There’s been a lot of talk over the last several years of television being in a golden age. As with most artistic periods, there isn’t a clear consensus on where it began nor what kicked it all off. While The Sopranos gave us long-form storytelling that managed to be episodic while gradually deepening our understanding of its characters and what they tell us about ourselves and the world we live in, it’s hard to say that all television was purely escapist beforehand when The Twilight Zone was taking audiences to strange new places in 1959 and Star Trek looked forward to a progressive future in ‘66. But one thing that has by its very essence remains consistent and unaltered by an increasingly self-reflexive medium is the sitcom.
That brings us to Bojack Horseman, which is itself part of a new surge of adult-orientated animation in the U.S and Netflix-exclusive content. One of the most peculiar things about it isn’t that it presents a world where anthropomorphised animals live alongside humans, but that it blends those goofy surface-level jokes with an emotional depth that is rarely seen even in live-action dramas. The show begins with a clip from Horsin’ Around, a sitcom about ‘young bachelor horse who is forced to re-evaluate his priorities when he agrees to raise three human children’. The show was broad, saccharine, and gave easy solutions to complex problems. It was a huge hit, and left its star Bojack Horseman with millions of dollars, a beautiful home in L.A, but no real sense of fulfilment. Before we are even introduced to this lifestyle, we see Bojack being interviewed – now middle-aged and slightly overweight – defending the show that defined him:
“I think the show is actually pretty solid for what it is. It’s not Ibsen, sure, but look – for a lot of people life is 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. Where no matter what happens, at the end of 30 minutes, everything’s gonna turn out okay. Y’know because in real life – did I already say the thing about the urethra?”
It’s a statement of intent that only becomes more hard-hitting over time – we see the perfect easy life of situational comedy juxtaposed with the ennui, substance abuse, and crippling depression of the actor who champions it. Bojack is a symbol of the dark reality that lies under the pacifying lies we are told and tell ourselves, and he frequently finds himself looking to the other side with melancholy and frustration. He watches re-runs of Horsin’ Around, seeing a younger less jaded version of himself living a pain-free existence, while he lazes around in a lethargy of alcoholism and narcissism. In the final scene of season 3, Bojack drives out of L.A. but skids to a halt when he sees a herd of horses running in the wild. It’s sublime, and we can tell he wants to be alongside them, but it’s unclear if he will ever join them. Whether or not this is a freedom he will eventually reach is yet to be seen, but as an ending it’s important to note that he is separated; once again observing without making real contact.
Just as Twin Peaks was a perfect satire of soap opera melodrama, Bojack Horseman has grown into a show that subverts the tropes and structure of a sitcom. Yet what makes it work is that it knows when to use these traditional tools to its advantage. There’s no hatred for the values of the joyous, positive world presented in sitcoms, but a healthy scepticism and a plea for nuance. If there’s a living embodiment of the happy-go-lucky attitudes of shows like Horsin’ Around, it’s Mr. Peanutbutter. Like the show, he evolved from a series of puns and silly jokes into a means to communicate more complex ideas of what it is to be human (even if he’s a dog). When he says “The key to being happy isn’t a search for meaning, it’s just to keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually you’ll be dead”, it fits the personality of a Labrador, but it’s also part of the central tension in the series. Is this relentlessly positive attitude the key to happiness, or an artificial construct that only serves to undermine it? In a war between cynicism and blind optimism, which side should we come down on? Despite his hostility towards him, Bojack wants to be Mr. Peanutbutter, to “feel good about myself. The way you do. And I don’t know how. I don’t know if I can”. The show wants to give the easy answers that sitcoms do, but it can’t – and it’s not sure if it should.
Another way in which Bojack Horseman steps further away from the straightforward world of the sitcom is in its moral ambiguity. One thing I find myself doing in morally ambiguous shows like Game of Thrones is attempting to figure out the philosophy – is the idea that through all this hardship the world will be changed for the better? Or will the petty squabbles for power be shown to be pointless as Westeros freezes over?
With Bojack the question is – when his mother tells him “You were born broken, that’s your birthright’ – is it a self-fulfilling prophecy, where the emotional damage of his childhood and his selfish choices over the years have left him in a place where she’s right and there is no going back? Or is that simply the main antagonist of the series – self-doubt and defeatism? Is Mr. Peanutbutter a developed villain who gets everything he wants with little tragedy, or is he the real hero – who faces the world with a positive outlook and resists the temptation to give up or give in to destructive impulses like Bojack repeatedly does? And most importantly – is Bojack even the hero of the story, or merely the protagonist? I thought of him as an anti-hero from the beginning, but is he the villain? Unlike the omniscient three-camera set up of Horsin’ Around, focus is given to different characters enough to humanise even the most heinous of actions.
The season 3 episode ‘Old Acquaintance’ begins with the same couple’s therapist we’ve seen counsel Mr. Peanutbutter and Diane, and we assume it’s them she is talking to. Instead, it’s revealed to be Rutabaga Rabitowitz with his previously-unseen wife, now pregnant. He’s in league with Vanessa Gecko, a team made up of the closest the show has come to ongoing antagonists. The time devoted to them this episode shifts our perspective, and calls into question whether we only root for the main cast above them because we’ve spent more time with them. Rabitowitz consoles Gecko, telling her that they will be “coming out on top, I know we will – because we’re the good guys.” By the end of the episode, Princess Carolyn is starting the New Year in misery, juxtaposed with Rabitowitz-Gecko landing a major deal and Rutabaga’s children being born. Rutabaga then says:
“Everything worked out. You’ve got to love a happy ending”
This isn’t just ironic, but a statement that draws attention to how our own empathy for the protagonists makes us believe they are the “good guys” when the world of Bojack Horseman is far more complicated than that.
