One of the most affecting scenes I’ve ever watched on television takes place in the sparsely populated hall of a convention center. A panel of speakers sits on a stage, fielding dumb questions from a tiny audience.
Without any warning, a man, desperate and spluttering, bursts into the room and commandeers the microphone. “I need you to tell me that I’m a good person,” he begs, eyes huge and frantic. He needs reassurance from one of the guests on the panel — the woman who knows him better than anyone else, “I need you to tell me that I’m good, Diane. Tell me I’m good.”
At this point it’s probably important to mention that this man is actually a talking horse.
Bojack Horseman (Will Arnett), the equine protagonist of Netflix’s eponymous animated hit, is not your typical talking animal. He’s flawed, flustered and often pathetic. The show follows Bojack, a washed-up sitcom star, as he attempts to escape the depths of Hollywood has-been-ery. “Bojack Horseman” is mostly a comedy, but, as evidenced by this and other emotionally fraught scenes, it can’t be so easily defined.
By most accounts, we’re living in a new Golden Age of Television, but prestige dramas like Mad Men and Breaking Bad aren’t the only shows to garner popular acclaim and critical hype: For decades, The Simpsons had a monopoly on the cartoons-for-grownups market, but newer shows like “Bojack,” “The Boondocks” on Adult Swim and “Bob’s Burgers” on FOX reflect the growing legitimacy of animated programming. Freed from the constraints of live-action filming, such programs succeed by blending stylized form with content. Being animated isn’t peripheral; it’s essential.
And no show exemplified this new species of programming better than “Archer,” now in its sixth season on FX. The show sends up James Bond-esque spycraft with a wicked mix of highbrow and lowbrow humor. Archer is almost always ridiculous, filled with crazy car chases and Sterling Archer’s (H. Jon Benjamin) absurd sexual escapades. But when long-time love interest Lana (Aisha Tyler) tells Archer that her daughter is actually their daughter, his eyes grow wide and all background noise blends into a high-pitched wail. Our goofy, pen-and-ink playboy takes on an expression of true astonishment.
Like Bojack Horseman, Archer explores the human potential of animation. But even as animated comedies flourish, there’s a conspicuous absence from the vast and profitable landscape of television.
In an age of unprecedented creative freedom for showrunners and writers, the potential for animated drama remains untapped. Networks, desperate for commercial success in an overcrowded field, will try anything to differentiate themselves. So why hasn’t there been an animated drama series? Perhaps part of the problem is the medium’s entrenched association with comedy. But animated films don’t shy away from drama, and anime series have married animation with serious content for years. Anyone who thinks adults won’t be invested in cartoon drama should re-watch Toy Story 3.
This whole column is pretty much just to say: Someone should make an animated drama series. So if you’re a Yale upperclassman who hasn’t yet achieved mainstream media success, this could be your big break. But until someone makes the pathos-inducing-yet-digestible animated drama I’ve been waiting for, I’ll stick with my stopgap strategy: Watching the sad parts of Bojack Horseman on repeat, sobbing into a box of Insomnia cookies, and empathizing with the plight of a talking cartoon horse.