Spongebob Squarepants could not have contributed to my intellectual development – at least, that’s how my parents felt in raising me. I loved my babysitter for this reason: she was numb to my parents concerns and allowed us to watch Spongebob in blocks of hours, if not days.

I have only taken one psych class at Yale, and I dropped the class before the Credit/D/Fail deadline. I will not sit here and bullshit you about developmental psychology and the effect of immature, animated television on the youth. The answer is probably bad, and if I were a betting man, I would guess that Spongebob did not improve my IQ.

Yet, any witness to Spongebob and Patrick remembers them fondly. Their antics, to this day, flood the feeds of our Facebooks and connect all 20-somethings to Bikini Bottom in a way nothing else could.

There are, of course, educational shows understood to appropriately teach children. Baby Einstein, Sesame Street and other TV programs serve a primarily educational purpose, an entertainment purpose secondarily. The goal, of course, is to learn simpler things like numbers, colors and letters, but the shows also encourage positive values and morals. Mr. Rogers immediately comes to mind, particularly the character of Officer Clemmons – an African American police officer. The show normalized for children the idea of a strong African American character, an important step in 1968.

Yet, we so quickly abandon the educational effect TV has on us as adults, particularly the benefits on our emotional development and moral framework. While we passively appreciate the shows we watch as children, appreciating entertainment value and subconsciously receiving the message, the passivity and subconscience, I feel, are removed when we are older. Instead, we are left more insightful, watching shows which we more closely relate to. In recent months the return of two shows has reminded me of the educational value of television on adults: Bojack Horseman and Letterkenny.

I face an onslaught of existential dread when Bojack Horseman returns to Netflix. No description of the six-season show would properly do it justice, but alas, I’ll do what I can. Back in the ’90s, Bojack Horseman was in a very famous TV show, Horsing Around. The fictitious and animated world in which Bojack lives is one in which humans and animals coexist as equals, with the latter group possessing the same skills and abilities as the former.

When we see Bojack, however, the ’90s were 20 years ago. Now, Bojack Horseman is an alcoholic, drug-hooked and emotionally stunted adult with a lifetime of regrets behind and before him. His story re-emerges when Diane Nguyen, a depressed, insightful journalist and shadow biographer is hired to write the tale of Bojack Horseman. Their relationship becomes and remains key throughout the show, with an ensemble cast of characters claiming witness to six-seasons with of Bojack’s antics.

A good friend of mine has long commented on the effect Bojack Horseman has on me. Bojack seasons are structured in a similar way every time: two or three episodes closing out the previous season, three episodes laying the groundwork for the current season, two episodes of general antics, a moment in which redemption is finally within the grasp of the troubled horse, an episode in which he throws that opportunity away via a self-destructive decision and a final episode in which we can see redemption – but in the distance, just past the horizon but
clearly visible.

I do not mean to discredit the writers’ work; in fact, I mean to do the opposite. Every season I remind myself that Bojack Horseman follows a structure, and every time I become an emotional wreckage by season’s end. I listlessly tread around my room, an existential and nihilistic mess for days on end, waiting for the couch and my blanket to put me out of my misery.

Yet, this is hardly a masochistic exercise. Under normal circumstances, it would certainly be an act of self-loath to binge seasons of Bojack Horseman at a time. Instead, Bojack provides me a medium to understand and witness the fictitious thoughts of a depressed alcoholic: two mental illnesses that run in my family. It gives me a safe and comedic space to work through the emotions I struggle to express freely and openly. Bojack himself reminds me to not normalize my shitty, perhaps destructive and self-destructive, behavior. Instead, I’ve learned, we can only find redemption in being held accountable for our actions rather than just holding ourselves accountable. And while it may be excessive or inappropriate to learn this from a fictitious alcoholic Horseman, I still learned.

While Bojack Horseman provides for me my own personal space to grieve and passively realign my moral fiber, other shows have more proactively kept my behavior in check.

The obvious title that comes to mind is Letterkenny, a Hulu show that chronicles the daily comings and goings of the townsfolk of Letterkenny — a small town north of Toronto in Ontario, Canada.

The town of about 5,000 is divided into a variety of groups, of which we mainly follow three: the hicks, the skids and the hockey players. I won’t bore you with a plot run-down; it’s hardly the point, and Wikipedia needs the online traffic. Our protagonist, however, is the focus: Wayne is a self-proclaimed member of the hicks, a farmer who happens to be the toughest guy in Letterkenny.

His defining characteristic comes in the form of various adages and sayings that outline his moral character: “If a friend asks for help, you help them,” “Bad gas travels fast in a small town” and “Don’t kiss and tell, it’s impolite.”

I have long struggled to find a role model. For a brief moment, it was Bojack Horseman, which is the opposite of ideal. Yet, in the characters of Letterkenny, I have found a group of people whose frequency of good decision-making is admirable. I find myself casually doing favors for my friends and holding back snarky, backhanded comments. In watching the show and replicating their morals, I feel like a better person, a feeling that has eluded me for a long time.

You and I both have watched movies and shows from our childhood and realized subtle details. Every children’s movie has a few raunchy, implied jokes for the parents in the audience, something to chuckle about throughout the show or film.

Perhaps, however, how television changes us depends entirely on how we interpret it — insightfully or mindlessly. Perhaps, as we get older and the shows of our youth, young adulthood and early adulthood get further away, our revisiting them provides for us a deeper insight. Maybe I am naive in assuming that it is the show and its writers who are being explicitly profound; maybe I just need to approach all mediums, even the most immature of TV shows, with an open mind and a desire to learn something.

Well; here’s to watching and learning.


Nick T.

Nick Tabio | nick.tabio@yale.edu