One of the most interesting interpretations I came to about Bojack Horseman, and my reason for writing this article in the first place, is how it takes simple rules of the sitcom and applies them to character, themes and structure in the abstract. The sitcom rulebook requires that every episode returns its cast back to relative normality. Matthew Henry defined this particular law as:
‘an artificial structure superimposed upon the sitcom to appease the audience with the myth of easy resolution and a circulation back to happiness’
– The Triumph of Popular Culture: Situation Comedy, Postmodernism and “The Simpsons”‘
Even the most meta of situational comedies will abide by this format, even if they’re making fun of the concept like The Simpsons and Community did. What makes Bojack special is that it embraces this concept before uncovering the harm that a myth such as this can do by focusing on a character who is stuck in a similar existential circle. The side plots are often riffs on common sitcom storylines, sometimes sincere uses of the trope – like Princess Carolyn’s series of blind dates; and sometimes dark twists, such as Todd having two dates to the dance, except the choice is between two prison gangs.
When Bojack upsets the new director of the film he is working on, he is forced to continually repeat the line “I’m tired of running in circles”, and it strikes a chord. He is running in circles, and a lot of his emotional development is reset in the traditional sitcom fashion – except here it’s not to keep the show accessible to new viewers, but a symptom of the character’s addiction and denial. The “return to normality” is one that is accessed through Bojack’s emotional damage, and his support system of wealth and privilege. The show is aware of this arrested development, and it lets them return to the same springboard for wacky adventures, but it is gradually deconstructing the format with greater emotional turmoil each time. These cycles are at the heart of Bojack’s fears, and the way these destructive refrains hurt those around him is the most devastating part. On the set for the sequel to Horsin’ Around (Ethan Around, a play on Fuller House), Bojack has a panic attack when a young child actress tells him “I wanna be like you […] I want to be famous”. He can see the Sarah Lynn cycle repeating, and can’t handle the guilt of his hand in her death, nor the many dangers that await a girl looking to emulate him.
What occurred to me after the gut-punching end of ‘That’s Too Much, Man!” (aside from wanting to crawl into the foetal position), was that these most heartbreaking moments tend to take place in the penultimate episode of each season. Season one had its unanswered request of “Tell me that I’m good”, and season two had Bojack crossing the line first with a married woman then her 17-year-old daughter. He falls to an even darker place, before the season finale gives him (and us) a recovery period from which to look to a (maybe) brighter future. In a way, things come together at the end not because anything is resolved or any personal progress is made, but because Bojack still follows Secretariat’s advice – “Don’t you stop running and don’t ever look behind you. There’s nothing for you behind you. All that exists is what’s ahead.” When you’ve had a childhood as traumatic as Bojack that makes sense, but the past is not done with him. The fact that his ringtone is still the Horsin’ Around theme tune starts as a minor gag, but eventually becomes a cruel reminder of this. In ‘Downer Ending’ (an extremely appropriate episode title), his drug-trip=turned-nightmare turns into a dream of where he could have been. A fulfilling life with the woman he loves is interrupted by the grim reality of being face down on the floor of a parking lot, clothes dishevelled, alone, with that same ringtone.
If the eleventh episodes of each season finds a new low-point for Bojack, the twelfth episodes are about more or less resetting the characters – whether it be through circumstance or their own denial. And while side characters come and go, and some relationships will likely never be repaired, the image of Bojack and Diane finding each other – improving as often as they enable one another – brings us back to approximately where we were before.
Bojack may be revealing its own formula – each season gives us a different flavour of the same situation, a series of wacky adventures, a gut-wrenching tragedy, then a return to “normal” – because what else can Bojack do when he is rejected outright by those whose love he wants the most? Yet we see over time that Bojack doesn’t truly forget the bad things he’s done (despite his best efforts) and neither do the people around him. The show’s own twisted take on the sitcom format functions as a more artful way to reveal the darkness within media that tells us everything is okay without solving anything. The things we do have effects, and not every crisis is gets a clean ending. Diane and Bojack may be on journeys that are increasingly different from each other, but they have the same underlying problems:
Diane: Idea for a new app: an undo button that can undo long amounts of time. Three months. A year. A life
We know that they can’t go back and undo the mistakes they’ve made, and there are some parts of their personality that are there to stay, but Bojack is a show that is elusive when it comes to optimism – but not altogether cynical. When Bojack’s mother tells him that there’s “no cure” for being who he is, should we be taking her advice? Even if he finds some kind of happiness, can he ever be seen as a good person by himself or others considering what he’s done? Are we defined by our actions to the point that one bad deed undermines any good we have ever done? Does a traumatic childhood excuse horrible behaviour later on?
Todd rightfully calls out Bojack for his behaviour, telling him that “You are all the things that are wrong with you. It’s not the alcohol or the drugs or any of the shitty things that happen to you in your career or when you were a kid. It’s you.” If Bojack Horseman is about anything, it’s about what it is to be a good person. And if it gives any answers, it’s that we are what we do. Beyond that there are no easy answers to be had, other than we have to keep on trying. Just as the lyrics to Courtney Barnett’s ‘Avant Gardener’ were a fitting close to season two, Nina Simone’s ‘Stars’ is incredibly relevant to where we are left at the end of season three:
People lust for fame like athletes in a game
They break their collarbones and come up swinging
Some of them are crowned
Some of them are downed, and some are lost and never found
As a show that it is often in opposition to the naivety and mendacity at the heart of traditional sitcoms, it’s still unclear whether Bojack will be ‘lost and never found’. A development that it is teased at the ending of the recent season is the appearance of a potential daughter – which could bring a sign of hope that he can finally do right by someone, or another life he could make toxic. Knowing Bojack, it’s probably a little of both. But we still can’t help but hope for a happy ending.
Featured Image: Netflix