'BoJack Horseman' and a One Trick Pony's Search for More
Ostensibly a silly, raunchy cartoon sitcom, Netflix's BoJack Horseman actually raises some significant existential questions.
BoJack HorsemanAirtime: Streaming
Cast: Will Arnett, Amy Sedaris, Alison Brie, Paul F. Tompkins, Aaron Paul
Air date: 2014-08-22
In August, Netflix launched its latest original series: BoJack Horseman. While the ridiculousness of the animated show’s premise might be enough to satisfy viewers looking for a quick, satirical and sarcastic laugh, there’s actually quite a bit more going on beneath its rather silly plotline. The title character, an anthropomorphic horse, is dealing with life almost two decades after his role on a popular family sitcom, Horsin’ Around. The early '90s star now spends most of his waking moments altering his mind and fueling his protruding “beer belly”, longing to be under the spotlight and adored by the public once again.
However, this horse is done horsin’ around. He’s lonely, depressed, craving companionship (even amid his repeated nightly romps with varying age groups and species), and longing for newfound stardom that will have everyone loving him again, a goal he assumes his forthcoming memoir will definitely accomplish. These themes are prominent enough not to be missed, but their seriousness can be easily glossed over by those just looking for a humorous 25 minutes, such as Kevin Zawacki, who wrote off the representative first episode of the series as “an exercise in squandered potential, with uninspired humor and flat dialogue blotting out a strong cast and pedigree.”
As the first episode (“BoJack Horseman: The BoJack Horseman Story, Chapter One”) progresses, BoJack comes to the realization that he isn’t quite cut out to write his own memoir, so a ghostwriter, Diane Nguyen, is brought on board to assist him. Near the end of the episode, a downtrodden BoJack is offered some honest advice from Diane, which frames the rest of the series and most of the main character's outlook on life: “You’re actually in a really good position now, because you can pretty much do anything you want. You’re responsible for your own happiness, ya know?”
Such an observation on Diane’s part speaks loudly to existentialists and run-of-the-mill optimistic thinkers alike: BoJack can create a meaningful life for himself and be happy if he wants to. Indeed, Diane certainly seems to be echoing Jean-Paul Sartre’s understanding that we are “condemned to be free”, along with his famous philosophical maxim, the existential credo, “existence precedes essence”. Our lives don’t contain some sort of inherent essence or pretext for happiness and good vibes. It’s up to us to create this value and meaning: we are responsible for our own happiness. This happiness is what BoJack is searching for throughout the series.
When BoJack’s search culminates in the season finalé (“Later”) after he finally lands the role he’s always wanted (Secretariat), he still doesn’t seem satisfied. And Diane’s corresponding elucidation probably sounds familiar to many of us, too: “Well, that’s the problem with life, right? Either you know what you want, and then you don’t get what you want. Or, you get what you want, and then you don’t know what you want.” We can search all we want, and spend our entire lives on a mission to find the next best imagined piece to finish the puzzle of our ideal existence, but the search itself can easily become a distraction, preventing us from discovering the very thing we’re searching for.
Earlier in the same episode, BoJack’s longtime rival Mr. Peanutbutter tells Diane, “The key to being happy isn’t the search for meaning. It’s to just keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually, you’ll be dead.” As bleak and awkwardly self-critical as this may sound, perhaps Mr. Peanutbutter is on to something. Yes, we are all going to die, and that reminder can very powerfully help keep our lives in perspective as they continue to progress. But we shouldn’t occupy ourselves with mere trivialities and unimportant nonsense. We should busy ourselves with whatever makes a meaningful existence possible during that time we have. Sure, the search itself can be meaningful and for many, it is, but it certainly shouldn’t take precedence over what might already be in front of us, waiting to be recognized.
Many of us get so caught up in our day-to-day routines and responsibilities, spending our mornings, afternoons, and evenings in a daze similar to BoJack’s opening credit sequence, that we easily forget about the living we’re actually working for each day in the first place. BoJack’s workaholic agent/occasional lover, Princess Carolyn, can surely relate. In the seventh episode (“Say Anything”), after a merger with another agency, she comes to the realization that her career doesn’t need to be the dictator of her wellbeing. She chooses “happiness” instead of dealing with work-related nuances and rivalries, coming to the conclusion that she isn’t her career. Of course, her decision is quickly reversed, but clearly in an effort to reveal the apparent shortcomings and “robotic”, cold-hearted nature of ruthlessly getting ahead.
Staying late at her office one night, her assistant asks if she’s going to head out soon. “Where else would I go?” Princess Carolyn responds, staring blankly out her office window into the night with only her cellphone left to wish her -- to the surprise of unsuspecting viewers -- an automated happy 40th birthday shortly thereafter.
Princess Carolyn’s loneliness and search to find meaning often parallel and complement BoJack’s own search. Getting caught up in selfish goals and the illusory reward of coming out on top, no matter what the cost, isn’t the typical formula for achieving any sort of real happiness in this world. This is evinced repeatedly for BoJack throughout the series. And thinking it’s what matters most, can just as easily keep us lonely and stuck in the cycle of always searching for more, never satisfied with what we already have or able to appreciate what we’ve already worked so hard to achieve. The next thing you know, it’s 18 years later and almost half your life has passed you by during incessant, narcissistic late-night binges of your old sitcom.
BoJack Horseman offers viewers more than just tired, pithy philosophical catchphrases and troubled outlooks on a life filled with despair, shallow relationships, and a longing for past circumstances, however. There’s more than just a seemingly failed search for meaning here as well. There’s a real, pragmatic edge to the insight we can gather from these characters. Indeed, as Professor of Cultural Studies John Storey maintains, “Talking about the problems of a [fictional] character can be a rather less painful or less embarrassing way of talking about one’s own problems or a relatively easy means to introduce these problems into a discussion” (Cultural Studies and the Study of Popular Culture, p. 25). The reality behind BoJack’s distress isn’t that far off from what really happens to people who get thrown into the midst of the celebrity lifestyle, and it’s not that far off from what happens to those of us searching for satisfaction and unrealistic guarantees.
We all have crummy days from time to time, and we all have days that remind us of how great and wonderful life is. What we often fail to realize is that this whole charade really just comes down to a matter of degree, and that even the worst days can be appreciated in their own way. Diane confesses in the tenth episode (“One Trick Pony”) that her wedding was the happiest day of her life, but “what does that say about all the days I have left?” The scene, left somewhat unresolved, doesn’t need to be taken as an indication that some days are and will be inherently better or worse than others; it’s a call to consider the ways in which we can take that charge she emphasized at the beginning of the season and embrace it. We’re all searching for meaning in our own ways. BoJack Horseman’s humorous and fictional depiction of these existential woes, might just make that search more apparent and serve as the reminder some of us need to make the most out of our own lives and the situations we’re dealt, instead of living in a distant past or uncertain future.
Although BoJack’s search is probably far from over, he at least leaves viewers with the impression that he’s now ready to forget the “unimportant nonsense” and seriously take a look around. In one of the final sequences of the season, BoJack is seen slumped alone on his couch, watching yet another old episode of Horsin’ Around. His children on the show are shown apologizing for forgetting to buy him a birthday present. BoJack’s character doesn’t care. “I got everything I need right here,” he tells them. Perhaps that is the message viewers should be taking away from the show as well.
Seth M. Walker teaches courses in philosophy, religious studies, and humanities in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Central Florida. He is also one of the founding editors of Nomos Journal, an online journal engaging the intersection between religion and popular culture. His work has also appeared in Salon.