Three years ago I found myself on Instagram, not for the first time nor would it be the last time. Actually, let me take a second to declare my love for Instagram. It has become a safe place for me to post comic book images and pictures of Hudson the Cat without (a) bothering my Faceyspace friends and (b) seeming like a lunatic while (c) making me feel that there is a community for cat loving, pop vinyl collecting, geeks like myself. Plus all those filters help make me feel like the world’s best geeky image updater. Am I wrong here (pssssst you can follow me and all my geeky/cat images at @iamgeek32 #shamelessplug).
As I was saying, three years ago I found myself on Instagram scrolling through my feed which is what people do when they’re not posting (yes, I just realized I’m explaining how social media works). At the time I was just starting to follow people, both friends and celebrities, so the whole experience was filled with wonder. Aaron Paul (A-Aron if you will) was one of the first celebrities I started following due to his posts declaring his love for pizza or the occasional picture with New York Football Giants great Eli Manning. There was a very human quality to Paul’s postings and his captions are written in a way that makes us all seem like friends, it’s all very charming and Aaron Paul like. On the aforementioned day three years ago he had posted a picture of a poster that saw a cartoon horse sitting on a diving board with a drink in his hand while the background appeared to be recovering from a party. There was a Netflix tag, a release date, a list of actors who would be on the show (such as Will Arnett, Amy Sedaris, and Alison Brie), and a title. BoJack Horseman.
Here’s something you need to know about me before we go any further, the previous summer I went through one of those life transition phases, you know when everything you’ve ever known changes and you have to either adapt or allow yourself to be swallowed by the Swamp of Sadness (oh god, that horse drowns because it becomes too sad! Why would they put that in a kids movie?! Why?!). My transitional life phase involved the ending of my marriage and when I wasn’t spending time with friends and family, who were the best support system ever, I was alone in my room trying not to over think my life. What I did to turn those thoughts off was turn to television and allowed myself to be consumed by Breaking Bad and Community. Yes, these two shows are polar opposites of each other but they distracted me from myself and my over active mind. For that I’m forever grateful, so you can imagine that learning that there was going to be a show that included actors from both shows (Brie and Paul) was like the universe giving me a little gift. Something to help celebrate my love for both shows.
When I tuned into BoJack Horseman I had figured it would play off like any other prime time/adult oriented cartoon I had ever seen (at the time that was mostly shows like The Simpsons, Family Guy, and any other Adult Swim cartoon you can think of). There would be outlandish humor, cheap laughs, and witty pop culture references, and to a degree I was right. But not really. BoJack Horseman is not the cartoon you think it is, in fact, it’s not the animated series you would think was possible. There is a realness to this show that hits harder than most hour dramas currently on your screens, and it wears on you. For a show that usually clocks in at the twenty-six minute figure, episodes of BoJack Horseman can weigh on you long after the credits roll. And that took me off guard. I went in looking for cheap laughs and cartoon hijinx and left with large life questions and deep emotional cuts. It was like going to a famous seafood restaurant and ordering their most well known meal but they bring you out a hamburger instead. Nothing against the hamburger but it wasn’t what I ordered. I mean, I’ll eat it, but I didn’t think it was on the menu.
So, what is BoJack Horseman? When I decided to write this column I started wrestling with that idea. How could I possibly explain this show to people who haven’t seen it, and I fear that that list is far too long. The easy way would to be explain the premise I suppose but that still doesn’t seem like enough. BoJack Horseman (Arnett) is an actor from a famous 90’s television show called Horsing Around (picture Full House but with a horse as the dad) that is still trying to hang on to his past glories. BoJack has based his entire life around the success of that show and now that it’s over and he’s just another “once was” which he believes gives his life no true validation. Naturally he does what any washed up 90’s actor would do, and hires a ghost writer (Brie) to scribe his autobiography so the world can get to know the real him. In between that we discover that BoJack has a roommate/best friend Todd (Paul) who sleeps on his couch uninvited and an agent who happens to be a cat and an ex-lover (Sedaris). It’s all sort of complex sounding, and that’s not even addressing the fact that talking animals and humans co-exist with each other as if it’s not weird at all.
