For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been completely addicted to the Netflix original series BoJack Horseman, and felt compelled to try and explain what makes it so utterly unique in the world of television.
I first became aware of the show after seeing it advertised and was initially uninterested. I found the title bizarre and the art style not particularly appealing, and felt that it didn’t stand out amongst the current selection of wacky adult cartoons popping up such as Rick and Morty and Bob’s Burgers, and the continued existence of more established shows like South Park and Family Guy. However, after hearing interesting things about BoJack Horseman I decided to give it a go. People seemed to have very strong reactions to the show, some positive, some negative, but all seemed to agree that it was unlike anything else they had seen.
The first episode was fairly enjoyable, but it wasn’t until a few episodes in that I realised I was hooked. BoJack had done something more than your average cartoon sitcom can: it had actually made me care about the characters.
The premise of the show is strange. It is set in Hollywood (or “Hollywoo” as it becomes known after the titular protagonist steals the “D” in an ill-fated attempt to impress a love interest), but not in our world. The series takes place in a world which seems very like our own, except for one thing: humans live alongside talking anthropomorphic animals. In this society, people and animals exist together without conflict (at least, not because of differences in species). BoJack Horseman is a washed-up horse who once starred in a successful ’90s sitcom called Horsin’ Around, but now spends his days drinking heavily, trying and failing to revive his career, and generally making terrible life choices and alienating the people around him, such as his agent Princess Carolyn (a cat), his rival Mr Peanutbutter (a Labrador), his ghostwriter Diane, and lodger Todd (both humans). Sound weird enough yet?
The animal jokes come thick and fast, and add a layer of the surreal to what is actually a surprisingly human show. At times, you even forget that so many of the characters are animals, until a joke comes along to remind you.
But what’s most engaging about BoJack is the story. Unlike almost any other animated sitcom, the storyline runs through the entire show, rather than each episode having a stand-alone plot. In this respect, BoJack has more in common with drama series’ than shows like South Park and Family Guy. This isn’t a show you can dip into at a random episode and expect to enjoy or understand what’s going on; you need to watch in order. But once it hooks you, you’ll keep pressing that “next episode” button until the sun comes up through the blinds and you realise you have work in an hour and you haven’t slept a wink and you need to sort your life out, and you’ve just made the kind of mistake you’ve just spent all night watching BoJack himself make (well, maybe not as bad as that).
If you’re reading this and thinking “well that show sounds like a fun and silly way to pass the time and unwind, while distracting me from the stresses of life!”, I’m afraid I’m about to burst your bubble. There’s no getting around this: BoJack Horseman is one of the darkest, most depressing shows I have ever seen. BoJack starts out as a bitter, cynical character who criticises the superficial vanity and ridiculousness of showbiz and the celebrity world, but as the show progresses we see the true extent of his pain, and the subsequent pain he causes the people around him. At some point, you realise that this isn’t always being played for laughs any more. This guy is seriously messed-up.
BoJack isn’t a likeable character most of the time. In fact, he’s pretty awful. We root for him, but the show constantly makes us wonder why by showing us some of the horrible things he does: for love, for money, or simply just for self-destruction. He is desperate for people to like him, to see him as good, but sabotages any chance he gets through his own burning self-hatred. He needs happiness, but does he even deserve it?
We watch BoJack repeatedly chase after success: in his career, in friendships, and in romance. Sometimes he gets the things he chases, sometimes he doesn’t. Often he gets them and throws them away out of stubbornness, stupidity, and generally being a bad person (horse? Horse-person?). The darkest, most uncomfortable thing about BoJack Horseman is that whatever BoJack does, whatever he manages to achieve, he is still miserable. I’ve never seen another television show, even serious dramas, go to such a bleak, existential place as this.
BoJack shows the truth of depression, unlike almost any other television show or film. It isn’t always dramatic and emotional, storm clouds and crying in the rain. Sometimes it’s emotionless, going through life in a detached daze as BoJack does in the opening credits sequence, bored and searching for distractions. Sometimes it’s feeling like you will never have the things you want, and then losing all interest in them if you manage to get them.
At the heart of it, BoJack Horseman isn’t a show about animals, or fame, or Hollywood. It’s about the search for happiness, and how impossibly difficult it can be for some people. It’s a strange thing that the most realistic depiction of depression on screen is a comedy about a cartoon horse. And did I mention it also has jokes?