There is a moment in Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s BoJack Horseman, where the titular character looks up at a huge, blown-up version of himself represented by a balloon while a sombre piano note plays in the background. It is a terrifying moment. Not just because of the way the sequence has been filmed, but because of the context in which it is framed, the hours of storytelling that come before it, to create that one perfect moment of sheer cinematic brilliance. BoJack Horseman is littered with such moments of symbolic imagery. And it makes the most if it in its endeavour to convey the most complex of emotions incapable of being quantified in words.
It would be a tragic understatement to term BoJack Horseman as a comedy. Despite being one of the funniest shows in recent memory, the show deals with some of the darkest themes ever to be showcased on TV. If I may be so bold, I’d say the show created a new genre of storytelling. In an era of television where characters miraculously recover from their toxicity in the final episodes of a season accompanied by a giddy, feel-goody soundtrack, the characters of BoJack Horseman are a constant reminder that shit doesn’t just fix itself. We see them being oblivious to their many imperfections, we see them being brought to face them and acknowledging them, and we see them fall back, over and over again. As a character says in one of the later seasons: “There is the happy ending, and there is the day after the happy ending.” The show likes to dwell on the latter with such uncommon wit and sensitivity that you can’t help but let yourself be sucked into this world of sadness and purple skies.
BoJack (a terrific Will Arnett) isn’t a bad person. He says so himself to anyone within earshot. And you want to believe him. There are many, in the show itself, who reinforce that mantle. However, he operates in the same grey area we often find ourselves in. Of self-centredness, of falling in to our primal instincts, of addiction and self-destructivity. What the show does is it puts up a blinding spotlight over these, making them impossible to ignore anymore. It showcases how we normalise our toxicity, hiding behind our troubled upbringing, the pain we encountered, and believing we are somehow justified in acting the way we do because of it. As BoJack’s room-mate, Todd (Aaron Paul), shrieks at him in an episode: “It’s you, BoJack. You are all the things that are wrong with you. It’s not the alcohol or the drugs or any of the shitty things that happened in your career or when you were a kid. Alright? It’s you.” This is when the show engulfed me. We have seasons of backstory behind this character, we see how he was treated, the things he has gone through, and yet when a situation presented itself, the show wants you to believe that it was he who chose to act in a certain way. It is a testament to how we often justify our actions by telling ourselves a story, making it easier for us to process the guilt that inevitably comes after.
Most shows wouldn’t even consider this. I, for one, was fairly convinced that the show was making us root for BoJack. We are with him when his mother makes him smoke the first cigarette of his life. We are with him when his Dad says to him that he wished that he didn’t exist. We understand. We believe him. Until it is made very clear that we are not supposed to. We are not supposed to relate ourselves to BoJack. His story is not supposed to make us feel good about our own toxicity. His future self is a reminder of everything we are not supposed to be. What BoJack’s tale instead represents is taking control over your present and not letting your past be constantly used as an armour in which you could hide whenever provoked. It’s about not keeping on doing shitty things over and over again and then feeling sorry about them later like that makes it okay. It’s about being better.
There aren’t many (or maybe there are none) who can pull this off, with such authenticity and finesse, and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, his team of writers, Lisa Hanawalt’s animation and Jesse Novak’s haunting soundtrack take you on a soulful ride. Each episode is given its own unique theme, with some episodes taking a delightfully different turn. There is an episode that completely takes place underwater without a single piece of dialogue in it and yet it manages to convey what other shows cannot do over the course of entire seasons. On the other hand, there is an episode which just has a character giving a blistering 25-minute monologue at a funeral, an episode that visually conveys what self-loathing looks like. ‘The View From Halfway Down’, the penultimate episode of the final season and probably the best 25 minutes I’ve spent in front of a TV screen, completely takes place inside a character’s head while they are caught between life and death.
Each episode is packed with so much detail that it is almost impossible to catch everything that is happening on screen without a Reddit sub-chat open in front of you. Subtle animal gags, important character details, they’re all littered out there on the screen because BoJack Horseman doesn’t believe in spoon-feeding it’s audience. The show relies heavily on your ability to observe and interpret.
Taking about the rest of the cast, they are so well-developed and fleshed out that they could very well have their own show. Mr. Peanutbutter (a consistently hilarious Paul F. Tomkins) as a golden Labrador is a treat to watch and will make you fall head over heels in love with dogs all over again. Princess Carolyn (a sensational Amy Sedaris), the sly pink cat, as Bojack’s agent, is an absolute scene-stealer. The episodes focussed on her are some of the best this show has to offer. Todd Chavez (an adorable Aaron Paul), will surprise the heck out of you, especially in the later seasons. His character is probably the best representation of an asexual human I’ve ever seen.
However, the character that clearly stands out of the lot is Diane Nyugen (a lovely Alison Brie), the awkward nerdy writer whom BoJack initially hires to write his autobiography. As the show goes on, we get to know that the show is as much about Diane as it is about BoJack. You see that they are frighteningly similar and have a lot in common. But as the show moves on, we start noticing the effect BoJack’s glamorous lifestyle had on his character along the way while Diane, who has never tasted fame and the darkness that comes with it, turns out be a quiet, self-aware person. The cracks are there, yes, and they become increasingly clear in the later seasons, but there is a subtle change in the approach she employs to deal with them. She is as much the lead of the show as BoJack is and in any other show they would’ve ended up lovers. But here, their relationship is so strikingly platonic that it starts to become clear, as the show moves on, that their camaraderie serves a bigger purpose. Their contrast is the philosophical bedrock this tale wishes to convey of two people with shared trauma, who turn out to be quite different from each other in making the simplest of changes to how they chose to deal with their darkness. Here again is the show’s theme of putting control back in your hands and not letting the burden of your past dictate your present. She becomes his voice of reason. His light at the end of the tunnel. And in some ways, he ends up becoming the same for her. “Maybe we are all supposed to save each other,” she says to him, while they sit under the moonlit sky one last time, and we couldn’t agree more.
And yet, BoJack Horseman doesn’t get a happy ending. Probably because he doesn’t deserve one. However, the one thing that elevates this show is the consistent undercurrent of hope. Because BoJack tries. He really does. He just can’t help himself, and he loathes himself for it, and the loathing makes him try. It feels right, the way his story ends. As a Redditor eloquently puts it, “It’s sad for what it is and hopeful for what it can be, which, for BoJack Horseman, seems to be the right call.”
BoJack Horseman is much more than the sum total of its parts. It’s not just a character study, but also a searing commentary on the people broken by the showbiz industry (the Sarah Lynn story), on addiction, on parenting and on the value seemingly inconsequential people bring to our lives. More than anything, it is a commentary on art itself and its ability reach those unexplored recesses of our minds and shake us out our lethargy and give us (as it did to BoJack) a chance at redemption. And it is this, more than anything else, that makes BoJack Horseman the most relevant show of our time.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.