BoJack Horseman Grappling with Existence

A deep deep into first two seasons of a show about talking cartoon animals

BoJack Horseman is about a horse. It’s also about depression, disappointment, and regret; consequences and recurrence; authenticity and meaning. Each character struggles with their sense of self-worth and the effects of their actions. These struggles are not neatly resolved and do not end at momentary successes or failures. The characters are continually evolving, regressing, and existing.

While retaining much of the structure of similar comedies in which each episode focuses on a particular, often disconnected scenario, BoJack subverts their bottled nature, with even the most minor consequences[1] felt across an entire season. The show takes the absurd situations of anthromorphized, hilarious characters, makes them incisively, painfully relatable, and then revisits the ripples created by those situations.[2] Each character’s story arc provides the show a different landscape through which to illustrate the anxieties, triumphs, and challenges of existing in the world.

***

Dianne succeeds. She creates a sympathetic, unflinching portrait of BoJack as he is. While the book strains her relationship with BoJack, the show leaves no question as to its adoring reception by the public. She has written something that means something to people, that lets them find comfort in the ubiquity of their own failures and insecurities through BoJack’s story.

But then what? The book came out at a point in time, but Dianne continues. And what does her victory mean? Yes, many found comfort in the book, but there are more pressing problems in the world; is devoting attention profiling the lives of selfish pseudo-celebrities really a good use of her time? By Season 2, Dianne has explicitly described that for her, to be a good person means to do good things. There is no inner, ethical being sheltered from your actions in the material world. This is important to her, foundational to her identity, and the second season concerns her attempts to do good in that world through her work.

Yet she continuously runs into obstacles. When initially offered the chance to profile Sebastian St. Claire, a billionaire philanthropist doing aid work in the fictional war-torn country of Cordovia, she defers for 3 months to work as a character consultant for BoJack’s movie and apply her knowledge of a different selfish and depressed pseudo-celebrity horseman[3]. When ignored there and challenged by the director’s daughter as having given up on her dreams, she helps Todd free chickens from factory farms and gets arrested. Yet while she takes some comfort in their act of defiance, the show makes clear its emptiness. Only BoJack’s celebrity gets them out of jail and as they drive away, the show reveals seemingly unending lines of people outside the fast food restaurant whose chickens they freed, drawn to the company’s free “responsibility buckets” created to “atone” for Diane’s actions. Diane’s actions freed some chickens, but lead to the deaths of many more. Later, Dianne attempts to use her writing ability to challenge the patriarchy by exposing the (heavily implied) sexual abuse of celebrity late show host Hank Hippopopalous. Yet she again encounters the limitations of entrenched cultural institutions and this time, the doubt of her husband and friend. After another disappointment in the U.S., Dianne decides to accept Sebastian’s offer and travels to Cordovia, a seemingly unambiguous way for her to use her talents f0r good. She finds no solace there; Sebastian is a terrible person, embodying in full force the trope of the self-aggrandizing Western savior, and she can’t bear the personal costs of watching those she comes to care for (the Cordovians) die around her. As she leaves Cordovia, she feels the full force of her failure when speaking with her husband, who admiringly compares the importance of her work to that of their friends. Dianne thinks you are good because of what you do, she wants to be good, and she can’t seem to do good despite her best efforts. Faced with the prospect of exposing herself as a fraud to the person she loves (Mr. Peanut Butter) by returning home, Dianne plunges into depression and moves into BoJack’s house.

***

BoJack fails. Consistently. Almost exclusively. He’s done nothing since his show ended. His attraction to Dianne is somehow both unexplored and unrequited. He betrayed his Herb Kazzaz (his old best friend), and fought Herb when he wouldn’t forgive BoJack’s betrayal. He failed to pursue Carroll when he had the chance, and simultaneously traumatizes her daughter and obliterates their relationship by pursuing both years later. He sabotaged Todd’s chance at success and failed to support Todd when he needed it. He fails to support his show’s youngest castmate, both as a child and a self-destructive adult. He ruined his relationship with Wanda. His existence disappoints his parents, who loath him.

Even his “successes” are tinged with failure and disappointment. He wants strangers to love him, and only finds it through the unwilling exposure of his failures. He wins a Golden Globe for a book he didn’t write. He’s infinitely wealthy, but depressed. He stars in a potentially Oscar-winning movie, the one he’s always wanted to make, but its crowd-pleasing tripe and the creators re-animated over his entire performance.[4] In posthumously honoring Herb by naming his (accidentally created) charity for Herb, he misspells Herb’s name. His show, the highlight of his existence, is consistently portrayed as another interchangeable[5] 90s family sitcom.

***

On a scale, BoJack’s a bad person, damned to Hell. But there’s no end.[6] The show is uninterested in cosmic judgment. Each failure has lasting consequences, but all are felt in the material world, one in which each character keeps living and continues to take other actions with their own consequences. Rather than ultimate judgment, ethics are lived and — because they are lived — messy. In their escape from the factory farm, Dianne has a conversation with Todd that hints at the show’s perspective on what it means to do good. After Dianne expresses frustration over the limitations she encounters in trying to make change, Todd describes his admiration for Dianne because she treats others well and tries to do good. The show seems to hold that there is no authentic form of work that makes a person good –Sebastian is awful despite his philanthropy (although the show also seems pretty skeptical about the effects of that work). To be good is also not static — it’s an ongoing process, without an endpoint, enacted through how people treat those they care about and (to a lesser degree) what they try to accomplish through their limited agency in their work. People have lots of control over how they treat people, and less over their profession and the consequences of their actions. BoJack should have taken a stand for Herb Kazaz, but Dianne is the best character on the show for trying to take similar stands.

Personal growth is similarly uneven. BoJack does terrible things, takes a few steps forward, and fails all the more terribly, with each failure re-affirming his own depression and sense of worthlessness. Dianne achieves a crowning success, and finds depression while striving for more. As in life, failure does not necessitate redemption, accomplishment is no panacea for disappointment, and effort may not beget reward. The show has received deserved praise for its thoughtful, sensitive portrayal of depression. I’ll try not to belabor the point here except to highlight the realistic way that even BoJack’s personal, real victories do not treat his depression. BoJack forms a real, meaningful relationship with Carroll and finds his dream job playing Secretariat. But he still hates himself, and his inability to find self-acceptance through either furthers his depression.

Yet despite the show’s portrayal of disappointment after disappointment, somehow, slowly, the characters start to get better. The second season ends with another flicker of hope, happiness, and progress for all of the characters: BoJack finally shows his appreciation for Todd, realizes the vapidity of the public attention he’s been seeking, and re-devotes himself to personal change; Princess Caroline realizes she is alright with being alone and rejects a parasitic relationship with Mr. Rutabaga; Todd escapes an exploitative career with his cult-like improve group; while Dianne finds a new job and Mr. Peanut Butter accepts her return home. None of the victories represents the end of their challenges — they will keep living and fuck up again — but they happen, and matter for those characters because they happened.

And again, the process doesn’t end; progress is not linear. After committing his most irredeemable act against Carroll and her family, BoJack returns to find Dianne, still squatting at his house and lying to her husband. Time has passed, lives have changed, and they’re both still here. Depressed, disappointed, but here.

[1] Hollywoo!

[2] Put another way, I did not expect a show about a talking horse to force me to step away from watching it.

[3] A hilariously reimagined Secretariat.

[4] The next victims of technological displacement in BoJack’s world: actors.

[5] Literally with Mr. Peanut Butter’s near identical show.

[6] Until there is. RIP Herb.