BoJack Horseman

BoJack Horseman is a very depressing show about depression. It’s a cutting and poignant drama about life, mental illness, insufficiency, and the flawed nature of humanity. But I’m on the fence on if that’s actually a good thing.

I think this clip is an accurate encapsulation of the show as a whole. It can be very funny, but there’s a very dark core narrative underneath it, and there’s rarely anything that can be described as a happy ending, with almost every episode cutting off without a satisfying resolution. While the series currently ends on a fairly positive note, it’s still a very bleak journey of people being horrible, backsliding on their attempt to improve, and wallowing in a spiral of misery that seems inescapable.

When watching this show, I was reminded of an analysis article I read about The Force Awakens that referenced the Greek theatrical practice of catharsis. When I told Farla about it, she said it didn’t actually seem helpful — Greek theater may have had incredible insight into the human condition, but it had no solution. We shouldn’t necessarily laud depressing things just because they’re insightful.

I wonder if, perhaps, a similar thing can be said here. BoJack Horseman does not offer much in the way of solutions. It’s just endlessly miserable, and, frustratingly, involves characters refusing to take the few solutions that are obvious in favor of making obvious mistakes and continuing to be miserable. I think that past a certain point, that stops being true-to-life and starts just being miserable for misery’s sake. Life is not actually hopeless, good people do exist, there are ways out of bad situations. It’s important to search for those solutions instead of resigning yourself to despair. The most recent (fourth) season does look like the series might finally be heading in a more positive direction, but there are still three seasons of soul-crushing misery leading up to it, and the characters could always backslide again.

Also, Mr. Peanutbutter is insufferable and I hope Diane divorces him.

If you do choose to watch this… do take care of yourself. There are too many trigger warnings to list, though depression, suicide, and abuse are probably the big ones.


  1. SpoonyViking says:

    Greek theater may have had incredible insight into the human condition, but it had no solution.

     On the contrary, it often did! Most of it can be summarised as “don’t be arrogant and / or a putz”.

    EDIT: Ok, I was a bit too glib. Yes, many tragedies were basically “life isn’t fair, deal with it”, but the “deal with it” part is a solution – maybe not to everyone’s tastes, but it is one (after all, accepting a situation which one is powerless to change is often a necessary step in finding some sort of c).

    1. Not the example cited in the article, though. A soldier being so pyschologically broken he commits suicide while everyone in the audience nods solemnly at what a widespread problem this is is not a solution.

      I mean, at least the show doesn’t go as far as I Miss the Sunrise and say that suicide is the answer, but it can’t seem to provide any reasons to keep living (“deal with it”, as you say) either. It’s like it knows intellectually that suicide is wrong but can’t logically justify that position. The creator himself seems to have depression, which may contribute to the problem.

      1. Keleri says:

        What is the solution? Robin Williams still killed himself despite all his money and being internationally beloved. We can’t solve the problem of the military-industrial complex orgiastically consuming poor people’s children in order to enrich the richest few in 10 episodes. But we can say that your moral injury has not left you tainted irrevocably, and that there is still hope, and that you’re not alone.

        1. But we can say that your moral injury has not left you tainted irrevocably, and that there is still hope, and that you’re not alone.

          That’s the thing, though — that’s not the message I took away from the show. The message throughout the first three seasons is that there is no hope. Diane keeps searching for hope and keeps failing; Bojack sort of does but keeps refusing to learn from his mistakes; everyone else actively refuses to even try. To me, it felt like the moral was to give up. Season four shows it’s not, but it’s still 39 episodes before we see the faintest glimmer of hope.

          That’s the point. You can’t know you can’t solve the problem. We have to at least try, and these characters do not. I don’t think it’s good to normalize that.

        2. Farla says:

          But we can say that your moral injury has not left you tainted irrevocably, and that there is still hope, and that you’re not alone.

          The distinction, to me, is between saying “You are not a bad person for this, and things can possibly get better, and maybe it won’t work but trying and failing doesn’t prove you were bad all along.” vs “You are not a bad person for this, because things could never be different and it’s okay not to try.” Both messages will make people feel better.

          Mind you, human brains are weird and there’s stages of depression where agreeing everything is shit forever can be the only thing that holds a person together.  I just find the pure carthasis argument for it unconvincing because if the only thing keeping a good chunk of our population functional is “yes, everything is shit forever (and perhaps enduring this has a nobility to it)” then something external is wrong enough that trying to numb it seems a bad idea, even if it’s less painful at the moment. If you’re sad because brain goblins tell you nobody cares about you, then working out whatever shuts the goblins up is healthy, but if you’re sad because society has decided you don’t deserve to live, then the core problem isn’t that you’re sad about this.

