There are elements of Netflix’s Bojack Horseman series that put people off, for reasons that I can only assume.
1.) It’s an animated series — I imagine some people immediately dismiss it as vapid or childish because of this. 2.) People seem to be more and more interested in intense, human stories lately (think Ozark, Breaking Bad, Atlanta, etc.) and perhaps less so than ever in sitcoms. 3.) Half of the characters are animals. How do you connect your human experience with that of a horse?
Again, these are only guesses, but I’ve heard these explanations when I’ve asked — because I definitely am the type of person who wants other people to experience the joy I get from things I love, and I annoy people about getting into those things. Being my friend is difficult. I understand. And I’m sorry. Kind of.
From someone who’s gone through the entire Bojack series multiple times, I’m going to ask you to throw those three points out the window, because 1.) There is almost nothing childish about Bojack Horseman. 2.) Bojack Horseman is, at times, one of the most intensely human experiences portrayed in a fictional medium. 3.) The animal characters seem to exist for almost the sole purpose of punnery. And it’s wonderful.
Bojack Horseman, the man — or horse, whatever— is the show’s main attraction, but also the main antagonist. At its loudly beating heart, this is a show about people and their struggle to give life meaning — heavy stuff for an animated comedy about animal-people. Bojack struggles with his existence more anxiously than any other character in the series, which is saying quite a bit. He is a raging narcissist, which is often the source of jokes, but is just as often completely unfunny. At almost every turn, he does not see the pain and discomfort that he causes those around him — particularly those who love him, which is all the more heartbreaking. This leads to numerous terrible experiences, from which he immediately attempts to distance his culpability. He does this by overindulging in food and alcohol, going on days to weeks-long benders consisting of hard drugs and bad decisions, and simply creating excuses for himself — most often that he had an awful childhood. I think we all know someone(s) who fit this description, and that’s who Bojack Horseman is. We want him to change. We need him to change if we’re ever going to truly like him. But, from what we know of narcissism, we know that isn’t likely to happen. And to the Bojack writing team’s credit, what we end up with is a realistic arc for such a character, amid all the wacky, unrealistic adventures he and his friends experience.
This series features some of the heaviest and most uncomfortable scenes I’ve seen. Seasons two, five, and six, in particular, have ridiculously difficult events to witness, and I imagine that they can be triggering for some people. Bojack is the cause of all these events. He is never a bystander, a witness, or the person intending to help another in a bad situation. He is the author of the bad situations. Yet, despite this, we hang on to the idea that he will change, because he says he wants to change, and because we see flashes of goodness in him. Can we forgive him for these actions? Can we forgive him, when he never seems to learn from his mistakes? Can we forgive anyone who continues to make the same mistakes over and over again? Can we still believe they are good people? What is the difference between a person with human flaws, and a bad person? Bojack Horseman seeks to answer those questions, and viewers may find that they don’t like the answers, but the ride is nonetheless compelling.
So much of what makes Bojack Horseman great, however, is its levity. The destructive plotting is offset by ludicrous adventures from supporting characters. Mr. Peanutbutter, a reluctant Bojack’s yellow lab friend and fellow 90’s sitcom star, and Todd Chavez, Bojack’s aloof human roommate, are responsible for most of the show’s wacky hijinks. Whether it’s Mr. Peanutbutter’s use of a warehouse’s worth of spaghetti strainers to save an underwater city from broiling pasta, or Todd’s quest to save an escaped chicken meant for slaughter by a meat company, Bojack’s misery is balanced by pure fun and adoration. We love Mr. Peanutbutter’s good natured spontaneity and Todd’s naive, soulful attempts to become a responsible adult, and we should. Todd, for certain, is the one character in the show that subverts the show’s big question and remains an undeniably good person. But even he and Mr. Peanutbutter have their moments of sadness and even rage. Todd is often a foil to Bojack’s worst impulses, and these moments happen in heartbreaking ways, as the show is wont to do. Mr. Peanutbutter’s series arc concerns a confrontation with his own selfishness and desire for stasis rather than change, and these moments, too, are heavy.
Mr. Peanutbutter’s heavy moments almost always involve his human wife, with whom he is ill-suited to be married. Diane Nguyen is perhaps the show’s most important, most human character. Originally Bojack’s biographer, a tense, but intimate friendship blossoms between them. Diane is often the person most hurt by Bojack’s narcissism and poor decisions. Diane is like most of us: intending to be confident, but mostly insecure, concerned with helping others, but unsure of how to do it, wanting to be happy, but unhappy once the goal is achieved. There are so many points in the show at which we are certain that Diane has been pushed to her limit, only to see her pull herself out of a hole to resume her assault on the injustices of the world, starting with her friend Bojack. There have been many claims about how the show is mostly about depression, and that bit is often associated with Bojack, but Diane is the character that seems to struggle most authentically with what I know as depression. We care deeply for Diane, even when she tends to create her own problems and agonize over their provenance, and we want her to be okay as much as we want to see Todd achieve stability.
Similarly, Princess Caroline, Bojack’s on-again, off-again girlfriend and agent — who I should mention is a pink cat , and whose mother’s name is the similarly whimsical Cutie Cutie Cupcake — is a character with whom many can identify. She is admirably resilient, and pushes through multiple setbacks to remain successful. She is also a tireless friend. When Princess Caroline meets her biggest personal obstacle in seasons four and five, we are devastated by her struggles despite that aforementioned resiliency, and we are afraid that it will finally crack. PC is yet another example of the depth of the show’s characters, and is a testament to excellent writing.
Another element of Bojack that necessitates mention is its uncanny ability to satirize the most anger-inducing social and political events. Episodes that spring to mind deal with the seemingly never ending mass shootings in America, reproductive rights, the limits and necessity of “cancel culture,” corporate piracy, institutional sexism and racism, and the lunacy of American politics and elections. Some of the jokes embedded in these episodes are so biting, so completely on-point, that I find myself wishing the clips could be featured on primetime news, in the hope that our own idiocy reflected back at us might spurn us to making positive changes. Bojack, of course, would be skeptical of that idea and pessimistic to its success, but still. There is a brilliance at work in these episodes, the likes of which are found in few other shows — The Late Show with Colbert, for instance.
So, should you watch Bojack Horseman?
Most definitely. As human beings, this is our experience reflected on screen. I would argue that there aren’t many better explorations of human nature than Bojack. And you get to experience this self-identification amid the background of Hollywoo(d), movie stars, talking animals, endless amounts of animal puns, and a very solid soundtrack. It is a fun and moving experience, and I love it.
I’ll leave you with my favorite quote from the show:
“Every day it gets a little easier. But you gotta do it every day — that’s the hard part. But it does get easier.”