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You wouldn’t think that one of the cleverest, most sharply self-aware and emotionally intense TV shows currently airing would center around a cast of Funny Talking Animal People and their zany Hollywoo - that’s this alternate universe Hollywood - hijinks, but that’s exactly what we have in BoJack Horseman. It's as entertaining as it is absolutely brutal. It pulls precisely zero punches, and when the devastation hits, it kicks like a horse. Sure, it's painful, but it hurts so good.
BoJack Horseman flirts with the nihilistic suspicion that ultimately nothing really matters, and you were born broken...but for every moment of doubt and pain, there's an equal and opposite moment of complete happiness and hilarity. And in a world of mediocrity (and really, increasingly gritty-grim-dark-depressing stories that basically confirm that first suspicion), it's more refreshing than any show that pretends to be so cynical has any right to be.
The writers accomplish this artful duality with a level of writing that we just don’t see much on television. And it clearly comes from careful research on not only pop culture and Hollywoo(d) trends, but also on the people for whom they’re specifically writing. They know their audience, and the effort pays off. It’s noticeable. And necessary. I honestly can’t remember the last time a show has hit me this hard…or in a way I’ve needed as much.
At first it didn’t seem like the kind of thing that would grab me - the first few episodes are your basic funny animated "adult" show fare, although nothing as raunchy as we’ve come to expect from that singular genre. The fact that most of the cast are Funny Talking Animal People helps color your perception. (Side note: Gosh, I love the mingled worlds; half the jokes come from them doing Animal Things and I can’t even explain why this is so funny, or the rush of joy I get when Mr. Peanutbutter’s ears perk up; it just is.) It’s this slightly surreal, absurdist quality that both enhances and disguises the real crux of the show - the excruciatingly harsh, cruel realities of life in the spotlight, fickle fame, chronic depression, drug addiction, isolation, existential angst, and general dysfunction. The cold weight of realizing a room full of admirers yelling your name can be the loneliest place in the world.
BoJack sneaks up on you. He’s like this goofy, butthead friend of yours who lulls you into this weird false sense of security, acting like he’s just gonna mess around with snarky one-liners, maybe a little social commentary, but nothing really new, and definitely no super-perceptive paradigm shifts. No life-altering epiphanies here, no siree. You laugh and pal around with him for three, four episodes, you let your guard down - and then, WHAM! Like flipping a damn switch, he gets deep on you. And painful. And real.
That’s not to say it’s all bleak. Far from it. Your stomach’s gonna hurt from laughing too.
For example: Two words: Vincent Adultman. I can’t even think about him without snorting. Lemme get this out fast: Princess Carolyn dated him, he is literally 3 small children in a trenchcoat, she never notices, this is played absolutely straight, it is the funniest thing I have ever seen, I am l laughing right now. In summary: Please watch this show.
And it's the contrasts between this silliness, the clever social commentary, and the sudden and completely unflinching depiction of personal tragedy that make everything so much more intense. Highs and lows, funny and dark.
Those shots above are both within ten minutes of each other, from the first episode of Season 2. By now I just think of it as "Emotional Whiplash: The Show."
The cartoon animals are a must; they desensitize us from stories that would otherwise existentially break us.
I am pretty convinced that if they had done this - the unmitigated, gut-twisting look into the lives of very damaged people - with actual humans, animated or live action, everyone would have just been too overwhelmed with despair. That’s why they had to make them cartoon animals, it depersonalizes this incredibly brutal narrative a little. Dehumanizes, literally, which the creators use to both this effect, and a comedic one (which I mentioned above - funny animal things!). If it’s a show about a talking horse, that makes watching his slow self-destruction less painful somehow. It’s less personal. It’s not our lives, it’s not even a human life. It’s kind of a defense/emergency escape mechanism. Catch yourself crying over an animated reverse-centaur, go "What the hell am I doing, I am a grownup" and it’s that much easier to dig yourself out of the dark pit and go about your day. It’s okay, my dude. Brush yourself off. It’s not like it’s you breaking down in slow-motion…just don’t think too hard about it, that’s all.
Lesser writers could not have pulled this off. Led by series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the writing team has to be not only incredibly savvy, but strikingly aware of and sensitive to their audience. And they are. They’ve done their research, and I am pretty convinced that they have some very careful eyes and ears tuned to audience reception - and it’s not just for ratings, but in ways that actually matter. (Oh, burn, eat it Hollywoo.)
I have never before watched a TV episode of anything and gotten every single joke.
