Many Mansions: On TV’s Big Houses and the Death of the American Dream

TV Features BoJack Horseman
Many Mansions: On TV’s Big Houses and the Death of the American Dream

The first frame of the opening credits of BoJack Horseman says a lot about the kind of story it’s going to tell. The credits open on a large, rectangular house with floor to ceiling windows and a balcony hanging over the edge of a cliff. The home’s plain facade gives the impression the owner is cold and hard, and the sharp corners of the building indicate that nothing soft and fuzzy is happening inside. The home is distant from the rest of the population, providing a feeling of loneliness and isolation. All of the information told through this house matches the attitude of the perennially depressed and destructive inhabitant, BoJack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett).

The production design of houses on TV has become a large part of telling stories of misery. It’s the opposite of a kitchen in a Nancy Meyers movie—instead of a beautiful home revealing a full heart, it reveals emptiness. Big houses on TV have become visual shorthand for the sadness of those who live within.

Owning a beautiful house used to be emblematic of the American Dream. But after the housing crash when many people couldn’t pay their mortgages, the homes people worked to buy stood empty and became decrepit. Because bankers and investors who made money during the recession did so by selling (or repackaging and then selling) faulty mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them, big houses became representative of everything that caused the crisis in the first place: greed, corruption, evil. Rising income inequality and corrupt politicians have only added to the perception that people with a lot of money can’t be trusted. This idea is not new in American culture, but it takes on greater relevance when art is processing the effects of the recession. (Not to mention that the current president is a man who was involved in luxury real estate, and who has showed off his gilded, expensive New York home.) On TV, as a result, big, beautiful homes now represent corruption and misery, rather than success and happiness.

BoJack’s home is particularly emblematic of this, and the opening credits show why. As BoJack floats through his large, open-concept home full of cold, shiny metal and glass, it feels empty instead of airy, matching his depression. No matter what he fills his home with, it will never be enough to make his life fulfilling. (The only character on BoJack to defy the bigger home equals misery rule is Paul F. Tompkins’ Mr. Peanutbutter, whose defining characteristic is that he can be happy no matter where he is. That he can manage happiness in an even bigger house than BoJack’s underscores his positivity and makes him a great foil to BoJack’s depression. He’s the exception that proves the rule.)

BoJack understands this trope enough to subvert it to great effect early in its new season. When BoJack can’t take his sadness anymore, he often leaves his home, unable to handle the beauty he knows he should appreciate but can’t. After Sarah Lynn (Kristen Schaal) dies at the end of Season Three, BoJack leaves his giant house and disappears. In Season Four, BoJack eventually heads to a smaller house than his home in L.A.—to a cabin made of wood instead of glass and steel. The cabin is in terrible condition, so he spends time fixing it up. By the time he is done, the house is warm and cozy, giving the impression that the person who inhabits it is as good-hearted as the décor. The production design of the fixed-up cabin sets the audience up to expect BoJack to feel better, and to heal himself by healing this smaller, more manageable home.

But he doesn’t feel better. The house is warm and cozy, but BoJack’s heart stays hard. “It’s beautiful here, and everything sucks,” he says once the house is finished and terrible things keep happening. Because of the visual tools BoJack uses in its world, it packs a bigger emotional punch when that kind of small, cozy home has no effect on BoJack’s emotional well being.

BoJack is among the clearest example of this line of storytelling where larger and larger houses contribute to stories of misery, but it appears on many shows, including Riverdale, 13 Reasons Why, Big Little Lies and Fargo. A great theme of Big Little Lies was that a picturesque home can’t hide the horrors within. On these shows, people living in mansions aren’t just sad—they are also the bad guys, corrupt villains, abusers and rapists.

On Big Little Lies, Celeste (Nicole Kidman) has money, a beautiful house, and the darkest storyline. Watching her husband (Alexander Skarsgård) abuse her is horrific in itself; watching it happen in a pristine bathroom that looks like a relaxing spa is a jarring juxtaposition. And though she and her husband try to hide the abuse from their sons, the design of the house gives away their terrible secret when their sons can hear their mom screaming through the vents. Moving out of her multimillion dollar home and taking her children to a smaller apartment is, quite literally, Celeste’s path to freedom and safety. The home Celeste shares with her husband is similar to BoJack’s in a few ways. It’s modern, made of glass and other cold materials. It’s also overlooking a cliff, with a large deck and windows. Similarly, the balcony far up from the ground and hidden in the trees shows the emotional distance Celeste feels by keeping secret what goes on in her home.

On Riverdale, the biggest, fanciest home belongs to Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch), a member of the richest and most corrupt family in town. The Blossoms’ corruption includes murder and drug running, and the gothic grandness of the Blossom mansion helps tell this story. Light from candelabras hints at shadows in the Blossoms’ personal lives, and the many rooms and locked doors symbolize the secrets the Blossom family locks within their hearts. When Cheryl has had enough of her misery, she doesn’t just run away from her home the way BoJack does or the way Celeste plans to—she burns it down. Only by getting rid of the symbol of her family’s corruption can she feel cleansed and begin to start over.

Homes like BoJack’s, Celeste’s, and Cheryl’s make literal the walls people put up to keep the bad things they do secret from each other—and even sometimes themselves. The production design of their homes contributes to their stories by mirroring the emotions in their storylines. BoJack illustrates this by wandering through his home and life like an unfeeling zombie, ending up plunged into his own pool, creating a sense of drowning in his own supposed good fortune. These TV mansions may be beautiful, but the lives of those who live in them are ugly indeed.

Rae Nudson is Chicago-based writer and critic whose writing has appeared in Esquire, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and Real Life, among other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @rclnudson.

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