In the end, Bojack really does subvert narrative

*SPOILERS AHEAD*

This article takes inspiration from the 2017 video Essay ‘How BoJack Horseman Subverts Narrative’ by Will Schoder. With the series finally finished, its theories and analysis can be honoured with hindsight. This article is an ode to how efficiently the show took an initial Ricky-Gervais-at-the-Globes tone of light-heartedly taking down celebrity culture into a direct take on the brutal, never-ending cycles of mental illness, trauma and addiction.

 

‘You just don’t get the genius’.

The phrase reiterated by communities of cartoon supporters willing to fight to the bitter end over the ‘deepness’ found within their chosen cathartic cartoon dealing with life and its taboo hardships. The nihilistic Rick and Morty and kid friendly Adventure Time are fine examples of such, and if people find a metaphysical, post-truth meaning behind the trivial façades of ‘pickle-Rick’ then who am I to judge. Still, I cringe slightly at the devotion for the ‘meaning’ behind upfront absurd cartoons because I can only imagine how dumbfounding it seems to the outsider.

BoJack Horseman, Netflix’s former superstar, always felt different from the rest; and now the curtain has been drawn on the world of Hollywoo it is fair to say BoJack Horseman is the best to date of all the cartoons in the way it scrutinises many unrealistic sitcom tropes and unavoidable life traumas head on without losing authenticity through its whacky shenanigans. Not many shows could involve both a 'two dates to the prom' spoof with competing prison gangs while asking watchers to sit through an unaccepted apology on a deathbed and unforgivable advances on a minor. Ultimately, BoJack effectively subverts narrative, the idea there is one succinct and easy story to be told, through its thorough exploration of uncomfortable, raw and genuine portrayal of events and emotional capacities. Life in the world of BoJack is a series of shifting coping mechanisms, a thought that rings true with the realities of our own world.

Set in what is essentially our world but with the distinct addition of cohabiting anthropomorphic animals, BoJack Horseman follows the story of a washed up, selfish and depressed actor who craves a life as simple as the sitcom ‘Horsin Around’ in which he used to star and where his lack of motivation to action any deep rooted desires to be good often lead to destructive and hurtful patterns to those around him. BoJack is not a good person; despite wanting to believe he could be in spite of his past traumas, for many seasons he never produces any actions that align with genuine goodness. But the words spoken by friend turned forced saviour Diane of “I don’t think I believe in ‘deep down’. I kind of think all you are is the things that you do” throws an ice-cold reality onto both BoJack and us that we how we turn out in life can be dissatisfying. We feel discomfort at the lack of wrapped up narrative which decades of feel good American sitcoms have brainwashed into our expectations through classic sitcom tropes and cyclical storyline structures. But wrapped up endings shouldn’t be the goal because they don’t align with three-dimensional characters dealing with ongoing traumas; they’re superficial and leave nothing in the way of attempts of self-growth. 

The crux of Will Schoder’s 2017 video essay was there are no grand conclusions; while BoJack might be, at the time of the video’s publishing, moving in a positive direction of self-awareness he was never destined to realise the path to true happiness and live in such a state in the same way we will not. Being able to write with the hindsight of the series finale, I think it would be unfair to analyse the role of the final story’s closure as an effective means for giving the show a sense of reality.  BoJack’s last season was notoriously rushed after being given an unexpected end date – the hasty prison sequence in the last episode speaks volumes for a team trying to do justice to a character who had a lot more development for us to witness. As such, and with an air or irony, we have to let go of the ending BoJack Horseman as a series deserved but never got and rather focus on the fleshed-out characters that made the series so genuine in the first place.

 BoJack Horseman manages to effectively deconstruct the simplicity of the sitcom world not because it denies us the walk into the sunset but rather in its more nuanced way of giving us characters constantly vulnerable to positive or negative developments. It subverts the traditional narrative of characters with reliable traits, and even where we begin to see characters like BoJack dealing with forgiveness and personal change we are reminded up to the very end through a haunting new opening credits that past regrets linger on. BoJack ends as it is: awkwardly and without finality, all we can be sure of is we’ve been removed from the knowledge of what comes next. This article will now explore just how effectively this element of character complexity is implemented, and I implore you to watch the poignant and powerful series itself.

