The Ups and Downs of BoJack Horseman: A Review

Note: This blog entry contains spoilers for viewers of BoJack Horseman

What can you say about Netflix show BoJack Horseman that’s not already been said in the most eloquent terms in dissections by The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The New York Times? I was introduced to the animated show about a Hollywood has-been back in mid-2014, when I came across an ad in the print issue of Rolling Stone.

Seeing a poster of a horse-headed overweight man in his swimming pool instantly conveyed that this was about a man who probably had it all, and somehow still wore a jaded look on his face. When I downloaded the series to watch, what emerged was a hilarious yet heart-breaking show that somehow made you relate to the pitfalls of celebrity. Amidst all the lessons and quotable quotes about failure, success, anxiety, happiness and relationships, BoJack Horseman is a show revolving around very relatable issues. Yet, you’d think, how can you relate to the live-fast-die-faster life of a celebrity, or rather, someone who yearns so much for fame?

BoJack is self-destructive most times, whether he’s surrounded by his human friend Todd, his cat-agent/ex-girlfriend Princess Carolyn, his fellow Hollywood frenemy dog Mr. Peanutbutter and his wife Diane Nguyen (also BoJack’s ghostwriter), his human publicist and flame Ana Spanikopita and one of his first loves, a deer named Charlotte Moore.

Three seasons through, the show’s main theme, amidst all the hilarious blink-and-you’ll-miss animal jokes and other witty humour, seems to be that of failure. Despite pretty much all of BoJack’s friends and acquaintances wanting him to succeed and doing everything they can to help, the horse still finishes last. He learns everything the hard way. He rises to the occasion often – whether it’s to secure the lead role in a biopic about a famous horse named Secretariat or get nominated for an Oscar – but the higher he climbs, the harder he falls. And throughout the show, we can sense his crippling inability to see the bright side, to be happy for what he has.

Why do we relate to BoJack? It’s perhaps because his failings are more human than human. In season three, the writers almost deliberately seem to take viewers on this rollercoaster trip of laughs and then suddenly drop some heavy wisdom like “It doesn’t get easy. It never gets easier” and “How do you make something right when you’ve made it so wrong?” They’re almost throwaway lines when they come in after jokes, but these are the lines that stay with you longer than the jokes. BoJack Horseman’s power lies not so much in the situations it necessarily builds, but the lessons that are imparted from them – whether they are regretful, alcohol-and-drugs-induced thought or a too-late epiphany.

BoJack – and the characters around him – grapple with situations arising out of peer pressure, high expectations and social norms, among more psychological flaws as well. This is where it gets real. In season three, when BoJack is made to choose between a movie he can act in and a typical Hollywood big banner fluffed up adaptation, and Princess Carolyn pushes too hard in his interest to make both work (secretly in her own interest, to gain more of a commission for her agency), he ends up with neither project.

Everything goes pretty downhill from there, as it often does for BoJack, but what the creators and writers always work into the show is an upward swing of emotions – by the time they wrap things up (or in this case, open up new possibilities with visual hints) in season three – there’s a renewed sense of hope we feel for BoJack, just like we’ve been made to feel at the end of each season so far. In season one, it was more of Diane and BoJack’s shared lesson; in season two, it’s the jogging Baboon. In season three, it’s BoJack’s own decisions that lead him to a place with hope. This is probably also what keeps viewers hooked and relate to the show – that there’s always an exuberant optimism that emerges in the face of obvious defeat. 

Anurag Tagat