an anthropomorphic talking dog from the Netflix hit cartoon “Bojack Horseman”.
This is not exactly the type of thing one wants to hear early in the morning while munching on Froot-Loops and watching cartoons.
In the early 2010s, television saw a shift in animated shows for adults, resulting in darker, more intricate animated comedies such as “Bojack Horseman” and “Rick and Morty”. Both shows were released within a year of each other quickly rose to cult status. “Rick and Morty” reached nine million viewers after just a single season.
“Bojack Horseman” was initially criticized for its first few episodes, but as viewers and critics finished season one, they began to change their tune. As a result of the rapidly shifting review of “Bojack Horseman”, the famous film industry website IndieWire changed their Netflix reviewing policy to only release reviews after completing a whole season.
Animation showed aimed toward adults isn't new to the silver screen. Famous shows such as “South Park”, “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy” have been long-time fan favorites for millions of viewers. With some of these shows dating back to the mid 90s, many TV viewers have had time to accept and grow with animated cartoons for adults.
“I think these earlier shows normalized a space for adult animated comedy or more serious shows,” said Jacob Chagnon, Class of 2019, when discussing “South Park” and “Family Guy”.
Set in an alternative version of Los Angeles where animals and humans coexist, Bojack Horseman and his friends attempt to find meaning in their lives. Horseman is a washed up Hollywood actor – voiced by Will Arnett who is best known for his work on “Arrested Development” – who struggles to regain his fame through a variety of weird antics and constantly finds himself in difficult situations.
“Rick and Morty” takes place in a fantastical sci-fi world where alcoholic genius Rick Sanchez takes his timid grandson Morty on wild adventures, jumping between dimensions, fighting monsters and making fart jokes. Both “Rick and Morty” are voiced by co-creator Justin Roiland.
“I think it's really well made, its different to anything else I’ve watched, fulfilling a very certain need, it's a very unique genre and I appreciate its existence,” said Maja Wilbrink, Class of 2022, discussing “Rick and Morty.”
The reason the shows are often pegged together is their similarity in underlying themes. While working with very different premises, the shows both focus on dark themes such as substance abuse, failing romance, existential angst and self sabotage. Bojack and Rick both deny any sort of meaning in life which gives each its nihilist overtones.
It is these themes that viewers proclaim to be the key to the shows’ successes.
“I think that's the primary reason why I watch ‘Bojack Horseman’. With ‘Rick and Morty’ it's also the content and just how creative it is. But Bojack definitely explores so many underlying psychological things that we go through or we know others go through,” said Himag Vaidya, Class of 2019. Several online media channels and publications have delved into these aspects of the shows, investigating and analyzing their underlying philosophies. The popular Youtube channel Wisecrack has a series of videos dedicated to the unraveling of both “Rick and Morty” and “Bojack Horseman”.
“It’s fun to play into that, I don't really fetishize it like some people who go crazy about it. I don’t think that’s the point of these shows. Maybe sometimes in Bojack, because he lives in this dark spiral, trying to find meaning in everything when he's not going to. So you can definitely read into it and it makes them better shows, but I dont think their values hinge just on that,” said Chagnon.
Parallel to the indepth online analysis there exists a community of fans on forums who discuss the different shows and explain the effects it has had on their lives. Reddit has been a primary platform for this phenomena with its show specific subreddits.
Viewers often report being able to rationalize their own struggles and find characters such as Bojack and Rick very relatable. “I think that it's a very smart thing to do, to introduce themes such as depression and nihilism into cartoons so that its more easily digested,” said Sameera Singh, Class of 2022. Singh is a passionate fan of “Bojack Horseman.”
“Everytime I watch an episode of Bojack I end up questioning something or the other. By the end of seasons five, after ‘The Eulogy’ episode, all he does is speak for one whole episode. After that it gave me a sort of existential pondering phase, where I thought, what is the meaning of all of it. But yeah Bojack leaves me with a sense of questioning,” continued Singh.
For “Rick and Morty,” not all the publicity has been positive. The fervor held by fans has been viewed as obsessive and transformed into an online elitist club. The show has led to the creation of satirical and often aggressive arguments about whether fans understand the show’s true complexities.
“Best show ever made by humankind! But, I don't recommend it to people with an IQ <150 because to be fair, you have to have a very high IQ to understand Rick and Morty”.
Quotes such as these can be found sprawled across the internet all with varying degrees of sarcasm.
“I kinda hate that, there was such an intense love of it that it created an anti-‘Rick and Morty’. Actually it's not even against the show, it's just that small specific group of people that were taking it too seriously and they were made into a meme,” said Chagnon.
More direct aggression has been focused toward some of the shows female writers with Reddit users claiming that the quality of the shows third season was negatively impacted due to the hiring of “social justice warrior” female writers. Rick and Morty has been criticized since day one for holding underlying misogynistic undertones and a lack of female representation. “Some of the jokes are definitely crude and not all of it I find funny. I feel like its a difficult one, because of the sense of humour around these issues. That's why I don't like to associate with the fanbase that much, because there are different types of audiences for ‘Rick and Morty’ and some people get really into that side of the show,” said Wilbrink. “But I think if you're watching it with the right lens on and you’re appreciating other aspects of the show… you know that's not the only thing that the show has,” she added.
Despite the criticism and divided fan base, “Rick and Morty” along with “Bojack Horseman” have lots more to share with their viewer. With both shows working toward their upcoming seasons fans are still waiting for their next dose of existential angst.
Jaime Fernandez, Class of 2022, concluded our discussion on “Bojack Horseman” with this quote, “I mean I’m not a horse and I wasn’t in a 90s TV show but the show really gets you thinking about what will be of my life in 10 to 20 years.”
Taj Chapman is Features Editor. Email him at
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