BoJack Horseman is its own harshest critic

Few of the viewers tuning into Netflix’s animated series BoJack Horseman in 2014 could have anticipated how the series would evolve over the course of its six seasons to date. What began as a pun-filled send-up of celebrity culture and the media circus, set in a world full of anthropomorphic animals, soon presented a nuanced take on mental illness and the cycles of trauma. Before long, series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg was turning this critical eye to his own perceived failings.

From the start, BoJack Horseman was always introspective and prone to putting its characters’ behavior under the microscope. But as the series progressed, the scrutiny became far more intense. Bob-Waksberg eventually turned the show toward examining its own cultural impact, even questioning his desire to self-evaluate. The sixth season, which launched on Netflix on October 25th, continues this pattern of criticism, as the series’s protagonist, depressed former sitcom star BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett) begins his own journey to recovery, interrogating his behavioral patterns and revisiting trauma sites. More so than any fan or commentator, the show holds the top spot as its own harshest critic.

BoJack longs for a life as simple as the one in his former hit sitcom Horsin’ Around, where every conflict was resolved in one episode, so everything could reset again. From the beginning, the series made it clear that this fantasy was incompatible with reality, and that BoJack’s refusal to deal with his problems was only going to make things worse. Although Bob-Waksberg set out to subvert viewer expectations, this subversion soon became routine. One woman BoJack dates even highlights this trend by asking him to “do that BoJack thing where you make a big deal over nothing and everyone laughs at you but at the same time relates, because you’re saying all the things polite society won’t.”

For the first few seasons, the show has its cake and eats it, too. Bob-Waksberg mines BoJack Horseman’s sitcom status for all its absurd comedy, such as BoJack’s best friend Todd (Aaron Paul) landing himself in a “two-dates-to-the-prom” situation with rival prison gangs. At other times, the show emphasizes that life rarely fits this structure, such as when BoJack’s former friend and Horsin’ Around creator Herb (Stanley Tucci) rejects BoJack’s heartfelt apology, even on his deathbed. The series brings in sitcom tropes and structure to mock them, but also to seriously reflect BoJack’s damaged psyche.

Photo: Netflix

But from the second season onward, the writers became increasingly aware of their complicity in the sitcom-reset fantasy, and they worked harder to keep their stories from growing stagnant. The show started taking BoJack’s bad behavior to darker corners with plots where he’s caught with a friend’s 17-year-old daughter and a reckless drug-fueled bender with Sarah Lynn (Kristen Schaal), a former Horsin’ Around child actress who had gotten clean and sober. In the season 4 episode “The Old Sugarman Place,” he demolishes his family home in an attempt to “move forward” and return to Los Angeles. This forceful return to the status quo also reflected BoJack’s cycle of delusion and entitlement, as well as his inability to pull himself free from the quagmire of depression.

Dealing with thorny topics like trauma, privilege, mental illness, harassment, and substance abuse isn’t easy, especially when they have to be balanced with animal puns and goofy antics. (“Viva Toddfoolery!”) The writers frequently use comedy to provide catharsis amid tension or tragedy, with Todd getting into a Prince and the Pauper caper in the same episode where feminist writer Diane (Alison Brie) faces the fallout of speaking out on sexual misconduct. But the creative team eventually cornered themselves by calling out the incompatibility between real life and sitcom structure, given that they’d set up a scenario where they needed sitcom structure to tell their stories.

By the third season, the episodic cycles of BoJack’s toxic, damaging behavior ran the risk of becoming repetitive and predictable. But the writers acknowledged the problem, with Todd calling out BoJack in the season 3 episode “It’s You”: “You can’t keep doing shitty things and then feel bad about yourself as if that makes it okay — you need to be better!”

Photo: Netflix

This isn’t just Todd pushing back against a friend who is all too ready to be forgiven. It’s the writers examining the impact of their show. It’s one thing to derive comedy from BoJack’s misanthropy, but allowing it to go unchallenged sets a dangerous precedent. Rather than shying away from the question, the creative team wrestled with their purpose as the series progressed. When BoJack plays gritty anti-hero detective Philbert in season 5, Diane questions whether such ultra-dark characters have a negative influence on the viewer. By extension, she’s implicating BoJack’s role within BoJack Horseman, and his effect on the Netflix viewership.

