Bojack Horseman — A voyage into thyself
I finally used this dreaded 2020 Corona quarantine and finished the last 6 episodes of Bojack Horseman that I’ve been putting off since the last season dropped on Netflix. I’ve been a fan of Bojack right from the 1st season, but I was savoring the last few episodes like you’d save the last few drops of a soulful vintage before it’s gone forever :) To say Bojack Horseman is good will be doing a disservice to the enormity and importance, yes, importance of Bojack. It’s a novel idea to consider a work of fiction as important, especially a TV series that’s presented as an adult animation show, but Bojack is consistently talked about by everyone including the Guardian and BBC as not just as the best animated of the 21st century but the most important show ever. For those who already watched the show, it will be obvious why I say this, as for the rest of you, I strongly urge you to watch this Netflix series if it’s the only show you’ll ever watch. I told my 14-year-old child to watch the show as the first thing after turning 18.
Human beings want to understand the purpose of life, understand the meaning of what it all means, how to redeem themselves… Why do things happen to them? Is it all pre-ordained? Are we simply products of our environment? Should we take any responsibility for our actions or just chalk it up to our upbringing? These are all questions that can’t be answered by religion or philosophy because even philosophers like Sartre or Camu gave up on the purpose and expounded such theories as existential nihilism. If we do accept we are not to know the “why”, it actually frees us to create our own meaning for our life, placing the responsibility of our actions squarely in our hands. If you think these are the questions or inquiries of people who have nothing to do, think again. Most of us ponder these questions in one form or the other to either find reassurances for our actions, to explain our actions, or at least a way to live with ourselves. We’ve all heard the phrase, life is a journey, or even something like, it’s the journey, not the destination, but what we need to realize is that everything in life is ephemeral, and they need to appreciate for being so, which reminds me of the Japanese concept of “mono no aware”, or the “pathos of things”, or as one of my favorite authors Barry Eisler put it “sadness of being human”.
Some popular films and TV shows provide a character arc where a character starts out with a conflict and slowly grows into someone who achieves redemption and ends the series/film on a high note. But in reality, we all know a TV show is just that, life doesn’t work that way, and alas there’s no dramatic happy ending to life. Someone once said, after the loving couple unites and the title cards roll, there’s still the next day to consider. Buddhism depicts a spiral staircase called Sakyamuni staircase that gives us a metaphor of how life really works. Let’s say we trip up in life/work/love, we make a mistake, do the wrong thing, don’t uphold our integrity, we beat ourselves up, and we can’t seem to give up the self-torture thus create our own suffering. We do know that when we make a mistake, we grow, but sometimes we repeat the same mistakes, and the growth we seemingly achieved vanishes in smoke. In reality, the growth we achieve is infinitesimal, but if we accept where we are, we can start building from that point on. The poet WB Yeats puts it like this “Life is a journey up a spiral staircase; as we grow older we cover the ground covered we have covered before, only higher up; as we look down the winding stair below us we measure our progress by the number of places where we were but no longer are. The journey is both repetitious and progressive; we go both round and upward.” So, it’s not a dramatic wave that raises up, not even a sine wave that rises up and down, rather a spiral staircase that makes us think we repeat the same cycles but our viewpoint keeps changing, and as long as we are at a more intelligent place than yesterday, and that’s how you make the journey.
In a traditional sitcom, though the stories have long-running arcs and some characters undergo a transformation, the format itself never changes, to keep each episode interesting, the showrunners deconstruct the characters and start all over again. Bojack Horseman turns this traditional sitcom formula upside down and goes for episodic treatment where you become part of the character’s journey. The titular character Bojack is a washed-out celebrity of some notoriety from a 90’s TV show (called “Horsin’ around”, I know, I know, these jokes just write themselves, right?) lives off of his backend paychecks. If this sounds like the bacchanal setup of Two and half-men, Bojack Horseman quickly dissuades you from ever thinking we are going to plow through the endless sexual conquests of Bojack. Though he has some money and fame, Bojack is a perennial loser, an addict who is suffering from depression, indulges in occasional debauchery, goes on benders, and is looking for the same things as anyone else. He wants to be successful in love, life and have a purpose in life, he frequently binges his old sitcom episodes wishes for a simpler life where every episode is rounded out with a happy ending and a life lesson. Bojack Horseman has a lot of things going for it to build its story threads. It is set in a world where humans and anthropomorphic animals exist in the same world (Bojack himself is a horse), it frames its characters in a brightly colored animated world of Hollywoo (Yes, Hollywoo not Hollywood, watch the show to understand the reference) smack dab in the middle of celebrity life (most of them are either literal or clever anthropomorphic stand-ins to people we know and love), and it’s on Netflix, so that gives the show a license to explore any theme or concept without worrying about political correctness, though surprisingly it boasts less profanity than Archer or even Rick & Morty. Once these threads are established, the show starts pulling at them one by one and things shake loose in unexpected ways.
