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All grown up: cartoons find their serious side

Illustration by Christina Dodds

Spoiler alert for Season 3 of BoJack Horseman and
Season 2 of
Rick and Morty

If you told me a year ago that I’d be crying about a cartoon set in a world where animals and humans (mostly) co-exist as equals, and features a washed-up celebrity horse struggling with his self-worth largely due to the pressures that come with fame, I’d have laughed. But nope, here I am mourning over season three of Bojack Horseman – the strangest thing though, is that I’m laughing about it too.

Perhaps I’ve only taken notice as I’ve come into adulthood myself, but it seems that adult cartoons which don’t just feature explicit jokes are an emerging trend. Obviously, crude humour still exists – which I have nothing against – but a Family Guy style of comedy no longer permeates all adult cartoons. In a surprising turn of events, there is actually some well thought-out
content!

Urgh, Maddy, I hear you say. Do you honestly have to force a deep meaning on everything? Can’t you just take the show at face value and leave it be?

Perceiving that adult cartoons exist purely for comedy simplifies them. These days, cartoons often explore societal issues through their story arcs or characters, or call on the audience to pick up on hints that foreshadow epic plot twists.

In the most recent season of Bojack Horseman, the audience sees Todd struggle with sexual relationships. He exhibits clear discomfort when faced with sexual situations, but when he is asked if he was gay, replies:
“I don’t think I am, but… I don’t think I’m straight, either.” (Todd, S03E12)

While the show doesn’t outright use the term ‘asexual’, the connection that many asexual viewers have with Todd’s experience is significant enough. The fact that the show even brings up that attraction goes behind ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ is a massive step for television in itself.

Bojack Horseman also acts as a critique on Hollywood culture, showing the darker side of the glamour from the perspectives of the celebrities trapped in it. Using the unfamiliar, animal world as the setting indicates to the audience that they are about to see things from an entirely new perspective, which couldn’t be closer to the truth. From season one, Bojack’s struggle with self-worth has been treated as a core tension between himself and other characters as he begs for their affirmation: “I need you to tell me it’s not too late. I need you to tell me that I’m a good person. I know that I can be selfish and narcissistic and self-destructive, but underneath all that, deep down, I’m a good person and I need you to tell me that I’m good.” (Bojack, S01E11)

In the case of Rick and Morty, you can very easily take it as a silly show about a ridiculous scientist and his grandson. Still, if you want to obsess over the possibilities of the Many Worlds Interpretation that the show frequently makes use of, you can. The internet is swarming with theories, from questioning whether we follow the same Rick and Morty every episode, to wondering whether Rick is originally from the universe we assume. The subtle (though potential) foreshadowing of many cartoons makes them a mystery waiting to be unraveled, but again, only if the viewer cares to try.

However, sometimes the serious side of adult cartoons can be a bit of a hit and miss, leaving us with an unintended impact. In the season one finale of Rick and Morty, the ‘meaning’ behind Rick’s catchphrase ‘wubba lubba dub dub!’ is revealed, and… I’m not sold.

“In my people’s tongue, it means, ‘I am in great pain. Please help me.’” (Bird Person, S01E011)

While I disagree with Morty’s retort (“Rick’s not that complicated, he’s just a huge asshole.”), Bird Person’s line does nothing to convince me of Rick’s emotional baggage, which is better explored in other episodes. It felt like a bit of a cop out, especially since he often uses the phrase to celebrate. To me, the explanation is the funniest part of the episode, for all the wrong reasons.

Some adult cartoons, like Bojack Horseman, are overt with their core messages, making for an emotional journey. However, others are not so clear. Rick and Morty can be taken either as a fun, casual watch, or an epic adventure for the viewer if they care to examine the potential clues. Cartoons are not simply a medium for comedy but are used in diverse ways to impact their audience.

Still, it’s sometimes nice to just use them for a laugh, and the best part about these shows is that you can. Only, in Bojack’s case, you’re often laughing through tears.

Tags : BoJack HorsemancartoonsRick and Morty
Maddy Luke

The author Maddy Luke

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