Beyond its non sequitur premise, sometimes facile humor and weak first half, the first season of Bojack Horseman establishes it as a surprisingly compelling character study in self-destructive and narcissistic behavior.
Bojack Horseman is the kind of show seemingly birthed out of a one-line pitch to a drunk studio executive at an office Christmas party – “What about a show about a narcissistic washed-out former TV star who wants to make a big comeback? Except – hic! – he’s a horse?” The titular Bojack, the (very rich) star of the erstwhile hit 90s sitcom Horsin’ Around, struts around in his pyjamas, paunch visible, alcohol often in hand, Larry David-esque in his crabbiness and general aversion to positivity. He lives in a version of a world where every fourth person is an animal, with names like “Mr Peanutbutter” and “Princess Carolyn”, with jokes often made at the expense of their animal nature (for example, Princess Carolyn, Bojack’s agent and onetime girlfriend, is a dedicated career feline who manhandles a scratching post in her gym while talking on her bluetooth headset).
Initially, in the first few seasons, what stands out most is a sense of the slapdash nature of the world, seemingly conjured out of a wild writer’s session where they just compiled every animal joke they could (like having penguins run a publishing house). There are random side characters in Bojack’s life who appear to be there for no better reason than to serve as foils to Bojack’s nihilistic quips. The first few episodes are somewhat standalone – the premise is introduced, in which Princess Carolyn arranges for ghostwriter Diane Nguyen to help Bojack write his long overdue autobiography, in the hopes that it’ll make Bojack relevant in the public eye again. Bojack is, at this juncture, presented as your irascible and disagreeable protagonist, getting into petty feuds with a navy SEAL (who happens to be a seal) over who deserves the right to the last box of cupcakes from the grocery store. The first few episodes set up the show to be little more than a loosely connected series of episodes poking fun at the absurdities of American life, like the comically cultish devotion afforded to vets in the media (even as society treats them like shit), or the phenomenon of former child stars turning to a life of drugs and partying. All mixed with a liberal dose of absurdist zoological humor and a Bojack-focused cringe comedy. Nothing special.
But then, around the middle of the season, things get a lot better, almost like the writers decided to do something with their vague mishmash of ideas. They start exploring Bojack’s past and his character in earnest, and the series turns much darker despite keeping its exuberant edge of absurdist comedy. Bojack is not a nice person – he’s narcissistic, selfish, egotistical, and he has a penchant for hurting those close to him. But Bojack is hyper-self-aware of that tendency, and as much as he hates it about himself, he can’t help it, because he is terrified of being left alone and forgotten. He craves adulation and connections but at the same time his compulsive narcissism pushes away those close to him.
It’s a rich seam of character complexity to mine, especially in regards to Bojack’s past – his friendship with his mentor and Horsin’ Around lead writer Herb, whom he later betrays by not supporting him when Herb is revealed to be gay, his broken relationship with his parents, the pursuit of wealth and transient fame over love.
The last few episodes in the series are truly emotionally wracking, which is saying a bit given that 40% of the series is wacked-out animal jokes and absurdist humor – like Princess Carolyn dating one ‘Vincent Adultman’ – who may or may not be three kids in a trenchcoat who likes to “go to the stock market to do a business”, or a giraffe valet whose neck can’t fit in the car. At its best, Bojack Horseman combines these two aspects of itself to great effect – as in episode 11, “Downer Ending”, in which Bojack and friends take focus drugs prescribed by the shady offshore medicine specialist Dr Allen Hu to rewrite Diane’s autobiography, which Bojack hated because it was too faithful a mirror to his personality. That sequence combines your usual comical drug-fueled hallucinatory shenanigans with Bojack going on a bad trip that plumbs the depths of Bojack’s psyche, showing him alternative visions of the life he could have led if he’d made other choices. The episode ends with a gut-wrenching sequence where Bojack desperately asks Diane to tell him that he’s good, with Diane unable to answer either with comforting platitudes, or the brutal honesty that she so demonstrated in the memoir she wrote for him.
There’s a tendency for me to dislike watching people ruin themselves. I didn’t really enjoy watching Curb your Enthusiasm or even Fawlty Towers for that reason, as it features characters just doing all the wrong things. There’s something frustrating about that. But somehow Bojack Horseman doesn’t feel that way. Possibly because of its absurdism and because Bojack is just so self-aware of his own failings. But also because the show doesn’t use his failings as a source of its humor, but rather, treats it with the seriousness and emotional weight that it deserves.
I give this TV series: 4 out of 5 red herring receipts