But that’s not what the show is about, at it’s core, BoJack Horseman is one of the most existential stories I’ve ever encountered, and I read The Stranger (#humblebrag). BoJack himself is a self loathing, self destructive, alcoholic, occasional drug user, and for lack of a better word, asshole. That’s our main character. Yet those behaviors are understandable. BoJack had a terrible childhood where nothing was ever good enough, a career that was glowing and then fizzled out, has burned important friendships and lost those who were close to him, and just wants to be happy. Yet, he doesn’t understand what happiness is. To BoJack happiness is validation that he exists, a constant string of congratulations that celebrate achievements as small as just waking up in the morning. BoJack needs to feel wanted and loved but won’t allow himself to be. In every situation where it appears that BoJack is on the cusp of happiness or understanding life he goes out of his way to sabotage it. Whether it’s firing his ghost writer after she writes an honest portrayal of who he is (which is what he wants but can’t face), trying to rekindle a romance that got away but understanding she has a family and it can never happen, or trying to apologize to a director he got fired, BoJack has good intentions but hates himself too much to follow through with them. BoJack is both the hero, victim, and villain of this story and it’s a lot to take in.
Will Arnett has brilliantly crafted BoJack to be both sympathetic and vile. Heart warming and heart breaking. Someone you’d want to hug but fear that they won’t understand why. It’s tough to root for BoJack and because of that episodes roll by with brutal emotional honesty that punches in the gut and wills you to get up so you can be punched again. There are constant glimmers of hope that dance on the horizon and just when you think we’re going to reach them you realize that it’s just a fire to another bridge BoJack has burned. I know this might not be selling you on the show but it should be. BoJack Horseman is such a wonderful, character driven, dissection of life and it’s ups and downs. Every character on this show faces obstacles and every character tries to deal with those problems differently. I think this show has created a cast of characters who all want to be happy, yet live in a world where happiness isn’t easily achieved or understood. All these characters are damaged and sometimes that works to BoJack’s advantage, as he feels that maybe he’s not alone, but other times you watch as he brings down other characters almost like a cancer. Again though, you don’t hate him. You shake your head at him and sigh.
The cast here is fantastic and all bring something different to the table. Princess Carolyn (Sedaris) is the hope that BoJack needs that there is something in the future that will make him great again while reminding him that he was once great, Diane (Brie) is the brutal realness that BoJack wants to accept but spends most of his time avoiding, and Todd (Paul) is probably the closest thing the show has to a conscience as he is easy going and filled with love. Each actor brings a specific touch to the show and they all work wonderfully together and help to enhance not only the stories but the shows larger themes. Not to mention the list of guest appearances is quite impressive. Patton Oswalt, Stanley Tucci, Alan Arkin, and Paul McCartney have all appeared on BoJack Horseman adding to the satirical look the show takes on Hollywood which is another one of the shows themes. See what I mean? This thing is layered.
BoJack Horseman is not afraid to touch on larger uncomfortable themes that some dramas shy away from. There are episodes that address alcoholism, family abuse, abortion, cancer and death, depression, and mistaking love for lust. These are all heavy topics and they become even heavier when you realize that they’re being addressed in twenty-six minutes by a cartoon whose main character is a talking horse. On face value this doesn’t seem like that type of show that is or should be tackling these themes, but after a few episodes you start to understand that maybe this platform is totally correct and needed. BoJack Horseman is not afraid of making you uncomfortable, not in the way that Family Guy does though. Family Guy presents you with something to shock you for the sake of shocking you. BoJack Horseman presents you with something to make you think and feel. I’ve said it countless times before but it rings true again here. The purpose of good story telling is to make you feel and whether those emotions are uncomfortable or not the fact that you’re feeling them is the story tellers validation.
BoJack Horseman is an outstanding, character driven, existential, heart breaking, heart warming, brutal, and honest depiction of life or something like it. Go back to the start of this column. Did I need to go into my own backstory before addressing the show? No, probably not. Yet, writing about BoJack Horseman makes me feel like I should address certain things. That I need to validate my emotions and my past to show that, yeah I understand what’s happening here. That’s part of what I love about this show. The emotional response it demands from it’s viewers. BoJack Horseman is an exercise in excellent television as well as emotionally exhausting/rewarding. It is Netflix’s best kept secret and worth your time and emotional outpouring. You’ll find that this cartoon about a talking horse has something that is missing from a lot of shows. Heart and soul. It asks you to be uncomfortable and forgiving, but allows you to make that decision on your own. Nothing is force fed and that’s quite the gift from a television show. And who are we to look a gift horse in the mouth? (pun very much intended)
Images from Netflix