Here's a question I've heard quite often since Mad Men ended its seven-season run in May 2015: Just what, if anything, is supposed to fill the void left by that tremendous series?
It's not an easy one to answer! Mad Men was one of the best shows in TV history, doing so many different things so very well that it was possible for lots of different types of viewers to watch it for entirely different characters, storylines, or reasons and still find lots to love. It was an experimental, adventurous drama, telling deeply existential stories through both its scripts and its visuals. Thus, it's a hard show to replace.
To that end, allow me to suggest an animated sitcom about a horse as your perfect Mad Men stand-in.
This might sound ridiculous, but I promise it's not. After a sometimes messy first season, Netflix's BoJack Horseman has found its footing beautifully in season two, earning the title of not just the streaming service's best show, but of one of television's best shows. It's a strange, sad trip through the dark underbelly of fame, mixed with some of the most brilliant, caustic social commentary out there. And did I mention it's funny? Sometimes bitterly so, with jokes that leave you tearing up as much as laughing.
All of those characteristics should bring to mind AMC's esteemed advertising drama. But BoJack and Mad Men have something else in common, too: At their core, both shows are about the impossibility of happiness. And if you don't believe me, check out BoJack's second-season poster. How Mad Men is that?
Here are five areas where the two shows overlap in ways that speak to their incredible quality.
Mild spoilers for seasons one and two follow.
1) Both shows are kind of about the same thing
Don Draper was an advertising man who wanted to sell the world a version of the happiness he couldn't feel. He was motivated by visions of the life he'd never quite led, failing to realize that attaining the perfect surface wasn't the solution he sought. The depths of his unhappiness were rooted in himself.
In his own way, BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett) confronts the same problems. He's a rich and famous actor, the star of a 1980s and '90s sitcom called Horsin' Around. (Netflix released an episode of this sitcom as a "Christmas special" for BoJack in 2014, if you want a mostly unadulterated look at it.) BoJack's work has brought happiness to other people, but he doesn't feel happy. In fact, he probably suffers from crippling, chronic depression (though the show never puts it exactly that way), something that haunts him and prevents him from feeling fulfilled.
And just as Don Draper had a tendency to tear down the world around him when something tiny didn't go his way, BoJack will destroy himself and others for the pettiest of reasons. He's not a very good man (or horse, I suppose, as BoJack lives in a world where bipedal animals live and work alongside humans), driven by bitterness and resentment and anomie, but he is intensely relatable, just as Don was.
He's all of the worst things we fear about ourselves, in the form of a TV character. And, crucially, he experiences occasional flashes of insight, moments when he understands the problem in his life is him, not the place he lives in or the company he keeps. He just lacks the wherewithal to actually confront his demons. Indeed, when it comes time to do so, he usually runs away from them.
Sounds a lot like an ad man we used to know.
2) Both shows flip their genres on their ears
Mad Men often delivered moments of searing insight or utter devastation, but it was also, frequently, tremendously funny. That humor kept us watching, setting us up for the show to hit us with intense, wounded profundity.
The same is true of BoJack, but in reverse. When the series debuted, many critics (including myself) wrote it off as yet another ankle-deep Hollywood satire, about as shrewd an exploration of the pitfalls of fame as any number of other lacking adult-skewing sitcoms on networks like Adult Swim and FX. Initially, it seemed weird for the sake of being weird, and in the episodes Netflix sent to critics, it didn't really bother trying to transcend those limitations.
But as season one progressed, BoJack's satirical intentions snapped into clearer focus. It was a Hollywood satire, sure, but it was also a dark drama about a man realizing how much damage and pain he had caused over the course of his life. By posing as a lightweight comedy for so much of its running time, BoJack bought itself room to be all the more crushing when it wanted to be.
While it never quite found a balance between humor and heartbreak in season one, BoJack has brilliantly solved that problem in season two, where the jokes are stronger and the heavier moments are even darker. There are scenes in season two when BoJack wants to do the right thing, and he tries to do it and tries to do it and tries to do it, but he ultimately falls into the easy comfort of doing the wrong thing, of returning to old habits and routines.
And that, consequently, pushes the Hollywood satire to new levels. Seen through the prism of BoJack's journey, the world of show business becomes another place where "business as usual" tends to trump what would actually be helpful or fulfilling for, well, anyone.
3) Both shows are sneaky smart about gender
On some level, Mad Men was always about the rise of women in the workplace and the feminist revolution that led to the growing acceptance of women as individuals and not extensions of the men in their lives. Similarly, BoJack tells a series of stories about women struggling to carve out niches in the show business economy.
In particular, the seventh episode of season two, "Hank After Dark," is one of the best TV episodes ever crafted about the tightrope women are forced to walk between the desires of other people in their lives (often men) and what they know to be right. It starts out as a clever sendup of the sexual misconduct allegations that many women have leveled against Bill Cosby, with beloved entertainer Hank Hippopalous (a hippo) accused of having done something horrific to eight of his former assistants.
But the story twists about halfway through, becoming less about what Hank is said to have done (which is never elucidated) and more about how the Hollywood system is structured to protect men in power and grind down women who accuse them of anything. BoJack's friend Diane (Alison Brie), who ghostwrote his memoir in season one, sets out to uncover the truth about Hank, but what she finds is that so few people want to hear it that they'd rather attack her for even asking questions than think anything bad about him. The episode's final moments are quietly agonizing.
4) Both shows are visually gorgeous
Mad Men was one of the best directed and artfully conceived programs in TV history, a crisp, beautiful show that revealed just as much through its outward appearance as it did through its layered scripts.
As a minimally animated show teeming with animal puns, BoJack can't boast the same level of visual panache, but it is frequently audacious in terms of its design. In particular, season two's 11th episode, "Escape from L.A.," imagines a fictional New Mexico town that BoJack disappears to when his career isn't going how he hoped it would. (Amusingly, Mad Men's second season also featured an 11th episode where the protagonist escaped to another locale entirely in response to his general dissatisfaction.)
The desert backgrounds of "Escape from L.A." are filled with muted color, and the episode's climax — which features softly glowing balloons drifting through the sky and an eventual montage of BoJack's return to California as the setting sun throws him into silhouette — is striking in how its visual qualities reflect the melancholy being felt by every single character onscreen. The animation might not be extraordinarily complex or complicated, but the show's visual design still offers plenty of treats for the eyes.
5) Both shows operate on several planes of storytelling
It was possible to simply sit back and let Mad Men flow over you as a series of surface-level pleasures. The sets and costumes and general look of the show were so potent that they could be enjoyed in and of themselves. But there was always so much going on behind Mad Men's exterior, so much questioning of the human condition and ruminating on the meaning of life, that the deeper viewers dug, the more rewarded they would be.
Similarly, if you merely want to watch a goofy comedy brimming with gags about animals who act like people, well, BoJack will oblige. But if you want to go further than that, there's plenty there to discuss. This is a series about a bunch of characters who all might suffer from depression but never seem able to put their fingers on what ails them (or simply don't want to put their fingers on what ails them), but it's also a series about how the feeling of being broken helps them bond.
We often watch TV to witness those bonds being formed, for the way incomplete characters can make each other whole simply by existing in proximity to each other. What's so daring about BoJack is the way it suggests that this type of relationship is both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes, when you're in a depressive state, what you need is someone with whom to wallow. But at other times, what you need is someone to call you on your shit. On BoJack Horseman, these two states of being are occasionally one and the same, and the result is both thrilling and dangerous.
Both seasons of BoJack Horseman are currently streaming on Netflix.