By Tom van der Meij
It sounds like an absurd premise; an animated Netflix show about a speaking horse, set in a world in which all, well, almost all, animals can talk, have jobs, love affairs and live peacefully together with humans. The horse is called Bojack Horseman, he is an actor and he suffers from an alcohol and drugs addiction, maniac forms of depression and his own disagreeableness, among other things. The show with the same name as its main character aired for 6 seasons and ended last January. It’s 77 episodes received almost universal acclaim, being named this century’s best animation show, and rightly so. Bojack Horseman has all the right ingredients of drama: depth, humor, great storylines and intriguing characters.
Bojack lives in an enormous house in Los Angeles, bought from the money he earned from his first and last success: the 90’s family sitcom Horsin’ Around. After that show ended, things have been going downhill for him. Once a Hollywood star, he is now mostly forgotten, which he has a hard time believing. He now spends most of his days watching old episodes of Horsin’ Around and keeping real life as far away as possible. His agent, former lover and work-addict Princess Carolyn (cat) suggests writing a biography of Bojack’s life to put him back into the public eye and subtract him from his irrelevancy. The writer they hire to write this biography, the talented but inexperienced Diane Nguyen (human), quickly finds out that Bojack has several issues and a troubled past he is incapable of talking about.
Then there are the characters Todd (human) and Mr. Peanutbutter (dog). Todd sleeps on Bojack’s couch and effortlessly operates within the same life rhythm as his companion. He is a twenty-something slacker with the comical combination of stupidity and the ability to get himself involved in anything and everything. The endlessly enthusiastic Mr. Peanutbutter, on the other hand, is Bojack’s friend slash rival and boyfriend of Diane. He is an actor, presenter and Hollywood celebrity. It all looks somewhat absurd when these characters get introduced in the first episode and the many animal puns and weird names might make it hard to take the show seriously.
It does not take long, however, before you feel sympathy for these characters, mainly because their day-to-day struggles often hit close to home. A feeling of emptiness, in the case of Bojack and Diane, which can only be filled by more attention and admiration, addictive supplements or a demeaning attitude towards others. The feeling of losing possibilities, felt by Princess Carolyn, as life and career drag on. Finding out who you are and what you want out of your life, for Todd. Dealing with someone both immensely, and often just annoyingly, self-confident and, simultaneously, extremely loveable, as felt by everyone involved with Mr. Peanutbutter.
This sympathy increases during the first three seasons as we see the characters’ lives deepened and their pasts unfolding. Princess Carolyn, for instance, turned into the workaholic she is due to the suppressive demeanor of her former boss. It awakened an urge to disprove him and the misogynistic environment she operated in. It was in both Bojack’s and Dianne’s youth where a lack of support and love eventually led to the dissatisfaction they feel about almost everything they do in their adult life. This is an important theme that keeps reoccurring, especially for Bojack: the haunting past. Besides his dreadful youth, he also struggles with the relationship he has with two of the main figures of Horsin’ Around, Herb (human) and Sarah-Lynn (human), and the way he treated them after the show ended.
The originality and absurd humor of the writers of Bojack Horseman can be seen vividly in the first episode of the fourth season, where the writers created a little satire of the election of a certain U.S. President. Mr. Peanutbutter decides, through a combination of his own naivety and the malicious involvement of his ex-wife Katrine (human), to run for the position of Governor of California. There is, however, no election going on and his potential opponent, Woodchuck Coodchuck-Berkowitz (woodchuck), clearly has the better hand; political experience, political know-how. The things Mr. Peanutbutter misses. It is the experienced, somewhat humorless, establishment guy versus the outsider, the man of the people. And when Mr. Peanutbutter suggests a ski race in order to make the final call, and the media pushes Berkowitz to agree with this suggestion, he cannot get his head around the bizarreness of it all. Who wins the ski race? Todd, who didn’t even compete to begin with. It makes sense in this show.
It is in this absurd way that the show addresses all sorts of contemporary themes, without getting preachy or insensitive about them. Bojack’s depression for example, which is in itself, besides entertaining to watch, illustrative of modern-day. The hardship that comes along with a tough youth and depression and the ways people in all ranges of society deal with that, with alcohol and drugs as temporary stabilizers, for example, is brought forward in a unique way for such a mainstream show. An endless feeling of emptiness, the need to fill in a non-existing gap, a feeling that quickly leads to a nihilistic way of living. Or as Mr. Peanutbutter would say, in a rather enthusiastic manner:
“The universe is a cruel, uncaring void. The key to being happy isn’t a search for meaning. It’s to just keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually, you’ll be dead.”
Another interesting contemporary theme is Todd’s asexuality, a smart move from the producers of the show. Over the course of the third and fourth season, Todd discovers that he does not share the feelings felt by his youth friend Zoë and that he might be asexual. It made Todd from a somewhat flat and nothing but comical kid into a more interesting, rounded character. But it is mostly a small triumph for broadcast television, in which the representation of minorities and the discussion of such topics is already a hot topic. It is in many other TV-shows and other media forms, however, that bringing in these uncommon and for a long time unbothered themes feels forced and insensitive. In Bojack Horseman it feels natural and rightfully placed. Perhaps due to the environment it is set in; in a world with talking animals and dog-human and cat-horse relationships, a humans’ asexuality is hardly the thing one would frown upon.
The final season starts with Bojack in rehab. He has decided, with help from Diane, that it is time to get his life together. No more alcohol, no more drugs, and hopefully, a new start. He resides in a rehab clinic, goes to multiple AA meetings and, after declaring himself clean, he manages to get a job giving acting classes at a small university. Although initially successful, Bojack would not be Bojack if past trauma would not quickly show up after short-term success. The rehab instructor turns out to be somewhat of a fraud and needs help after becoming an alcoholic himself again and the always dreadful past of Bojack returns to hunt him down.
In the end, the show leaves the viewer with a certain unfulfilled, sad feeling, the same feeling a novel can transmit after imbibing its readers into a fictional world. One more season, one might think, just to connect the final dots and show all characters satisfied. It wouldn’t be right, not for this show. Bojack’s depression does not have a beginning and a happy end, it is just there. The unsatisfying end of the show shows that Bojack Horseman is more than just a fictional drama; it is a depiction of real life. That a fictional universe with horses, cats and dogs, set in the already factitious scene of Hollywood, can tell so much about humans in the (Western) world; it is indeed an absurd premise.
Edited by Juni Moltubak
Artwork by Oscar Laviolette