Bojack’s episodic themes seemingly appear to be lifted straight from the headlines (Bojack was one of the first shows to deal with the #MeToo movement before it became mainstream), we would even pat ourselves on the back and think I know where this is going, but it rips the veneer off so fast to expose the dark underbelly of real life, it’ll make your head spin. The subtext, satirical treatment, and all-too-real dark comedy might be too much for some, but Bojack touches upon multiple motifs and occasionally treads into some unchartered territory, I don’t want to spoil it for you, but rest assured that they are all very relevant in today’s life. If you think celebrity lives and their problems have nothing to do with you, think again… Aren’t we all overwhelmed by trappings of some kind and wish we can do better? Bojack has more in common with a TV series like Mad Men than any other, both feature protagonists who live in glamorous worlds and seemingly have it all, yet melancholy permeates their lives and both are constantly questioning themselves, trying to find purpose. Like Don Draper, Bojack tries to be better, but he just can’t help himself and resorts to his old ways, pushes his friends away, yet he is looking for someone to like him, someone to love him.
Bojack Horseman, the titular horse is surrounded by an excellent ensemble cast of Princess Carolyn, his workaholic agent, Todd, an affably goofy mooch who crashes on Bojack’s couch (voiced by Aaron Paul He is more like Kramer not Jesse Pinkman of Breaking Bad), Diane (his best friend, and ghostwriter of his memoir), Mr. Peanut Butter (a dim-witted but successful colleague). Each of these characters gets considerable time to breathe and develop their rich storylines and act as the perfect foil for Bojack’s self-obsessed personality. These colorful characters in Bojack (believe me they are colorful, literally :)), are looking to answer these questions ‘what is happiness?’, ‘what does it all mean?’, ‘why am I like this?’, ‘Do people love me?’. These questions form the lynchpin of the show and most of the time, through soliloquy or dialog they utter these questions aloud and try to answer them to get to a temporary stasis, but the show and the storyline break down that theory they just constructed, because most of the answers are saccharin and like my favorite author Malcolm Gladwell said, “explanation is not an excuse”. The show’s take no prisoners attitude teaches the art of taking responsibility for our own actions and veers away from easy answers to problems. The show puts its characters through real work to find their way through life.
Though the animation quality is pedestrian(by design), it is voiced by some excellent actors including Will Arnet, Allison Brie, Aaron Paul, Amy Sedaris, and others. Instead of treating it like regular voice works where each actor records their lines in isolation, Bojack’s cast did table reads to understand the entire episode to get a feel for their characters’ journey before they get into the recording room. Raphael Bob-Wackberg and his team of writers tackle difficult issues head-on and deliver one of the most complex, and well-written shows ever. Raphael Bob-Wacksberg said that he got the idea for the show when he was crashing in the mansion of an ex-showbiz star.
Watching Bojack sometimes is hard, but you can’t peel yourself away from it, call it self-loathing, or self-discovery, masochism, or whatever moniker you bestow upon the viewing experience, it is a show that will hold you by your lapels and won’t let you go until it’s done with you or you are done with it. Don’t mistake me, it’s a dark comedy, so it will make you laugh but you can’t not be enraptured by the show no matter what you might take away from it, There are literally millions of web pages and thousands of youtube videos and millions of Reddit and other discussion boards filled with Bojack fans discussing life’s big questions, fan theories, and show themes. It is, as I said in the beginning, one of the most important works of fiction, and the showrunners need to be commended on bringing it to us when they did… It was one of the first shows on Netflix when Netflix was serious about programming and greenlighted such shows as House of Cards, and I seriously doubt it would’ve been given this lethargic, rich run it has if it was pitched today. That said, I strongly urge you to watch the show to find out why it became a critical darling, and let me know if you agree with my analysis and keep the conversation going.
Written On Mar 31, 2020