by Gabriel Roland
A horse walks into a bar and orders a drink. The bartender asks, “Why the long face?” The horse proceeds to cynically criticize the old joke and complains about how he used to be a star. While this horse is rude and abrasive, there is a deeper side to him that people can relate to. His need to reclaim his fame is an attempt to combat his loneliness. He knows he is a jerk and wants to be better but doesn’t know how. Despite being a horse, he is just as human as everyone else. This is Bojack Horseman, a show about a washed-up sitcom star dealing with the climate of Hollywood in comedic ways while also facing his personal demons. The show on the surface may seem like another animated social commentary targeted at adults. If one looks deeper however, the series is a touching look at mental illness and self-worth that defies common animated sitcom tropes.
There is a firm status quo when it comes to cartoon shows targeted at adults. They either focus on a suburban family consisting of a bumbling husband and a nagging wife, or a group of middle-aged adults portrayed as cynical, cruel, or idiotic. Episodes from all of these series start off the same way. One of the characters does something that causes conflict, something that usually relates to a contemporary social issue. Political commentary hijinks ensue. The cast dig themselves deeper into their plight as the episode goes on, either by their own mistakes or because the world around them interferes with their efforts. By the end of the episode, the main characters have somehow managed to bring things back to normal. Perhaps it was a speech being given concerning the social issue while somber background music plays, or a comedic yet timely Deus ex Machina that conveniently wraps up the show. Whatever resolves the problem maintains the status quo as well. The show resets the world by the next episode as if nothing ever happened, the characters will not truly grow as people, and the series will scarcely stray from commentating on the political aspects of society. This formula can work as political satire, but it cannot speak to people on a personal level. The industry is overflowing with these types of animated sitcoms to the point that new ones will premiere and be cancelled within the same year. There is only so many times one can make fun of politics before people get tired of it, like how making fun of the president’s mistakes lost its novelty after only a few weeks. There is a limit to how many times the reset button can fix things before people get fed up with no real stakes or consequences. People need and want shows where the characters develop dynamically, asking questions about the nature of people that they can ask themselves, rather than dwelling on the frustrating world of politics.
Bojack Horseman takes that same status quo and turns it on its head by subverting how these tropes play out. At first, the show appears to cover the same bases. Bojack does many bad things in the show, ranging from petty to just horrible. The setting looks as if the reset button is hit each episode so that Bojack never grows. Even the show being set in Hollywood hints that social issues concerning the entertainment industry will be explored. As each episode proceeds, however, the viewer starts to notice the difference. The events that take place do have a lasting effect, as terrible things Bojack has done and the people he’s wronged will often come back to haunt him. He is forced to come face to face with who he is and ask himself if he’s willing to put in the effort to change himself. Instead of repeated social commentary, Bojack’s and his friend’s conflicts often deal with the subjects of love, morality and mental illness. Through these subversions, Bojack connects with people on a deeper and personal level. Both young and middle-aged adults alike have had to deal with their mental health, their love lives, and where they stand on doing the right thing. They have to deal with the consequences of reality every day with no way of going back. People have to deal with their worst mistakes and regrets and do their best to become a better person, even if they aren’t sure if they’ve succeeded. To see Bojack deal with these issues without going back to square one means the lessons the show gives can resonate with others. A person can invest their time in Bojack because his story will have a beginning, middle and end, just like the viewer’s life does.
Bojack is not a good person. He is an infuriating character to be around and often drinks and parties while shirking his responsibilities. He constantly hurts his friends and takes two steps back every time he takes a step forward. And yet, even with how harsh the show can be talking about these different subjects, it does not present his situation as hopeless. He is presented as sympathetic as much as he is a jerk. The series shows how awful his parents were to him, and how it played a part in making him who he is. His depression is displayed during his mental tirades against himself where he constantly calls himself a piece of garbage. Bojack realizes how much the consequences of his actions truly affects him as his friends start to leave him one by one, and then he is nearly driven to take his own life. But he doesn’t. Because the most striking thing about Bojack Horseman is the belief and emphasis that people can become better, that people can forgive themselves. The hardest thing is learning to forgive oneself for one’s mistakes and disciplining oneself to become better. If Bojack Horseman can change in the end, then anyone can.
As of the writing of this article, the first half of the final season of Bojack has been released on Netflix, with the second half set to come out in January 2020. The show’s creator has said that he had hoped to explore more aspects of Bojack’s growth before bringing it to an end. Still, he has also said that Netflix gave him ample warning about the cancellation, allowing him plenty of time to end Bojack’s story the way he wants. If the last stretch is anything like the rest of the show, it can be expected to be a bittersweet, yet hopeful conclusion that can speak to everyone.