The fearless pessimism of Netflix’s ‘BoJack Horseman’
Welcome to TV Minus the TV, a column full of thoughts about TV shows watched on laptops published on the internet for you to read on your phone.
Series like Netflix’s BoJack Horseman, the second season of which premiered online this past weekend, generally don’t get made. When cigar-chomping executives up in Hollywoo# pull out the big rubber ‘MAKE THIS’ stamp that I imagine goes directly onto all greenlit scripts, they’re looking for comfort. They’re looking for reassurance. They’re looking for heroic men and adoring women and cute children, but in the most basic possible terms, they’re searching for something that imagines the world as a rational, safe, just place to live.
BoJack Horseman is a network executive’s nightmare.
Adult animation that doesn’t actively market itself as the next Simpsons is a hard sell to begin with, and so is showbiz satire. It only gets worse when the lead character happens to be a horrible person.# By the time whatever beautiful crazy bastard made the pitch got to the part where none of the characters are allowed to be happy, it’s a minor miracle the collected executives hadn’t called security. God only knows what magic showrunner Raphael Bob-Waksberg worked on the Netflix suits — maybe hypnosis, maybe he’s got their kids locked in a bunker, or maybe the Netflix higher-ups recognize a good idea when it gallops into their office. But let us all give grace to our chosen deity that he did, because dammit, America needs a show like BoJack Horseman right now. The world will always need that which is unafraid to leap headfirst into the gnawing darkness at the center of existence in an effort to locate some way out.
Not to engage in hyperbole, but this hilarious cartoon about a talking horse might be the most important, meaningful entertainment to emerge from the current pop-cultural landscape.
Strictly speaking, the second season of BoJack Horseman is about a lot of things — the hollow glamor of the entertainment industry, the twisted ethical bankruptcy of factory farming, the vicious character assassinations in the wake of Bill Cosby’s exposure as a serial rapist — but in the most basic terms, it’s about the wrongness of common life. Everywhere that a lesser show might zig#, Bojack zags. Bob-Waksberg treats closure like it’s radioactive, privileging open-ended or straightforwardly feel-bad endings over all else. The bad guys always win in Bob-Waksberg’s vision of Los Angeles, a city that would be identical to our own if not for all the talking anthropomorphized animals. Not for a single, solitary moment does Bobs-Waksberg shy away from the vast networks of terribleness at play in modern life.
As an industry-town comedy, Bob-Waksberg most frequently takes aim at the reverse meritocracy of taste that turns vapid pablum into megahits and buries challenging, deeply felt art. Without taking nasty potshots at dim-bulb viewers, the show exposes show business’ obsession with stamping out all that is personal to the creators.
Much of season two revolves around BoJack’s breakout film project, a biopic of storied racehorse and BoJack’s boyhood idol, Secretariat. The film’s director, a Lisa Cholodenko-type# named Kelsey, intends on showing the icon warts and all, putting his selfishness and cowardice and insecurity on full display. A studio executive decides that the emotional crux of the film would be a real downer, and demands that they crew shoot a saccharine, insultingly goopy rewrite. Because this is a comedy, albeit a profoundly existential one, the rest of the episode involves BoJack, Kelsey, and a few others breaking into a scale model of the White House for reshoots. But the crucial bit happens afterward, when the disappointed studio executive fires Kelsey for disobeying his commands. Nothing happens afterward. The studio head isn’t ousted, Kelsey doesn’t find more fulfilling work elsewhere, and the film doesn’t get fixed. Things stay shitty, much as they do in the actual world. The remorseless factory-farmers continue to serve billions of customers, the beloved talk-show host shrugs off the history of sexual impropriety, and commerce continues to dominate in its eternal struggle with art.
But the show’s bravest, most honest expression of pessimism is BoJack himself.
Don’t let the whole talking-horse thing fool you; BoJack’s much closer to Tony Soprano or Don Draper than Brian from Family Guy. Though the show only mentions it by name on a handful of occasions, BoJack’s depression defines him. An abusive, neglectful pair of parents left him self-destructive, self-involved, chronically unhappy, and all but incapable of forging an intimate bond with the people around him. He screws over people who stand in his way, sometimes even going out of his way to fuck with people leading nicer lives than his. By anyone’s count, he’s a bad person. And yet the bad parts of him are so fearsomely recognizable.
Anyone who’s struggled with depression recognizes that consumptive resentment towards non-depressed people, the maddening effortlessness with which they feel good.# Much of the show revolves around BoJack’s continuing quest to find some measure of inner fulfillment, and the subsequent realizations that accomplishing that is discouragingly difficult. He destroys his romantic relationships by projecting his own baggage and fear of intimacy onto his partners. He felt like he was dying on the inside when phoning in sitcom work, and playing his compromised hero presents him with an entirely new set of emotional hurdles to clear. The show’s most radical, frightening suggestion may be that BoJack’s beyond help. In the punishing climax of season one, BoJack throws himself at his crush Diane’s feet, straightforwardly asking her if she thinks he’s passed the point of salvation. He nakedly requests her affirmation, making himself the most vulnerable a human being possibly can. And because this is BoJack Horseman, she has no answer for him.
Regular BoJack viewers # have reported an odd affliction coming over them directly after binge-watching a season. A general feeling of hopelessness plagues those who exit the other side of the show, a nagging fear that everything is most certainly not alright and that without serious change, things will not become alright in the near future. It’s a common ailment, but not without its cure. And like the flu vaccine, we inure ourselves against the shows miserablist infection using a small dose.
BoJack Horseman can be discomfiting in its clear-eyed view of the world’s evils, but the knowledge that someone else also sees it does a lot to help.
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