 

Subverting narrative through characters: There can be no final closure with ongoing, lasting complex issues

“It gets easier, everyday it gets a little easier but you’ve got to do it every day – that’s the hard part” – season 2 episode 1

 

The punchline of BoJack Horseman is that existing is hard. For a series that refuses to give typically expected traditional closure, this idea has extra consequential weight. The cartoon façade that often hinders the perception of other shows should not get in the way here; where there is the catharsis of goofy antics and animal puns surrounding the leading horse there are also clear depictions of mental health, trauma, harassment and substance abuse. The difference compared to classic sitcoms like the Simpsons and South Park is that issues faced are often classically covered on an episode by episode basis whereas with BoJack they are constantly present and fluctuating. Current societal issues like abortion or assault are classically brought to watchers’ attentions and adequately dealt with by the end of a 30-minute period without actually asking for much character development.  BoJack does things differently, there is constant anxiety for the characters and viewers over where life will head next as the issues continue to prevail.  Classic sitcoms get the unrealistic re-set button where any questionable behaviours are inevitably forgiven whereas what we see as the BoJack series progresses is BoJack’s toxic, damaging behaviour becomes cyclical and those around him lose the capacity to forgive him.

Giving issues a sense of ongoing reality deprives us of any genuine empathy for the main character because we are asked to see the real, damaged BoJack and not a façade. BoJack Horseman keeps complex issues in the forefront despite focusing episodes on goofy past times, meaning even in the joy we cannot escape the ever-present repercussions of the damaging actions that the destructive protagonist inflicts. Other shows design their leading male antiheros like Don Draper and Walter White in such a way in which we’re meant to root for them despite their wrongdoings because we get to see some greater good to their character. We are asked to see BoJack as the opposite, his desire for validation and forgiveness without working to earn them exasperates his own cyclical loops of addiction and self-destruction – he denies himself and us the closure of a reliable character we innately seek.

In subverting this traditional narrative, BoJack Horseman arguably deals with traditional male antihero character traits in a much-needed way in the 21st century. Television adapts as society’s concerns change; and the ‘adorkable misogyny’ (another excellent video essay) of classic sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory seems outdated and inadequate in providing accountability in contrast to how BoJack Horseman uncomfortably confronts its protagonist. There is a sense of increasingly relatable justice in a character who uses his power over women facing the consequences of going beyond the point of repairable damage – by the end of series 6 his manager and long-term supporter Princess Carolyn declines to represent him, his half-sister Hollyhock has seemingly written a permanent exit from his lift and Diane wishes him well but implies their friendship has reached its end. The world wants MeToo abusers to take responsibility for their actions as much as it wants any homophobic or racist twitter remarking individual to take accountability, there are actions and personality traits with ongoing repercussions that despite regret cannot be removed. BoJack Horseman’s complex protagonist will continue to suffer as he tries to make amends long after the show has aired, and we as audiences must decide how we view him - a tragic result of his upbringing or a manipulative uncaring man or somewhere in between -  without TV producers shining clear indicators on how we should feel.

But there’s something potentially positive to be taken from viewing BoJack’s character stories as ongoing; there may not be the traditional comfort of a grand ending but there are also no doomed fates. Facing repercussions is inevitable, and BoJack certainly learns he has a great deal to atone for in the damage he has caused, but the show rests on the idea the person you are and the challenges that may currently feel permanent are merely the obstacles you face at this moment of time.  It is Camus’ absurdism wrapped up in cartoon dimensions, woven in a much more considered way than any other sitcom to date. There’s no comfort of an easy character development, but there’s comfort in a potential redemption if the right effort is put into dealing with clearly confronted lifelong issues. Who would have thought 2000 years later a cartoon about an alcoholic horse would essentially embody Stoic philosophical notions about good, bad and the moment.