    2. Farla says:

      accepting a situation which one is powerless to change is often a necessary step

      This problem was, it wasn’t really a situation with no other options. We don’t treat soldiers today like we treated soldiers then. Other cultures of the time didn’t all treat their soldiers the same way. Maybe they didn’t know there was any better way of doing things, but they were wrong.

      A play showing our soldiers coming home with chronic pain and brain damage and how they eventually kill themselves will make the soldiers feel better when they see themselves and their friends on the screen…but it also normalizes that this is the way things are instead of calling for anything to change.

      1. SpoonyViking says:

        Uh, actually, I hadn’t read the linked article yet, I was responding to what seemed like a general comment. Sorry!

        EDIT: Hey, why is “contentment” disappearing from my first comment?

        EDIT 2: So, finally read the article. For what it’s worth, I disagree with it on a few points regarding the author’s understanding of Greek tragedy and Kylo Ren as a tragic character.

  2. Act says:

    I love this show, thought it was excellently written and insightful, and had to stop watching after the second season because it was so upsetting I literally would spend the rest of the night crying. It is not for people dealing with emotional shit. But it’s a great show.

    1. I do think it’s very well-written, but by the end of the third season (which is the darkest, you were probably right to stop before it) I felt it was just too cynical and draining. I dunno. I feel like it’s more pessimistic and hopeless than life really is. For me it fell into a kind of darkness-induced audience apathy, where I had no reason to get my hopes up so I saw everything in a state of predictable, numb sadness.

      It’s weird. I was just thinking that for all the show’s tragedy, I only actually cried during one scene, despite tearing up at a lot of other, less sad stories, and it was at probably the most positive scene in the series. It’s in season 3 so you won’t have seen it, but I can link it here. (Spoilers for a big thing that happens in season 3, if anyone cares.) Somehow, hearing proof that Bojack did do good and can be good is sadder than all the horrible mistakes he makes. I wonder if that’s sort of like… a necessary component of tragedy? There has to be something good, some proof that things aren’t always and inevitably horrible, before you can let your guard down and be fully emotionally attached, or something. (I dunno, you’re an English major, you probably know this better.) But I just didn’t feel able to let my guard down like that for most of the show.

    2. Oh also, what did you think of the episode about Not Bill Cosby? (2×07, I think.) I felt like it was Nirvana Fallacying and concern trolling feminism.

      1. Act says:

        Wow, I didn’t read it that way at all. I thought it was a great look at how we treat accusers as the real enemy and truth as a lie when it comes to sexual assault. It was obviously simplified for a 22-minute episode, but I thought it was completely sincere.

        1. Oh, okay. The way they kept the actual argument in the background while focusing on how Diane should go to Cordovia instead just rubbed me the wrong way — it felt too reminiscient of those “your first-world feminism is invalid because worse things are happening elsewhere!” arguments you see sometimes. I was also annoyed by Mr. Peanutbutter making it all about himself.

          1. Act says:

            I find Mr. Peanutbutter frustrating not because of him per se, but because he and Diane are so obviously unhappy and wrong for each other and I’m not quite sure why the show keeps dragging it out. There’s something to be said for portraying a failed relationship without glamour or over-the-top anger, just young people who made a mistake, but I don’t really get why that plotline has come to a standstill with Diane repeatedly reiterating how unhappy she is and them both saying it’s not working but refusing to move any further than that. I kind of wonder if they just haven’t had time with other plotlines they’d rather do.

            1. Well, good news: the season 4 finale strongly implies they’re getting divorced in season 5, finally!

              What I find most grating about him is that after this long, I just can’t see his ignorance of Diane’s needs as anything but willful. He never really changes his behavior even after Diane says exactly why she dislikes it, and he refuses to communicate openly with Diane or include her in his decisions despite both Diane and his marriage counselor telling him to do so. It is at a standstill, and it seems to be mostly his fault. Diane keeps trying to make it work, but he just won’t give her anything back.

            2. Act says:

              I think the best there is to say is that this seems to be an intentional character flaw — he’s a fun-loving happy guy until you have needs, and then he doesn’t notice. He’s done it to Todd and BoJack over and over as well, so it’s not like he’s only this way with Diane, which makes it less icky to me.

              I do think the right way to go would be to have all his relationships fall apart for this reason during the divorce and have him actually learn that being the party guy 24/7 isn’t sustainable.

  3. Keleri says:

    It’s just endlessly miserable, and, frustratingly, involves characters refusing to take the few solutions that are obvious in favor of making obvious mistakes and continuing to be miserable.

