BoJack Horseman Does What The Simpsons Can’t

Pop Culture

BoJack Horseman Does What The Simpsons Can’t

Illustration: Cleon DSouza

Toward the climax of season 3 of BoJack Horseman, the titular half-man, half-horse film actor wakes up on the morning the Oscar nominations are about to be declared. After a personal redemption arc that saw him bag a dream role in an award-bait biopic, he was on the cusp of attaining the validation he’s been seeking since he began his career as a struggler. The nominations come around. His name isn’t the first. Or the second, or third, or fourth. And then, sneaking into the last slot, BoJack’s name is announced. He’s finally made it! His publicist, watching with him, asks him how he feels. He jumps off the couch, the music swells, the viewers gear up for a cathartic moment and wait for the moment of triumph before BoJack deflates all that.

His answer? “I feel… the same.”

At first, I felt cheated of a happy ending, but then it reminded me of my first day ever at work. Starting as a humble content writer, I spent the morning getting ready with a spring in my step, imagining all the exciting work I’d be doing in the coming weeks. I was finally going to be an adult; a respected, tax-paying member of society. But this euphoria was tempered by a sense of dread about whether I’d be able to live up to my own expectations.

However, much to my disappointment, my first day didn’t answer any of the niggling questions about my potential that had stalked me since graduation. There I was, getting a job I’d trained myself for over the course of my education, doing what I said I’d do, and just like BoJack, I felt no different about myself.

Almost every person I know, myself included, has eagerly been awaiting the release of BoJack Horseman season 5. Yes, the cartoon adventures of a half-horse, half-man and his entourage of human and animal supporting characters is exactly the kind of stuff millennial adults concern themselves with. Despite its overtly absurd premise, it’s not half as ridiculous as it sounds on paper. BoJack Horseman is a cutting reflection of life in the 21st century, except that it’s brought to life by talking animals. To everyone who is rolling their eyes and labelling us, yet again, the generation that refuses to grow up, I have only two words: The Simpsons. We’re only following a well-established precedent.

Beginning with the animated sitcom in the ’80s, there has always been room for adult animation (which does not mean Homer and Marge’s sex tape, eww.) With The Simpsons, Matt Groenig and his team of writers took cartoons out of the realm of kiddie entertainment by using animation as a medium to parody the life and times of America. Over the years, it paved a path that led to other seminal animation series as South Park, Family Guy, Archer, and finally, BoJack Horseman in 2014. And with BoJack, the genre finally has a transcendent work that can rise above the standards set by all the shows that came before it.

Still, ever since Mickey Mouse first sprang forth from Walt Disney’s imagination in 1928, a cartoon has been regarded as children’s entertainment. From the flipbook-style line-drawings of the previous century to today’s CGI-driven spectacles, generation after generation of kids has been reared on brightly coloured, whimsical, and fanciful cartoons. For me, it was Fred Flintstone and Scooby Doo, and today’s chillar party has an affinity for Chota Bheem and Beyblade (or something).

I thought I’d outgrown my love for anthropomorphic animals. One day you suddenly decide cartoons are just infantile distractions. But shows like South Park and Family Guy aren’t the same as the cartoons your momma would let you watch when you were five. There’s cursing, sex, violence, and everything else that you watch Game of Thrones for. Yes, even incest. These shows exist as parodies of our world, where emotions are cranked up to the maximum and long-term consequences are non-existent. Whether it’s Kenny getting killed (by some bastards, of course) for the billionth time, or Peter Griffin’s seasons-spanning feud with an angry chicken, shows like these reflect the most ridiculous aspects of our world back at us.

BoJack, for all of its absurdity on the surface, doesn’t go for the laughs, even though it elicits a healthy amount of those along the way. Instead, BoJack goes straight for the feels. For the first time, here’s a cartoon that’s not trying to up the stakes in hilarity every season. The show slowly, sometimes painfully, dwells on themes that resonate with its audience of quarter-life-crisis-facing millennials. The central characters, BoJack, Princess Carolyn, Diane, and Todd are all equally rounded and fleshed out, and the fact that only two of them are human characters hardly matters. Each of them represent a different facet of the millennial experience in 2017.

BoJack stubbornly resists all temptations to turn into a generic animated adult comedy like Family Guy or The Simpsons.

BoJack, for instance, is the very embodiment of existential dread. He exists in a vacuum of his own sadness, always focussed on reflecting on his failures rather than enjoying the present. His coping mechanism for dealing with this fucked-up, warped worldview is one we’re all familiar with. Drown out the feelings in a haze of drugs, alcohol, parties, and other superficial shit until there is, in BoJack’s own words, “Nothing on the outside, nothing on the inside.”

Diane, BoJack’s former ghostwriter and friend, is the person we’re all afraid of becoming. The kind of person who says they stick up for what they believe in and walks around with a chip on their shoulder, only to actually live a life that absolutely contradicts their ideals. We all know that person, who’s vegetarian because they can’t stomach the “cruelty”, but loves a nice leather belt or wallet.

It’s not all doom, gloom, and stereotypes though. Princess Carolyn and Todd are more positive characters, especially in contrast to BoJack’s and Diane’s relatable, everyday awfulness. Still, no character is painted in shades of black and white, and the realism this entails leads to conversations that have an uncanny resonance in the lives of its audience. BoJack’s nihilism is a metaphor for the emptiness of our modern existence. “How can I be responsible for my own happiness? I’m barely responsible for my own breakfast!” BoJack screams in the first episode of the show, snatching the words out of the mouth of every twenty-something struggling to make ends meet while trying to juggle a job, family, and a social life.

The show pulls no punches, dropping more truth bombs as it shows its viewers that happiness is fleeting, and life is largely unremarkable as a whole. BoJack, a washed-up sitcom actor can be in the middle of a phoenix-like career resurgence but still ends up drunk and watching reruns of his old show on his couch. In life, you don’t always get closure and nothing, from joy to sorrow, is permanent. I don’t know if you get to hang around many millennials, but if you went to Doolally on a weekday evening, you’d probably hear five different iterations of the same sentiment.

BoJack stubbornly resists all temptations to turn into a generic animated adult comedy like Family Guy or The Simpsons. It actively rejects the “30 minutes to closure” approach of most cartoons and even live-action sitcoms, preferring a serialised approach to storytelling with a marked aversion for happy endings. The writing is delightfully self-aware, with jokes skewering every tired, stereotypical trope that manages to make its way into the script. The otherworldly factor of having talking animals as half of its cast is milked for throwaway gags, but never detracts from the realism of the story. It’s a show that very clearly points a way forward for animated comedy, taking it out of the realm of ridiculous entertainment for stoners and putting it alongside thought-provoking, disruptive shows like Arrested Development and 30 Rock.

If you’re one of those people who went down the boring fork in the road with no cartoons after childhood, I suggest you catch up on the show. Believe it or not, BoJack Horseman has found a new way to flog a dead horse.