“It’s not Ibsen, sure—but look, for a lot of people, life is just one long, hard kick in the urethra. And sometimes, when you get home from a long day of getting kicked in the urethra, you just want to watch a show about good, likeable people who love each other.”
In my first attempt to watch BoJack Horseman several years ago, I gave up around Episode 6 of Season 1, “Our A-Story Is A D-Story.” Why did I give up on BoJack Horseman? Honestly—it just depressed me way too much. It was exactly not what I needed to see at the time. And it wasn’t even a show that was so much purposely maudlin, pulling at my heartstrings…but rather, there was a sort of covert melancholy seamlessly interweaved with the funny sight gags and topical humor that would just jump out of nowhere and clobber you.
But recently, I decided to give the show another shot—binge-watching the entire first season in one sitting on Netflix.
I thought I was brave—hell, I binge-watched 13 Reasons Why in two sittings, and emerged sort of unscathed (???). I was sure that whatever existential dread I sensed in those first several episodes of BoJack didn’t define the series as a whole…it was, instead probably *just me*.
About six hours later, I determined that no, it wasn’t *just me.* But also that BoJack Horseman was probably one of the most intelligent, well-written, well-acted (especially by co-executive producers Will Arnett and Aaron Paul, a well as Alison Brie and Amy Sedaris) shows on TV (or is it “on streaming”…or: “on my iPhone” or…)
So where do I begin? Well, BoJack Horseman is the 50-something former star of a terrible Full House-type sitcom from the Eighties, Horsin’ Around. He lives in a Hollywood home with Todd, a random guy who never left one of his parties and now seems to inhabit permanently BoJack’s couch and living room—while this may seem an annoying arrangement, we swiftly realize that if it wasn’t for this friendship, BoJack might spend the majority of his life alone.
BoJack’s agent, Princess Carolyn, was/is also his former lover; he takes her for granted and treats her poorly. His former rival in television land, Mr. Peanutbutter, is now his neighbor/“sort” of friend (frenemy?). And this is mostly BoJack’s world, outside of a few auditions and one-night stands.
Enter Diane Nguyen, a ghost-writer hired to help him finish is memoir. Prodding BoJack to explore his painful past—and inadvertantly making him fall in love with her—Diane is the instigating incident that turns his whole life upside down.
Now, how do these sitcom-type premises end up in punctuated moments of true angst and almost unbearable acknowledgement of his chonic depression and alcoholism? How does a cartoon about a figure as ludicrous as a horse-headed man reach such profundity?
I would say BoJack Horseman does it the old-fashioned way…through carefully laid down plot and characterization.
Even from the first episode, “The BoJack Horseman Story, Chapter One,” BoJack’s world and past is carefully constructed; every incident and aspect building towards the next. The wisecracking little girl we encounter in flashbacks to his show ends up being a drug-addled thirtysomething he gets involved with in “Prickly Muffin”; the concept of “Zoes and Zeldas,” from Mr. Peanutbutter’s Horsin’ Around ripoff show starring Tia and Tamera Mowry-type twins, gets referenced several times later, often in ways that crucially define certain characters; and the Hollywood sign’s missing “D” from “Our A-Story Is A D-Story” receives many subtle callbacks through therest of the season.
And the “D” does not stand so much for the end of “Hollywood” or “Diane Ngyuen” as it does for one of the central themes in BoJack Horseman: Dependency.
BoJack is dependent on Todd for hassle-free companionship, runing the younger man’s one chance at stardom (in what is one of the “turning point” episodes in the season in terms of getting daaaaark). Mr. Peanutbutter is dependent on Diane’s intelligence and maturity—and Diane, though seeming far more mature than him, seems to be dependent on the “legitimacy” and open door to his Hollywood world. Similarly, Princess Carolyn was dependent on BoJack, and when that doesn’t work out, becomes dependent on Vincent Adultman (literally three boys stacked on top of each other in a trenchcoat).
Vincent, in all his sight-gag improbableness, is emblematic of the arrested emotional development of most of the characters in this show. Even seemingly cool and composed Diane is a person unable to face the realities of who she really is and what she really wants; investing in a seemingly doomed relationship—and later marriage—to a shallow man/dog who doesn’t really match or compliment her depth.
I mentioned the “turning point” episode with Todd, where we find out at the end—truly to our horror—that BoJack has orchestrated an elaborate plan to sabotage his dreams so he will never move out off the horse’s couch (and, in turn, leave him all alone). While this was inexpectedly dark, it is “The Telescope,” where Bojack tries to mend fences with his dying former friend, that is absolutely the gut-punch.
The scene where Herb Kazzaz refuses to forgive BoJack is one of the most powerful, devestating, and tense in the entire series so far. It is absolutely BRUTAL to watch, making you forget that BoJack has a horse’s head, or that Herb’s nurse is a bear, or that Todd is outside the house tangling with spoiled young muggers in Pussy Riot masks.
The only thing BoJack fears more than being a “nobody” or some sort of freak relic from 1980’s pop-culture is to be thought of as a bad person. At one point towards the end of the season, he begs Diane to tell him he is not a bad person. It is not a funny scene; it is heart-breaking. Though BoJack seems to get everything he wants (sans Kazzaz’s apology or Diane) at the season’s end, he is alone, unfulfilled, and deeply troubled.
Nobody can define BoJack, ultimately, other than BoJack—not Diane his ghostwriter, not his agent, not even his improvised “best friend” Todd. But the first season of BoJack Horseman asks: what if we look deep inside ourselves and find seemingly nothing? How do we live with that? And were we almost better off not searching for greater self-knowledge in the first place?
The fourth season of BoJack Horseman drops on Netflix September 8th.