"Seductive Commercial Entertainment": On BoJack Horseman and The End of the Tour

I recently saw an early screening of The End of the Tour, James Ponsoldt’s film about David Foster Wallace and his short, intense companionship with David Lipsky during the book tour for Infinite Jest. Even more recently, I watched the second season of Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s BoJack Horseman, about a has-been ’90s sitcom star struggling to stay afloat in his own darkness. The two works have me thinking a lot about the relationships between mental illness, addiction, and creativity—in popular conception, in fact, and as represented in art.

Both The End of the Tour and BoJack Horseman depict a central character struggling with depression and a crowd of outsiders trying to understand—variously supportive, unsupportive, or one cloaked as the other. And in both cases the main character trying to see through the fog is obsessed with mainstream American pop culture. As portrayed by Jason Segel, Wallace battles a television addiction and ponders why people use TV to fill “a sort of emptiness at the heart of what they thought was going on”; BoJack was, if not healthiest, than at least happiest while producing the same kind of “seductive commercial entertainment” that glues Wallace to the screen.

BoJack is long past his greatest success, and defined by how desperately he clings to its memory; The End of the Tour’s Wallace is at the height of his, so jealousy, ego, pity, and derision are at play at very different levels, but still the similarities between the two portraits are striking. Both Ponsoldt’s film and Bob-Waksberg’s show deal with a profound sadness tied inexorably to pleasure and entertainment; with the tension between popular and critical success (and, of course, failure); and with the particular flavor of depression in America—“what’s so American about what I’m doing?” Wallace wonders at one point in the film, prodding at the themes of his writing but also the fact of his depression. Both pieces return again and again to Hollywoo(d)--in the BoJack universe, the town has lost its "D"--to the idea of celebrity versus, as Wallace puts it, “regular guy-ness”, and hidden depths versus hidden shallows.

Of course the biggest link between the two projects is that they show creative people hobbled by mental issues rather than using them to access some brilliant artistic plane of existence. There’s a pervasive and problematic narrative of untreated mental illness and addiction as a font of creativity; The End of the Tour and BoJack Horseman provide two looks at different realities of being creative and depressed. I’ll be interested to see what else we see on this theme this year.