If one of the highest aims of art is to fully immerse its audience in a view on the world thoroughly different from one’s own, then Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s animated Netflix series BoJack Horseman counts as one of the finest recent examples of this potential. Not that you would necessarily have guessed it from its first few episodes, which used an Adult Swim-style aesthetic and Family Guy-like digressive humor for the sake of what initially seemed like just another showbiz satire about a washed-up, self-involved former star. And yet, as the first season went on and BoJack (voiced by Will Arnett) dove deeper into the mess that was his own troubled past and his current self-loathing present state, BoJack Horseman improbably gained in character depth and emotional heft even as it kept up its pitch-black humor and wall-to-wall visual comic grace notes. Even its satirical takedown of Hollywood sharpened in its second season: It’s one thing to hear about passion projects falling apart thanks to big-studio interference, but quite another to see it chronicled in as much detail as the series offered in its second year.
The result is a series that not only manages to generate sympathy toward a needy, depressive, narcissistic antihero, but also manages the rare but fascinating feat of making a bleakly misanthropic worldview seem like hard-earned wisdom. It doesn’t matter if you agree with that perspective; in the moment, at least, Bob-Waksberg & co. convince you that it’s imparting harsh life lessons. As we gear up for the third season of this great show, it’s worth taking stock of what BoJack Horseman has taught us so far.
Surely some of the most negative-thinking of us have been asked why we don’t just change our attitude toward life, as if positive thinking was so easy to adopt at the flip of a switch. BoJack Horseman shows us how difficult such a change can be in the first episode of the second season, “Brand New Couch,” in which BoJack, under the influence of a motivational tape, tries to become a more optimistic person basically overnight. That’s all well and good for BoJack, but it’s a tough pill to swallow for everyone around him used to his older self. There’s the rub in attempting such drastic personality switches, however good they may be for your well-being: the possibility that those around us may not be willing to accept the new “you” after all.
Perhaps, though, one’s inability to change one’s attitude overnight speaks to a larger truth: that, especially as you grow older, it becomes more difficult to change who you are as a person overall. “You’re BoJack Horseman. There’s no cure for that.” So says BoJack’s mother—seen previously in flashbacks as a petty and uncaring presence in his childhood—towards the end of “Brand New Couch.” But she’s not the only one positing this to him. When, in the first-season episode “The Telescope,” Herb Kazzaz, the former friend and Horsin’ Around creator he betrays, denies BoJack his attempt to put the past behind him, he leaves him with a similarly brutal assessment, calling him a selfish coward. BoJack Horseman is, to a considerable degree, about whether it’s at all possible to escape who you are—whether one can truly change and improve oneself. The second season ends on a rare note of optimism that leaves BoJack open to that possibility…but considering what he’s gone through in the first two seasons, one can’t help but fear an inevitable relapse.
BoJack’s attempt to adopt a more upbeat attitude in “Brand New Couch” also seriously impacts his work on his passion project: a biopic about Secretariat. When he has to play a dark locker-room scene after Secretariat has just lost a major race, he finds himself unable to tap into his former reserves of melancholy, so obsessed is he in the moment with keeping up his happy-go-lucky demeanor. Only after he hears those lacerating words from his mother—thus bringing him crashing down to earth from his previous artificially optimistic state—is he finally able to nail the scene. Contained within that wounding moment is one of the most insightful depictions of what it takes to give a great performance, on a par with films like John Cassavetes’s Opening Night and, in its own extravagantly surreal way, David Lynch’s Inland Empire.
One of the series’ most devastating scenes comes in the aforementioned first-season episode “The Telescope” when BoJack tries to make amends with Herb Kazzaz, who he betrayed in the prime of Horsin’ Around when he put his career above his friendship at a crucial moment in Herb’s career. Now dying of cancer, BoJack visits him on his deathbed and apologizes for his actions—but though Herb accepts the apology, he refuses to forgive him, instead demanding that he live with what he did. Buried underneath Herb’s vicious attack on BoJack is a pointed subversion of what Bob-Waksberg makes us realize is a purely societal construct: the idea that just because someone asks for forgiveness, one ought to feel obligated to grant it just because of that person’s sincerity. By denying BoJack such easy emotional satisfaction, Herb says “no” in thunder to that widely held expectation, thereby forcing BoJack to confront who he truly is as a person.
Is there really such a thing as closure, BoJack Horseman consistently asks? BoJack has never quite been able to move past the way his emotionally unavailable and baldly neglectful parents treated him; the residue of that treatment lives on in his current behavior. Herb certainly refuses to grant him any closure by assuaging his guilt. Closure is also hard to come by for BoJack’s autobiography ghostwriter Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), who has yet to find a satisfying way to close the book on her own troubled childhood, as a temporary return to Boston to visit her relatives in the first season’s fifth episode “Live Fast, Diane Nguyen” demonstrates. In Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s world, no conflict ever really gets resolved, only escaped through drugs, alcohol and general bad behavior that more often than not is bound to make things worse than they already are.
At the end of Season 1, the moment when BoJack discovers that he has a chance to finally realize his dream project of playing Secretariat in a biopic ought to be one of the most joyful moments of his life, especially one as marked with disappointment as his life has recently been. And yet, in that last scene at the Getty Museum, as BoJack, holding his Emmy, looks on at a seemingly uncertain future, there’s more a sense of melancholy than triumph. Shouldn’t he be happier? This, however, is quite possibly the most profound truth BoJack Horseman has imparted throughout its two seasons so far: that even though we’re all conditioned to chase after happiness, it’s likely that once we think we’ve achieved it, it’ll inevitably be replaced by more sadness, the feelings of which we’ll try to neutralize by pursuing happiness once again. It’s a vicious cycle, really, one that Bob-Waksberg’s characters continue to ride, even as they’re aware that, once they’ve reached the end of one cycle, the fulfillment one feels at the end is at best merely temporary.
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The A.V. Club and the Village Voice. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.