    I think I would say that that’s the point of the series, to show the characters struggling and falling back into old patterns. It’s not a manual about how to get over your mental illness smoothly. If those obvious solutions were easy then they wouldn’t be struggling. The characters make the wrong choices because it’s not the purpose of the series to show them making the right choices. ‘“It’s the truth,” he replied— subsumed in a sea of green uniforms—“ and we’re all here watching it together.”’ You fucked up. You fucked up big time. But we’re all here watching it, and we’re not alone.

    Season 4 especially is about the terrible inertia of your upbringing and how it’s shaped the characters. Even Bojack’s mom, one of the most evil characters I’ve ever seen on screen, is made sympathetic. “Time’s arrow marches on”, the Sugarman clan keeps saying, maddeningly jumbling two idioms. They were fired from a bow and they can’t control their landing. It’s Beatrice’s fate to die alone, lobotomized after all, rich but not enriched by her fortune, consuming drugs miserably and valuing herself and others only for their physical appearance. She could have had anything, she could have gotten a divorce and traveled, but instead she was a wife, lonely and miserable. Misogyny and despair, the bowstring; the arrow, fired, unsteerable.

    But she does one thing right, and that’s to force Henrietta to give up Hollyhock for adoption, and send her to school to get the knowledge and independence that she was never allowed. And Hollyhock grows up away from the Horseman/Sugarman well of despair and substance abuse. Time’s arrow, pchoo. They’re free. is the last scene of season 2 and one of my favorites.


      If those obvious solutions were easy then they wouldn’t be struggling.

      Yes, but they’ve had years to work themselves up to it at this point. I guess it’s just frustrating because there’s so little diversity in the problems/solutions; it feels like everything always comes down to lack of communication, and it’s maddening how none of the characters ever seem to figure that out.

      They were fired from a bow and they can’t control their landing.

      I… really do not agree with this. The theme of season 4 is leaving the past behind and accepting that we don’t have to be controlled by it. It was not inevitable for Beatrice to end up the way she did. She chose to have a tryst with Butterscotch, she chose to keep the baby, she chose to blame Bojack for everything and ruin his life. All of these decisions were influenced by her upbringing, but her upbringing did not make them inevitable.

      That’s the point: It’s wrong to give into fatalism. That is the ultimate message of hope the season provides: Bojack has spent his life convinced he’s rotten to the core and nothing can ever make him better, but Hollyhock, who is him in nature but not in nurture, proves otherwise. We are more than the circumstances of our birth and environment.

  4. Hinebras says:

    Yeah, up to a point it is no longer believable how fucked up life gets (like it really seems like BoJack has some supernatural curse in his family or something), but truth to be told, I’m way too invested in the characters, the writing is really clever and funny, even though for the most part it is a sad-fest I think the character progression makes sense, and the repetition of them failing miserably feels true to them, of course, in real life we rarely see people that fuck up real bad (though, I do know people that did), but we mess things up and sometimes we can’t see the obvious answer, even when it is right at our nose.

    I’m bothered by many things that Mr. Peanutbutter does, but I find the character pretty charming still. Seeing how he grew in the Labrador Peninsula, I think a case can be made about him being analogous to BoJack. He can’t escape from his nature.

    1. Revonue says:

      I think it’s only unbelievable how miserable life can get if you haven’t read a wide variety of real-life experiences. Life can get bad very quickly, for many people, in a myriad of ways. Statistically, most Americans are one financial emergency from being homeless.

  5. kirksroom says:

    I think I’m gonna have to check this one out. I keep hearing people talk about how great it is, and I remember someone also gave it as an example of a show to watch after you finish Mad Men.

  6. I return after watching the finale to say I do think the show is good, and in fact I think the final season may be my favorite one. The resolution is more open-ended than I’d like, but it does offer some pretty meaningful help and uplifting messages, and a lot of characters do get happy endings. It doesn’t just wallow in misery for the sake of misery as I feared it would.

    Mr. Peanutbutter also managed to be surprisingly tolerable in the final season! I don’t think I actually hated him at all during it.

    The series is still really backloaded, though. I think season 4 is better than season 5, but otherwise I think every season is an improvement on the previous, and the real trajectory of the show doesn’t become clear until season 3 or 4.

    1. Seed of Bismuth says:

      which to me is like saying “it opens up after level 60” for a jrpg. That may be true but i’m not 12 anymore and thus don’t have the time to sink. Similarly i just don’t have the emotional durability to deal with dark subject matter when the payoff is so many hours later.

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