Early in the first episode of Raphael Bob-Waksberg's first season of #Bojack Horseman we watch an intoxicated middle aged humanoid horse and washed-up star of the 1990’s sitcom Horsin' Around, Bojack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett), in a train wreck interview with American #Television talk show host Charlie Rose. Despite his immense fame and fortune, BoJack is unable to articulate a single memorable thing he’s done since the show ended almost 20 years ago.
When asked “to what do you attribute the show's wide appeal?” BoJack says “for a lot of people, life is just one long, hard kick in the urethra. And sometimes, when you get home from a long day of getting kicked in the urethra, you just want to watch a show about good, likeable people who love each other."
Ironically, BoJack Horseman’s chief appeal stems from making us feel bad.
Nothing turns out the way it's supposed to. By doing so, the show manages to relate to our everyday reality, thereby posing important, philosophical questions.
Is comedy truer to life than tragedy?
Absurdism, existential nihilism, depression, disappointment, disillusionment, loneliness, and narcissism are just some of the factors which contribute to BoJack’s downward spiral, a descent which cumulatively affects those closest to him. Just when BoJack finally thinks he’s about to make amends, he unintentionally ends up dragging someone further down into the abyss with him. His actions continues to plunge him deeper into narcissism and hopelessness throughout the series, and likewise leaves the audience feeling dejected.
So why keep watching? These characters have everything, so why aren't they happy? Even the most cheerful character, Mr.
Peanutbutter, expresses his belief in the futility of life when he tries console his wife Diane by saying in a reassuring tone: "The universe is a cruel, uncaring void. The key to being happy isn't a search for meaning, it's to just keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually, you'll be dead."
Aside from the perverse plot of a horse as a washed-up Hollywood sitcom star living in LA, a pink cat for an agent who’s boyfriend is actually three children in a trench coat, BoJack's 20-year-old best friend and perpetual mooch Todd (voiced by Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul), talking animals (including stripper whales), and the bizarre situations they all find themselves in, the real #Comedy stems from the relationships between these characters and their bleakness. The shows light hearted veneer hides a dark, depressing and all too familiar reality.
A complex portrayal of mental health and universal suffering
BoJack Horseman is so much more than an animated comedy about a celebrity talking horse, the ugly narcissistic truth behind the dazzling facade of Hollywood and meaningless award ceremonies that only reward those with established names.
In the show, Hollywood can be seen as a metaphor for existence in general. Just as the dazzling facade of fame hides the truth of a hollow industry, the mundane tasks of everyday life cover up it's meaninglessness. It is both a silly story of a washed-up sitcom star horsing around with a pink cat, doing everything he can to distract himself from the pain inside him, and a more serious, complex portrayal of mental health, universal suffering, the complexities of human relationships and the meaninglessness of it all.
Perhaps we are drawn to it because we, like BoJack, tread a thin line between comedy and tragedy every day.
A wider shift in comedy
BoJack Horseman is a show that will at first make you laugh, then cry, then laugh again. Of course, Bojack Horseman isn't the first adult cartoon on #Netflix to plunge its audience into existential despair through comedy, nor is it the first show to explore successful and intelligent, yet deeply unhappy, self-absorbed, hard-drinking men. Just as Rick in #Rick and Morty turns to alcoholism is an attempt to suppress his genius, BoJack turns to substance abuse to escape himself.
Both BoJack and Rick act as anti-heroes or villain protagonists, yet we forgive them because they're charismatic. Both characters ask dark questions surrounding the meaninglessness of life and the cosmic indifference of the universe. But unlike Rick, BoJack is so deeply affected by his own hurtful behaviour, from the get-go, and instead of taking matters into his own hands falls into a spiral of self pity and loathing. He blames the black hole that is his heart for the tragedy that befalls him and the ones he cares about. Unlike Rick ,who doesn't seek approval from anyone, BoJack begs his friend Diane to tell him he’s a good person because he is constantly searching for validation.
Seen in this light, BoJack Horseman offers a counterintuitive mode of recalibration, a dark comedy that’s so depressing we can’t help but laugh, yet at the same time hope that we don't end up like BoJack. Looking at it in retrospect one can’t help but ask, what is it about feeling bad that is so appealing? Is it the deep philosophical questions posed by the show? Is there such a thing as a 'good person' or are we all broken inside? Is happiness attainable? What are we meant to do if it is/isn’t?
Only in darkness can we see the light.