Utilitarian Philosophy in Bojack Horseman

Bojack Horseman is the weirdest show I’ve ever watched.  it is wackily animated with anthropomorphic animals and absolutely full of puns but also the realest look at human nature I’ve encountered.  The characters struggle and often fail.  They ruin things and face consequences.  And unlike every other show I’ve seen, there is no closure in Bojack’s world, because there is no closure in ours.  It is heartbreaking in its portrayal of selfish hypocrisy and inspiring in its portrayal of personal determination.  The main thrust of the show is personal growth and accountability and it uses a utilitarian philosophy to define the goals, successes, and failures of the characters.

The character arcs in most of the show are based on a Utilitarian philosophy that actions define people much more than their intentions do.  When our protagonist Bojack asks his best friend and memoirist Diane whether she thinks he’s good deep down, she tells him, “I don’t really believe in deep down. I kind of think all you are is just the things that you do.”  This idea sums up much of the show.  There are many times when the characters have good intentions and high hopes, but their intentions don’t pan out.  For instance, when Herb Kazzazz (Bojack’s estranged former best friend) dies, Bojack gets a bunch of money.  He calls it blood money and instructs his agent to give it to some orphans or something, and she does.  The money is enough to build a brand new orphanage.  The orphans come together and celebrate him for making their lives better.  But Bojack is a whiny baby about it because he believes that he doesn’t deserve to be appreciated.  If he could simply accept that he did something good, he would not have upset all the orphans.  But he did, because he can’t help but focus on the fact that he didn’t set out to help them.  He focuses so much on his constant inner monologue that tells him he doesn’t deserve any accolades that he acts like a jerk for no reason.  To layer on to this personal failure, he tries to make amends for the fact that Herb died angry at him by trying to to dedicate the orphanage to Herb, but due to a typo dedicates it to Jerb.  He tries to do good, but it means little because he doesn’t succeed.  The end of this storyline isn’t a typical one because the mistakes are not fixed, and lessons are not learned.  The end comes when the characters decide what they will do with the rest of their day, because the point is simply that sometimes you must learn to live with disappointment, and sometimes that disappointment is with yourself.

On one level, this is a show about a group of self-destructive malcontents.  But it is much more than that, because these malcontents are generally aware enough to want to change for the better.  At one point, Bojack begins a self-help program that involves changing his attitude, but it is played as silly and pointless.  The arc gets uplifting when Bojack, bad attitude restored, runs up the hill he had failed to complete earlier in the season.  When he gets to the top, he lies down, exhausted, and a jogger tells him, “It gets easier, but you gotta do it every day. That’s the hard part.”  The concept that growth is based on frequent action and a demonstrable change in routine is more Utilitarian than a typical show because growth is not based on epiphany or any other introspection.  Moments of emotional realization are never turning points in this show, and when they happen, they are prompted by actions, not words.  Diane is a writer and is partially defined by her activism.  She frequently puts herself in the way of public shaming to speak out about injustice.  But when she decides to go to a war-torn country to cover some of the work being done there by millionaire philanthropist Sebastian St. Claire, she gets overwhelmed by the violence and pain and comes home.  This greatly affects her self-image because she always dreamed of doing big things with her writing, but when she is given the chance to do so, she feels that she cannot handle the difficulty.  She tells Bojack, “I couldn’t.  I wasn’t the person I thought I was.”  Diane learns more about who she is because of what she does, not what’s in her heart.  Her emotional sensitivity and lack of follow-through is contrasted sharply with Sebastian whose purpose is to bolster his own ego.  He is unaffected by the pain around him because he doesn’t truly care about the people going through horror, but because of this he is able to do much more for them than caring Diane ever can.

In line with Utilitarian thinking and unlike a typical cartoon sitcom, characters’ actions have lasting consequences.  When Bojack calls up his old friend Sarah Lynn and prompts her to dump her sobriety to go on a drug bender, she dies.  Her death has lasting emotional effects for Bojack, and there is no neat moment of closure.  She dies, Bojack grieves, and life moves on.  There is no apology or emotional breakthrough as a result and it wouldn’t matter if there was.  Bojack feels bad for the part he played in her death, just like he feels bad for most of his decisions.  The problem is that he keeps making the destructive decisions despite the lessons of the last ones.  When he gives his roommate, Todd, a self-pitying apology, Todd tells him, “You can’t keep doing shitty things and then feel bad about yourself as if that makes it okay.  You need to be better.”  Being better has many different possible meanings, but in Bojack Horseman being better means having a better effect on the world around you.

Much has been said about the Nihilism and Absurdism in Bojack Horseman, and those are certainly important themes to think about if you want to really take a layered look at this complex show.  Bojack Horseman is deeply philosophical and I learn new things each time I watch it.  It is incredibly depressing at times, but it doesn’t get enough credit for being uplifting and inspirational.  Because of the Utilitarian undercurrent of the show, its major point is that our actions have consequences, which means we are never helpless.