An example: a recent Season 3 episode took place entirely in 2007 - the year I graduated from high school. That’s about the last year I was really tuned in to non-internet mainstream pop culture and the world at large, because after that I went to college and started getting serious about this writing thing. (My people, we have darkness, we have keyboards.) And I'm also not always included in the average TV target audience (more on that in a bit) so I’m used to jokes/references going over my head.
But that 2007 episode? Holy tap-dancing crickets, lemme tell you…never before have I watched a TV episode of anything, and gotten every single joke. These things are so specific, and so spot-on - this must be what it feels like to actually be the target audience of something. I’ve never had that delightful, heady feeling of inclusiveness before. It felt good. I laughed nonstop. I felt catered to. Unless you have never experienced this level of inclusion before, you really can’t know how important it is to feel every once in a while.
Going back to what I said before, about not being "part of the average target audience" - I’m a disabled, chronically ill person. I don’t get out much. (Hence the pop-culture knowledge gaps.) I have a laundry list of genetic disorders with funny names, PTSD up the wazoo, more brain-weirdness than you can shake a stick at, and I can’t even think straight - in a lot more ways than one. (Wink-wonk~) And most TV is written for straight people with bodies and brains that don’t try to trip up, terrorize, or otherwise dunk on ‘em on the regular. And when people like me are written about, we tend to be the jokes. There’s a difference between laughing with and at, and we can always, always tell. On the flip side, when shows try to go serious-mode, we end up all Inspirational or tragic, and that’s almost as bad. Movies about people like me win Oscars, but… Nah. Makes me feel like I’m even more on the outside looking in.
But here? Well, that’s why I brought up that 2007 episode. It’s that… But so much more extreme, and better, it’s just unreal. Being written respectfully feels like watching an episode and getting every single joke, except it’s about your life, and it’s so much more important. BoJack’s humor is sharp and quick, but it punches up - like actual satire and good comedy do - at the sweeping “Play-doh spaghetti-maker” of Hollywoo and all its intricate and often cutthroat workings, and the ruthless people who rise to power. Its humor derives from coping with tragedy and pain and depression - stuff I and so many others actually deal with every day. Weird as it might sound, this show about a talking horse-man is one of the first that’s ever made me feel like the jokes are written for me, instead of my life being a joke for other people. When I hear a setup, I don’t have to brace myself for a punch to the nose. I know it’s not going to hurt - or if it does, it’ll be in the "oh, crap, I hear that" way. It’s going to be laughing with me, not at me.
I mean holy crap, the main character is as emotionally damaged on a good day as me on a bad. And when we laugh with or even at BoJack, it’s not because of what happened to him, it’s what he, completely avoidably, does to himself - or what we recognize in him of ourselves. There are gay characters (Kelsey, long-suffering indie director and rare, shining beacon of artistic integrity) and even one basically-confirmed asexual character, Todd, also incredibly important and the first I’ve ever seen actually addressed on TV - and they’re not jokes either. The zany crap they get into is, but they aren’t.
When we feel safe to laugh, we let ourselves feel, and experience the story’s full impact. Which is great, because it's just too good to miss. The way making the characters Funny Talking Animals makes it safe to explore the excruciating rawness, where otherwise it might be too painful. Once it’s safe, you can look deeper, at the "real you."
A work of fiction like this, TV show or not, forces introspection in a way not much else does. You might not like what you see when you look at the "real you." But it makes you look anyway. You might hit rock bottom for about five minutes. The more uncomfortable it is, the more I think you needed to look. That's when you figure out what matters the most, and what you deeply, desperately need. Like BoJack:
“I guess my question is - do you think it’s too late for me? I mean am-am-am I just doomed to be the person I am? The-the person in that book? It’s not too late for me, is it? It's— it’s not too late— Diane, I need you to tell me that it’s not too late. I-I-I need you to tell me that I’m a good person. I know that I can be selfish and narcissistic and self-destructive, but underneath all that, deep down, I’m a good person, and I need you to tell me that I’m good, Diane. Tell me, please, Diane. Tell me that I’m good.”
But then, just as surprising, this dysfunctional, ridiculous more-horse-than-a-man (or maybe - you know) who knocked you on your ass in the first place - he picks you back up again. Puts you back on your feet.
Maybe we were born broken, but we don't have to stay that way. Maybe it's our broken parts that help us fit together. I don't know, we just need more really good TV like this while we figure it out. (And we will, thank God for that Season 4 confirmation!)
This started out as an article on the awesomeness of BoJack’s writers and why their keen audience-awareness makes it a must-watch (and it is!)…but it kind of turned into a weird half inspirational thing (oh gosh, that word), half love letter. It was hard to write at first but…
It got easier.