An Overdue Meditation On “Bojack Horseman”

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While Big Mouth has dominated recent conversation surrounding adult animated content on Netflix, another adult animated show has quietly been growing into some of the best content available on the service. Bojack Horseman, soon entering its sixth and final season, has remained wickedly funny, smartly provocative, and uncompromisingly honest since debuting in 2014. The show, following the exploits of the Will Arnett voiced title character in a fictionalized version of Hollywood, quickly morphed from a clever but familiar take on celebrity lifestyle into a thoughtful depiction of everything from depression and self-loathing to current issues like gun violence and abortion. And it does so through a lens of distinct realism surprising for a show featuring anthropomorphic animals voiced by celebrities. Few other shows can pull off, or even attempt, the balancing act Bojack puts on in every episode, and that mix of vulnerability and versatility makes it one of the most unique and mesmerizing shows of the decade.

Like most great television, the biggest strength of Bojack is well-written characters, starting with the main horse himself. From the start of the show, Bojack is presented as someone unsatisfied with the trajectory of his life, but too angry at himself to actually get up and be better. He drinks and rewatches old episodes of his own TV show because he has convinced himself that the world is better off without him. And though there are occasions when he finds happiness and can be at peace with himself, those moments are fleeting and leave him feeling just as empty as before. The aggressively sardonic attitude Bojack shows towards the world adds a lot of dark comedy to the show, but also encompasses the more uncomfortable moments. From his deeply conflicted relationship with his dementia stricken mother to enabling the destructive lifestyle of his former co-star, Bojack is never depicted as a perfect, or even a good person, even if in later seasons he does make more of an effort to change. There is a sobering reality of Bojack as a character, and following him over the course of the show really does feel like a journey, despite being one with no clear destination.

While Bojack may be the main focus of most episodes, it would be a disservice to ignore the rest of the cast, who give the show a great deal of charm and wit while also adding to the complex narrative. Commentary on love and relationships is explored through the romantic pairing of Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), the ghost writer of Bojack’s memoir, and Mr. PeanutButter (Paul F. Tompkins), whose outlook on life is essentially the polar opposite to Bojack. Meanwhile, motherhood and the pressures of daily life are funneled into Princess Caroline (Amy Sedaris), who manages Bojack in every sense of the word. 

Of all the side characters though, none are as interesting as Todd Chavez (Aaron Paul), roommate and one of the few true friends to Bojack. Todd starts the show as a general comic relief character while also being used to explore ideas of codependency. As the show progresses, however, Todd evolves into a much fuller character as his relationship with Bojack becomes strained and he begins to struggle with the realization that he is aesexual. This development is given a lot of time and nuance in the show, and one of the most thoughtful lines across the whole series comes when Todd comes to this personal conclusion and states, “I’m not gay. I mean, I don’t think I am, but… I don’t think I’m straight either. I don’t know what I am. I think I might be nothing.” For any person who has ever struggled with figuring out their identity, Todd is a relatable warm hug of a character, and one of the most surprisingly well rounded additions to LGBTQ+ characters in modern television.

The inclusion of Todd highlights the standout element of Bojack that really makes it special: the show’s ability to comment on and address current issues in a way that feels meaningful. There are multiple episodes that fall into this category, as the series expertly explores topics like celebrity abortions, mass shootings, and public perception of the military. But perhaps the standout is the season two episode “Hank After Dark” which is maybe the most indicative episode of the overall quality of the show. “Hank After Dark” follows the book tour Bojack embarks on to support his memoir, hoping to gain back some public attention. But Diane winds up becoming the main focus, accompanying Bojack as the author of the book, when she is criticized by the general public for referencing sexual assault accusations leveled against Hank Hippopopalous, a widly loved actor and celebrity. Labeled as the “Cosby” episode at the time of release, the episode feels almost like a premonition of things to come, being released a full two years before the Harvey Weinstein scandal would drop. And it handles this complicated subject masterfully, highlighting the trials of both public perception and personal responsibility in a way that builds up to one of the most emotionally impactful endings of the entire show. 

“Hank After Dark” personifies the genius Bojack displayed across its lifetime. It never feels like a show that exists just to entertain or be played in the background. The show dares to be more, to put the characters and viewers in uncomfortable and downright depressing situations, sometimes not even offering a definitive resolution, because life has no definitive resolutions. Just like Bojack, everyone has days where they feel worthless or depressed, like they wish they could just run away from their problems. And it can be tempting to avoid media that depicts these emotions with the belief that it will only make the feelings worse or manifest in unhealthy ways. But in reality, if someone is lonely, or depressed, or going through any kind of trauma, seeing someone else display that same emotion may actually help. It tells them that they are not alone, that other people are struggling with similar issues. In that sense, Bojack Horseman, a show about a celebrity horse living in Hollywood, is one of the most relatable and cathartic pieces of media out there, and easily one of the best things Netflix has ever produced.

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