Bojack Horseman retrospective: no longer Horsin' Around

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“You never get a happy ending, ‘cause there’s always more show. I guess until there isn’t” - BoJack Horseman

BoJack Horseman might be the most celebrated adult-aimed cartoon of all time. Debuting in 2014, it focuses on the misadventures of the titular character, a jaded, washed-up, former 90s sitcom star in a world where anthropomorphic animals live alongside humans. BoJack, played by Will Arnett, is aided in his adventures by his friends; his agent and sometimes lover Princess Caroline (Amy Sedaris), fellow former sitcom actor Mr Peanutbutter (Paul F. Thompkins), writer Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie) and Todd (Aaron Paul), an enthusiastic couch-surfer who crashed on Bojack’s couch five years before the series began and never left. The series has received acclaim for its humour, the way it examines celebrities and celebrity culture and its realistic and grounded depiction of depression.

The series is coming to an end with a two part final season, the first part of which aired in 2019, and the second part coming at the end of January 2020. In honor of this show bowing out, I wanted to do a retrospective on the show, to try to discuss it in detail for what could be the last time.

I’ll be the first to admit that, at first, Bojack Horseman was rather rough. With various cutaway gags, the fact that it was an “adult” orientated animated show, and that it appeared, for the first few episodes at least, like the characters were going to face no consequences for their actions, it looked like it was going to be Netflix’s answer to Family Guy. All the advertising, and the first few episodes, made the show look like it was shallow, brash and disposable, with few redeeming qualities outside of a stellar cast that the project had somehow managed to acquire. But, rather famously in fact, the show had a complete tonal shift in the latter half of season 1, with Indiewire going so far as to change how it reviewed Netflix shows going forwards.

After season 1, BoJack Horseman seemed to find its identity. It scrapped the cut-aways and some episodes became more experimental; “Fish Out of Water” featured less than three minutes of audible dialogue, while “Free Churro” almost entirely consists of BoJack giving an extended monologue at a funeral, ending with a twist that manages to be both hilarious and heartbreaking. The cast also expanded, with guest appearances from esteemed actors, with J.K. Simmons, Lisa Kudrow, Lakieth Stanfield, Stephanie Beatriz and, of course, Esteemed/Beloved Character Actress Margo Martindale all appearing in multiple episodes. But what made BoJack Horseman stand out was the way that it balanced humour and tragedy so well. “Tragicomedy” is a phrase that gets used a lot these days, with almost every network and streaming service having a programme that claims to be the definite example of the word. But BoJack Horseman feels like a show that truly is a tragic comedy. It’s difficult to state how good the writing is, and it truly is amazing how the programme tackles Hollywoo(d), in both comedic and tragic ways. Hollywoo(d) is a strange and dark place – it can be brought to its knees by assistants deciding to go on strike, or hold an election where the winner is decided by ski-race. But it can also hide predators, enable addictions and be hostile to those who point out hypocrisies.

But maybe all these changes are futile? If BoJack Horseman has an issue, it’s that it can quickly feel very performative; contrary to his declaration late in season 2, BoJack does seem to spend his life running in circles. While the other characters grow, BoJack never quite manages to change his life for the better. He flitters from project to project, bringing all his baggage with him, and, when it turns out that this latest venture won’t bring the happiness he seeks, simply moves onto a different one, swearing that this time it’ll be different. But it never is, and BoJack ends up repeating the same cycles over and over again, often hurting the people around him in the process. The show comments on its performative nature at the end of season 6A: BoJack attends a church service which deeply affects him. The priest confronts him at the end and invites him to stick around for a while. “Looks like you found some solace in our show. Stay if you like. In 30 minutes, we start over”. It’s a moment that I never talked about in my review of season 6A, but it’s definitely the moment that defined those episodes for me. It acknowledges how many people found comfort in the show, with its accurate depiction of depression and self-loathing, and how the show was cyclical in nature. “We’ll start again” the creators say. “We’ll do it all over again”. And they will.

Except, this time, they won’t. All his life, BoJack has been running away from the consequences of his actions. But, with season 6B on the horizon, it looks like they’ll be catching up with him. Maybe that’s a good thing, BoJack is a terrible person who has done terrible things. But if he were to ever face consequences for his actions, the show would be over. There would be nowhere else for it to go. We don’t know what will happen to BoJack next. Maybe he’ll face repercussions for the terrible things he’s done. Or maybe he’ll be able to escape them, as so many powerful men do. Either way, we’ll know come January 31st.

Because there’s always more show. Until there isn’t.