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…
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