One of the pleasures of extravagant length for someone making an artwork—a novel, a movie, a TV series—is how difficult it might be to predict how the work is going to end or what its meaning might become. Extravagant length converts composition into a hopeful but risky process of improvisation.
Around 1917, the Russian literary critic and revolutionary Victor Shklovsky wrote an essay on Don Quixote, and in particular on the genesis of its mythic hero. Shklovsky argued that Cervantes had begun his novel as a series of episodes with a gimmick: a character who couldn’t distinguish between reality and fiction. It was only by following this screwball joke for episode after episode that he had come up with something much deeper and rarer. He had created the complicated figure of Don Quixote, therefore, not before he began but in the process of writing his book. As he continued to think through its giant length, Cervantes happened on a new invention: a character who was fuzzy with ambiguity, a study in self-deception, illusion, and unreality, both comical and noble, who begins the history of the modern European novel.
I’m in no way an avid watcher of cartoons but, to risk a sense of disproportion, I began to feel something similar as the animated series BoJack Horseman unfolded on Netflix over six seasons and seventy-seven episodes, beginning in 2014 and ending early this year. “It’s not Ibsen,” went a repeated refrain in the show, which was funny not just because it was a form of immediate self-deprecation about the show itself—a cartoon comedy whose supporting cast includes a news anchor who’s an irascible blue whale and a film studio renamed Warbler Brothers—but also because this show was Ibsen in a way, just an opioid version: a wild investigation of self-deception and failure. Or rather, that’s what I concluded by the end. At first it was simply zany and delightful, this series about a talking horse who’s the washed-up star of a now-forgotten 1990s hit sitcom, Horsin’ Around, a saccharine confection about a horse who adopts three human orphans. But by the time it finished, it had become something much grander and more terrible. Exactly what, however, and exactly how, are conundrums that have preoccupied me.
Created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg and art-directed by Lisa Hanawalt,* BoJack Horseman is set almost entirely in a superflat, multicolored version of Los Angeles. Against this landscape its characters exist in sketchy, psychedelic outline. BoJack Horseman is the damaged only child of a smash-up marriage between a draft horse who’s a failed writer and a runaway heiress horse who never forgives her husband or her child for her life’s unromantic routine. BoJack moves to LA, starts out as a stand-up comic, and becomes friends with another comedian, Herb Kazzaz. When Herb finally lands his own TV show, he succeeds in persuading the network to cast BoJack as the lead. And so begins the period of BoJack’s stardom in Horsin’ Around, whose other star is a ten-year-old girl called Sarah Lynn. Twenty years later the show is long since canceled, and BoJack is surviving the catastrophe of his vanished celebrity: depressed, embittered, haunted by memories, consuming anything—narcotic, alcoholic—he can find, while living in his elegant glass house in the hills.
Around him are four friends he refuses to acknowledge as friends. There’s Todd Chavez, his random twenty-something housemate, who crashed on his sofa one night after a party and never left, and whose character—a gentle stoner saint—is one of the lovely inventions of the show. BoJack’s agent, a pink cat called Princess Carolyn who’s a model of self-containment, always dressed in a fish-pattern dress and plain cardigan, continues to patiently look after his zombie career. Another star from the 1990s, Mr. Peanutbutter, an exuberantly amiable yellow Labrador whose hit show Mr. Peanutbutter’s House openly copied Horsin’ Around, faithfully adores BoJack despite his snarling rebuffs. But it’s Mr. Peanutbutter’s girlfriend, a journalist named Diane Nguyen, sardonic, self-hating, a displaced hipster in the wilds of Hollywood, who becomes the closest to a friend BoJack ever has.
That’s the entourage. Over six seasons, BoJack publishes a memoir ghostwritten by Diane that audaciously wins a Golden Globe for best comedy or musical—despite being neither of these, and also a book—as a result of which he launches a comeback in a biopic of Secretariat, the famed racehorse from the 1970s. The movie is a surprising critical hit, although he fails to win an Oscar nomination despite his desperate campaigning. He then stars in a philosophical detective series called Philbert, in the course of which he develops an opioid habit that leads him to nearly strangle his costar. Finally, he goes to rehab and sobers up, to begin a vita nova. But as he pursues his earnest dream of a better life, quietly teaching drama at Wesleyan, all the violent mess of his years of casual selfishness overtakes him in a finale of punishment and retribution.
It’s a Hollywood story, and the surface comic texture of the show is a constant overlay of knowing Hollywood gossip, in-jokes, and pop culture references, like its adoring cameos for Margo Martindale, always known as “Character Actress Margo Martindale,” or this bit from Mr. Peanutbutter:
I had this breakthrough recently. One day in therapy I blurted out, “Is my problem with women any movie directed by Christopher Nolan? Because, yes, women are involved, but it’s never really about the women. It’s about me…. Then it occurred to me: “Are my self-destructive patterns and unexamined cycles of codependency the popular Jim Carrey character The Mask? Because, somebody stop me.”
But the Hollywood paraphernalia is also, I think, a clue.
The show investigates the surface of LA’s screen world with abandon, delighting in metafictional asides (“So making TV is like a full-time job? Then why is it so bad? I just assumed people weren’t trying,” says one character) and careening through some of Hollywood’s most enduring and mythic genres, yet it somehow emerges as sincere and moving and unique. One way of attempting a preliminary explanation of this might be to note something that the mashup makes obvious. It turns out that various Hollywood genres (sitcom, crime drama, cartoon slapstick) overlap in one crucial area: the way most people in them act against their interests. Human intention, in Hollywood productions, is often weak and intermittent. Everyone is either traumatized or the cause of trauma in others, or sometimes both together, but no single genre has encompassed the tragicomical craziness of this condition because each genre is only allowed a single tone, whereas BoJack Horseman somehow inhabits multiple tones at once, oscillating between irony and sincerity, damage and frivolity, its human murkiness always dissolved in its candy-colored palette. The most accurate portrait of contemporary malaise, therefore, the only adequate form, might have to be a cartoon that stars an asshole sublebrity horse.
Animals who talk are one of mythology’s deep forms, and some of the most disturbing versions are the chimeras, fantastical beings who are part animal, part human, little nodes of forbidden energy: the centaurs and the satyrs, the minotaur in his labyrinth. In literature these monsters retain their mystical wildness but sometimes add an antic comic tenderness: Apuleius’s hero transformed into a golden ass or Shakespeare’s Bottom wandering through a forest with the head of a donkey.
Whenever something speaks in fiction that cannot speak in real life—whether a rabbit or a donkey or a horse—we are in the realm of the marvelous. And one place the marvelous migrated to in the twentieth century was cartoons: Disney, Warner Brothers, Hanna-Barbera. The British artist Andy Holden recently produced a brilliant essayistic video work called Laws of Motion in a Cartoon Landscape (2016), a kind of Euclid’s geometry for the world of Hanna-Barbera, with its impossible physical laws: “everything falls faster than an anvil,” “any body suspended in space will remain in space until made aware of its situation,” “objects can contain a space bigger than their volume. Each object is potentially a black hole.” The glutinous physics of this cartoon world has its equivalent in the absurdist brilliance of its dialogue, like Bugs Bunny’s line, as he stands suspended above a void: “I know this defies the law of gravity but, you see, I never studied law!” The cartoon landscape is a model of the marvelous that’s an alibi for something much more malign: a world where infinite potentiality is experienced as terror.
This, I began to think, might represent the temptation of animation over film for the creator of a show like BoJack Horseman, set in our violently woozy era—this fluid freedom to move beyond the laws of physics or biology. If you want television to be a medium for a reality experienced as unstable and slippery, then you may need to abandon human actors for cartoons. One small-scale freedom is the way any character can suddenly be redrawn in sketchier or more uncertain and garish ways, and their usual backgrounds washed out or replaced by nightmarish landscapes whenever they enter minicycles of bad thinking, or hallucination, or memory failure.
But the greater freedom is the ability to enlarge the cast into a fantastical animal realm, a deadpan mélange of animal and human. Three of the five main characters in BoJack Horseman are chimeras: BoJack is not so much a horse as a centaur, with the head of a horse but the body of a man, just as Mr. Peanutbutter has the head and fur of a yellow Lab but the musclebound chest and arms of a workout freak. These chimeras and other animals live happily with and among humans, who blithely accept their animal natures. It’s a cartoon landscape designed, of course, for pure comic delight—this world where everything has been renamed in animal terms (Catbernet Sauvignon, Quentin Tarantulino, Mice Krispies), and where the anthropomorphic detail of its extras is meticulously imagined, like a giraffe waiting in an airport lounge for a flight, ready with four inflatable neck rests, or older insects plodding along the sidewalk, their multiple legs pushing multiple walkers.
Yet this proliferation of talking animals also begins to assert something much more melancholy, the central law of BoJack’s universe: we will recognize anything as a person—whether cat or horse or dragonfly or human—if its thinking is a form of self-defeat. The show is maliciously fastidious in accumulating vignettes of self-sabotage that might only intermittently add to the narrative momentum but that form a brutal pattern, which can encompass a dragonfly who can’t get over the memory of his dead wife; or the cat Princess Carolyn, unable to block work calls even when she’s being interviewed by the birth mother of her potential adoptive child; or Diane, sleeping with Mr. Peanutbutter long after their divorce, even though he’s in a relationship with someone else (a waitress pug called Pickles) and she doesn’t care about him anymore. The effect of this unrelenting pattern is to both foreground the anthropomorphic strangeness of this universe and simultaneously make it irrelevant, because the self-harming bleakness of the lives of everyone in it is so humanly universal.
This pattern centers in its most intense form on the show’s baroquely destructive hero, BoJack. Over the span of the series we watch him continuously, upsettingly, and comically harm other people—sometimes casually or carelessly, sometimes deliberately, out of lust or ambition or cowardice or envy or loneliness—while always promising himself reform or asking for forgiveness. He’s a machine for defeating his own best impulses. At one point BoJack’s long-lost younger half sister asks him, “The voice, the one that tells you you’re worthless and stupid and ugly, it goes away, right?” Yeah, he replies, and of course we know that for him this will never be true. Self-hatred is his daily dose, like the shakes he makes for breakfast out of vodka and pills. The show’s energy is in its ability to depict such an ambiguous character, a monster with pathos, who does wrong knowingly and deliberately but always with simultaneous remorse.
There are so many of these cascading wrongs (“regrettable life decisions,” in BoJack’s terminology), but there are maybe three that haunt him in particular. The first is a failure of loyalty. Back in the 1990s, when Herb was outed as gay after a televised police raid and the network wanted to fire him from his own show because of the perceived negative publicity, BoJack didn’t defend him. And so Herb was fired. The second is a failure of power. Twenty years later, after Herb has died, BoJack convinces himself that he’s really in love with Herb’s old girlfriend, a deer called Charlotte. He travels to New Mexico, where he finds her happily married with two kids. First he tries to upend this happiness, arguing that he and she belong together, but she rejects him; the same night he nearly sleeps with her underage daughter, a moral disaster that’s only prevented because they are interrupted by Charlotte.
The final failure is one of basic human care. After Horsin’ Around ended, its child star Sarah Lynn pivoted to become a global pop sensation, until she finally burned out in a frazzle of narcotics. Now, however, she has sobered up. But after he fails to receive the Oscar nomination for Secretariat, BoJack persuades her to go with him on a gargantuan weeks-long bender, which culminates in her overdose at the Griffith Park Observatory—an overdose from which she later dies in a hospital after BoJack takes seventeen minutes to call 911, having sat in his car in the observatory parking lot, worrying how to disguise his involvement in the situation.
The show’s outlandish comic premise can’t help but leak real pain and horror, as the gap between the self BoJack is and the self he wants to be becomes more and more a form of self-haunting. So one way of putting it is to say that the show begins with BoJack as an apparently comic rewrite of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard—the washed-up star as a study in the way all of us will outlive whatever glamour we might attain and then blithely shield ourselves from this knowledge with the pleasures of self-pity and self-deception. Even the show’s manic pop culture allusions are part of this shtick—they reference in particular the pop culture of the 1990s, the era of BoJack’s resplendent youth: “Every time he does a dumb little somersault everybody goes nuts like he’s goddamn Kerri Strug,” BoJack complains of a costar to his agent. “Kerri Strug? You gotta update your references,” she says. “When the world sees the likes of Kerri Strug again, I will adjust accordingly,” intones BoJack reverentially.
But the continuing wrong he does makes BoJack increasingly lost in a mania of accusation, and the breezy sitcom structure gradually dissolves back into Sunset Boulevard’s chiaroscuro LA noir nightmare, with a hero haunted by his past, cut off from ordinary feeling, unable to offer reasons for his actions. And so the show develops a vocabulary of ethics and responsibility, as it conducts a prolonged argument about whether a self can be irrevocably bad or is simply the cause of bad actions. BoJack prefers the idea that a self might be separate from its actions, but it’s a position that the show exposes as a form of laziness: “You need to be better!” his friend Todd tells him. “You are all the things that are wrong with you.” But it’s also one aspect of the show’s intelligence that the most relentless critic of the myth of the good person is BoJack himself, just as his wish to be forgiven is matched only by his understanding that it’s impossible: “How do you make something right when you’ve made it so wrong you can never go back?”
In this manner, the show felt its way toward the wisdom of its initial gimmick. Sure, this was a cartoon about an asshole millionaire actor horse. But it had to be set in the world of money and celebrity, you began to think, because one aspect of such celebrity is to be cushioned wherever possible from true punishment. And its star had to be an animal, because this needed to be a world that didn’t respect the human as an arbiter of value.
Still, the subtlest form of wisdom acquired over BoJack Horseman’s six seasons really emerged much later on, as the writers improvised on themes whose urgency was imposed on them from outside the studio. This portrait of the tormented male—wielding power but desperately using the alibi of his own interior powerlessness—was overtaken by the accelerated moment of Me Too. That redistribution of moral anger was directly incorporated into the show’s finale—BoJack is finally punished after two journalists (channeling, naturally, in this metafictional world, the plot of His Girl Friday crossed with Katharine Hepburn’s persona in The Philadelphia Story) write an article revealing his involvement in Sarah Lynn’s overdose, a situation he makes worse through a catastrophic TV interview.
But more quietly and more innovatively, the show began to decenter its composition, to drift away from BoJack and imagine in greater detail the lives of those around him: Diane, Todd, and Princess Carolyn. BoJack becomes an intermittent, fond, but background presence in their lives. These later episodes found a way of placing the supporting characters in new compositional planes—especially Diane, whose unhappiness had often been a kind of echo of BoJack’s own, and whose emerging happiness might represent the true discovery of the series. She moves to Chicago—figured as LA’s wintry opposite—to live with a new boyfriend (a minotaur cameraman), starts taking antidepressants, gains weight, and instead of writing the elegant series of hipster essays she imagined, writes a best-selling feminist YA detective novel. Her happiness is unglamorous, fragile, unromantic, disillusioned—it coexists with all her depression and her damage—but it’s also real. And it’s only visible because of the show’s dissolving of perspective, the way it developed its apparently peripheral accumulated material. So the most moving aspect of the finale is the fact that the final image isn’t just BoJack, in the expected biopic manner, but a two-shot with Diane, held in an inexpressible, extravagantly protracted silence.
One of the show’s most original episodes occurs in season 3, in the middle of BoJack’s campaign to win an Oscar. His publicist sends him to the Pacific Ocean Film Festival, held under the sea. The entire episode happens without any dialogue, since all beings who aren’t sea creatures are encased in sealed diving helmets. The episode becomes an extravaganza of bad pantomime—riffing on a cinematic history of muteness, from Charlie Chaplin through to Bill Murray in Lost in Translation. BoJack glimpses the director Kelsey Jannings, who was fired from the set of Secretariat, and tries to find her to apologize for never calling her afterward. At the end of the episode, he finally reaches her as she leaves in a taxi and, unable to speak, he thrusts a hastily handwritten note into her hand, but all the letters are blurred in the water. The taxi drives away, and BoJack stands devastated on the sidewalk, until an angry pedestrian shouts at him, “Hey, move it buddy! What are you, deaf?” to BoJack’s enraged surprise, because it turns out that there’s a button on every helmet that allows you to talk and be heard, which he had never noticed.
The episode is a little allegory about communication, but it’s also the show’s most explicit investigation of its own devices. What animates a drawing in a cartoon isn’t just movement but sound, and the absence of dialogue in the episode was a way of letting the creators of BoJack Horseman show off a grandiose keyboard of gloopy sound effects and aquatic resonances. But at the same time it made you realize, through its absence, that the greatest sound effect in their repertoire was voice. All the voice actors in BoJack (among them Aaron Paul, Alison Brie, Amy Sedaris, and Paul F. Tompkins) run through virtuoso ranges, but it’s especially Will Arnett’s bravura performance as BoJack—not just angry and embittered but also tender, broken, bedraggled, a one-man band of tonal oxymoron—that grounds the show’s investigations into morality and feeling.
This episode felt so important because it was a sustained version of an anarchic mode that the show had initially played with only casually, and that became more and more methodically garish in subsequent seasons: BoJack loved to loop back on its own construction. In the undersea episode, it examined the sonic means of its production, but this wild attention to its own processes and assumptions took multiple and increasingly varied forms. It began with the TMZ overload of arcane references and gradually spread to include the show’s deadpan way of dating a flashback by simply including songs with titles like “Generic 2007 Pop Song” (“Generic 2007 pop song/Auto tuned so all the voices sound weird/This is a pop song, it’s 2007/Don’t say 2006,/It’s 2007”), or its characters’ sometimes frank amazement at the plot’s melodramatic coincidences, or those sudden sequences in which the cartoon was sketched in a different style.
Most radically, there was the show’s obsessive circling around its accumulated past, whose visual summary might be the whiteboards in one of the final episodes (“Sunk Cost and All That”) on which BoJack, together with Todd, Diane, and Princess Carolyn, tries to list all his many crimes and misdemeanors. That kind of unruly frame-breaking isn’t necessarily something you might associate with poignancy or sincerity. But it was this continued backtracking attention to its own making that finally allowed BoJack Horseman to end up showing that cartoon might be the most truthful model of our landscape. A person, you might conclude, is also an outline infested by other selves, a vehicle for mournful self-criticism and recomposition. We’re all fantastical now, it seemed to argue, in the multicolored digital light.
Hanawalt’s own animated series, Tuca & Bertie, is also streaming on Netflix. ↩