In season 1’s penultimate episode, BoJack asks Diane whether he’s a good person, and she answers with crushing silence. While she later tries to explain that no one is truly good or bad, and that “all you are is just the things that you do,” he still seeks to purge himself of the guilt he feels. Following his toxic mantra, “There’s always more show,” and taking some damaging advice that he should “keep running forward, no matter what,” BoJack avoids confronting his problems and insists he isn’t going to change. He sees Philbert — who he and Diane both helped bring to the screen — as a role model, playing into Diane’s fear that Philbert allows “dumb assholes to rationalize their own awful behavior.”

BoJack explains in the season 5 episode “Head in the Clouds” that Philbert teaches “We’re all terrible, so we’re all okay.” Diane, who is already struggling with her part in creating the show, is horrified by this interpretation, and points out that normalizing and rationalizing harmful behavior is dangerous. During this conversation, the show reaches one of its darkest and most self-critical points by bringing up BoJack’s relationship with Sarah Lynn. She saw him as a father figure even into her adult life as a pop star, but that became complicated when their relationship later turned sexual.

Photo: Netflix

“I’m the one who has suffered the most because of the actions of BoJack Horseman,” he argues. Diane raises his unquestionable negative effect on Sarah Lynn as proof he’s wrong. “That’s been really hard for you, the main character in this story,” she says sarcastically. In one of its most merciless scenes, the writers reflect on their choice to empathize with a character like BoJack. They also seem to lament how they initially played BoJack’s sexual encounter with Sarah Lynn as a gag, and questions the cultural norms they were reinforcing.

Diane isn’t free from criticism, either. She’s often the show’s moral arbiter and its voice of reason, but she subjects herself to severe scrutiny, representing the show’s impulse to endlessly dissect its characters. Diane suggests we should be “asking more of ourselves and the people in our lives,” but she’s told she should also find ways to forgive herself and other people. BoJack Horseman is constantly striving for that balance.

Part of Diane’s self-examination may be inspired by the controversy surrounding her casting. Diane is Vietnamese-American, but she’s played by Caucasian actress Alison Brie. After a fan brought up the issue on Twitter, Bob-Waksberg confessed he’d “soured on the idea of ‘color-blind’ casting as an excuse to not pay attention.” He later gave a candid interview with Slate where he expressed “tremendous guilt” over the casting, and said his “understanding of [his] own responsibility” had changed. The same humble and honest outlook on guilt and responsibility underlies much of the show, especially in its later seasons. It’s notable that season 6 takes the time to answer fan speculation over the ethnic identity of Todd, a Caucasian character with a Latinx surname, as if leaving no stone unturned.

The newly released first half of season 6 takes BoJack to rehab, in a recovery process that isn’t just about dealing with addiction, but about questioning the realities of forgiveness and personal change. Even the new opening credits see him passing through past regrets that still linger and threaten his future. A frequent refrain of the show brings together BoJack, seeing himself as a “stupid piece of shit,” and Diane, seeing herself as a “rudderless garbage barge.” They’re both trying their best to forgive each other because they can’t extend that same courtesy to themselves.

Photo: Netflix

BoJack Horseman often explores questions of forgiveness, both between people and between stars and their fans. We may find it easier to forgive BoJack’s mistakes than the unrepentant misogyny Hank Hippopopalous (Philip Baker Hall) exhibits in “Hank After Dark,” but the series has long since outgrown any simple ideas of heroes and villains. Secondary characters like Mr. Peanut Butter and Princess Carolyn — who initially served as counterpoints to BoJack’s pessimism and immaturity, respectively — become deeply flawed characters in their own right. Meanwhile, loathsome antagonists like Vanessa Gekko and Rutabaga Rabitowitz were revealed as the protagonists of their own stories.

As the show heads toward its finale, it’s still exploring that question BoJack asks Diane in season 1: is he a good person at heart, or is it too late for him? The sixth season shows that change is possible for BoJack, as he begins to make amends for the things he’s done, face addiction, and try to forgive himself. The self-examination that has taken place both within the story and in the writing room has demonstrated a maturity capable of tackling such broad and complicated issues. Rather than providing simple platitudes, the series brings its characters together through empathy rather than sympathy, and honesty over blind faith. Being its own harshest critic has let BoJack Horseman evolve, and be the best version of itself.

The first half of BoJack Horseman season 6 launched on Netflix on October 25th, 2019. The second half arrives on January 31st, 2020.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *