Review of BoJack Horseman (2014)
Seen in 2020.
As the end credits put it, “back in the ’90s, I was in a very famous TV show”, alluding to the now-empty life of a rich actor. Equivalently, as that character puts it in season 6, episode 12, “I came from a broken home, and I used to feel like my whole life was an acting job, doing an impression of the people I saw on television, which was just a projection of a bunch of equally screwed-up writers and actors.”
There are Bronze and Iron Age graves where archaeologists have found babies buried with sippy cups. Even in the ancient world, the fanciest cups were decorated with cute animal motifs. From Silly Symphonies (1929) to Peppa Pig (2004), stereotypical English-language cartoon productions showed similar cute animals, infused with anthropomorphism. This is a potential source of comedy, mainly through incongruity and baseness: In the same way that viewers are expected to consider themselves superior to fools, they are expected to regard animals and animal people as inferior. Such characters have therefore grown to connote silliness as per Steve Baker’s Picturing the Beast (1993). We laugh at those whom we believe to be so inferior.
Anthropomorphic animals make up about half the characters of BoJack Horseman, a sitcom-drama hybrid. The species are mostly what you expect in barnyards and zoos, hence in children’s culture: Large, familiar mammals, both natural and domesticized. There are a few early exceptions like a blue-whale news anchor and a maggot mortician, both the same size. As an afterthought, these exceptions gradually expand to less famous species like a star-nosed mole in season 3. Moles too are in the category of wild mammals, which constituted about 0.3% of animal biomass in 2018. That one maggot morticician is an arthropod, a larger category in real life, but a smaller category on the show, used only for a one-scene joke. Thus the characters represent neither human society nor nature. Like a toddler’s picture book, or a Bronze-Age sippy cup, the show is not a picture of life.
No non-anthropomorphic animals are ever shown. Technically, the show meets the definition of a fable, where non-human animals speak and act like humans to teach a lesson. BoJack himself is a horse. The creators try to do something with that choice, but it never pans out. For example, there’s a horseshoe in the title card, something BoJack does not wear. In season 1, the Stones play “Wild Horses”. Season 3 has a free-roaming herd of wild horses breaking BoJack’s despair, but he never goes to talk to them. Season 6 has a Puritan Christian “Horsey” religion in “Old Town Horseberg”, used to suggest that horses have some cultural or even ethnic identity from which BoJack has been estranged as a reason for and/or symptom of his first-world problems. All of these ideas are discarded as soon as they appear on screen. Not being interested, the writers don’t stick with any of it.
The writers display a certain level of reflexivity about the use of animals, but this is below the ceiling of Family Guy (1999). The surname “Horseman” recalls Carl Barks shit like the domestic servants “Beakley” and “Duckworth” in DuckTales (1990), in addition to being a pun: A man who is a horse, not a rider. His non-human friends have stereotypical pet names and are not pets. At the high-water mark of reflexivity, in season 6, episode 3, a sports team has a “baby human” mascot nearly drinking poison in a pregame routine to indicate that the extended altriciality of real human babies has become something like a racist joke among non-human people. This is in spite of the fact that some non-human babies on the show—notably Ruthie—are equally inept and slow-growing.
Occasionally the non-human characters are used for deadpan physical comedy, as when a standing anthropomorphic hen lays an unfertilized egg in shock and the egg immediately hits the floor and cracks, without reaction. This is not fundamentally different from a bar fight in Pengar (1946) where a disturbed hen leaves an egg that hits a human character in the face. The humanity of the hen on BoJack is there to add an extra layer of incongruence. More often, the animals are used for visual variety and obnoxious advertising-style puns, like a bear holding up a sign that says “BoJack’s views are unbearable”. The whale works at “MSNBSea”. Lazy puns are used on non-animal topics too, as in the name “Dispirited” for an airline, alluding to Spirit with conspicuously minimal effort. It’s the wit of Howard the Duck (1986) without special effects. Fortunately, the word play becomes less about puns in the last couple of seasons and more about assonance.
While they generally strained to avoid thinking about their world, the writers apparently felt that they had to address the food web. In season 1, episode 7, a cow waitress publicly pumps milk from her human breast to serve a customer. It’s wearisome to her, not like the joyful animism of “Goopy Geer” (1932). In season 2, episode 5, BoJack goes further and attempts the vertiginous nihilism of Rick and Morty (2013) by showing anthropomorphic chickens that are purposely brain-damaged from birth by the meat industry and would otherwise have human-level intelligence. Season 4, episode 11, implies fish are more crudely caught and killed en masse: “Those fish do not like being canned”, says a cannery worker. This is not the mere absurdity of a plum pudding complaining about being cut up in Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871). Instead, it’s the callous grotesquerie of Nekojiru Gekijou (1999), with even stronger internal contradictions.
You can try to read the chicken episode as a metaphor for human-on-non-human relations in general, the contemporary meat industry in particular, or exploitative human-on-human relations. The meat-industry stuff is similar to the show’s recurring motif of wolves preying on sheep in public without reaction, and one boss hiring exterminators to kill unionizing roach workers in season 5, episode 2. That’s political-cartoon-style allegory with gross-out gags. I sense the creators were joking about their own thoughtlessness. None of it is worldbuilding. It’s not self-consistent on what would happen if all animals were anthropomorphic and sapient, as the show presents them. It does not make sense as narrative and was not meant to.
The writers shun their own implications because internal consistency would run counter to their intent, which is all Baker. It doesn’t even rise to the level of Charlotte’s Web (1973). As in Happy Feet (2006), the animals are only intended to be funny, as to a Bronze-Age baby. There’s no real development from “Along Flirtation Walk” (1935). Compare J. R. R. Tolkien, who gave a straight answer to the question “What if there were elves?” For a more direct comparison, try Alan Moore. In his 1982 run of Marvelman, Moore took superheroes—an established and stale motif created for children—and remade them for adults through worldbuilding. Moore gave a straight answer to the question “What if there were supermen?” From his ingenuity, sincerity and effort came decades and decades of massively more successful and more interesting genre productions. I miss that attitude here.
Compare the Turkey City concept of the “Rembrandt comic book”, where serious craftsmanship is wasted on too trivial an idea. Perhaps the creators of BoJack avoided worldbuilding because they were afraid to produce a Rembrandt comic book. In this explanatory model, they felt that a show about animal people could never be intelligently rescued as by Tolkien or Moore, but they certainly lavished their wit on the project all the same. Perhaps they were actually trying to produce a Rembrandt comic book: A sitcom made funnier because of its obvious triviality. The real reason is probably simpler; maybe BoJack was meant to be like Bone (1991), wherein Jeff Smith used Carl Barks with Tolkien’s epic mode, purposely adding more lightness than Tolkien’s hobbits. I want to be charitable and say the creators of BoJack similarly went with animals as a counterpoint to the drama, but the dramatic writing on BoJack is much heavier than Bone. It’s more likely “coward camp”. The writers meant for all their work to seem potentially ironic because they didn’t dare own the heavier aspects or follow logic as Tolkien and Moore did in their genres.
The writers achieve irony when, in the second season, the horse camps it up on set instead of acting. This is like the creator of the show choosing stereotypical anthropomorphism to tell his story about self-loathing and psychological toxicity. It’s as if some idiot producer had decided that They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969) had to be a cartoon with talking horses to illustrate its point. BoJack is thus stuck imitating Fritz the Cat (1972), pointing to absurd details in children’s culture as it was manufactured 100 years earlier, long after subversion of that culture entered the mainstream.
As a comedy, the show resembles Two and a Half Men (2003), plus all the usual drug-hallucination tricks enabled by cheap vector animation, illustrating self-loathing and depression among privileged, economically unthreatened men. The dramatic motif, of a successful US man feeling hollow and mistreated, is drawn from The Sopranos (1999) and Mad Men (2007), while the presentation is uncomfortably close to South Park (1997). The creator of the show is my age. For this cohort, it’s hard to get any closer to the mainstream of US adult cartoons. It’s a show about vacuous celebrity culture, front-loaded with cowardly self-deprecation. It uses celebrity voices (Amy Sedaris is a regular, Samantha Bee cameos as a bee) to deliver its lesson on celebrity morality, it’s marinaded in recognizable tropes and it tries to be every genre in the mainstream, from a heavy serialized tragedy (the death of Sarah Lynn) to a zany episodic comedy (Todd Chavez, consistently boring). The kneejerk anti-idyllic satire recalls Mad magazine. The writing is often cruel and the inconsistencies pile right up. This is unavoidable under the premises. Tony Soprano did not drink from a sippy cup with a cartoon horse, nor should he have done so.
Fortunately, there’s a stylishness to the presentation that surpasses Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law (2000) and a spate of more outré adult cartoons from the preceding cohort. Will Arnett is good in the lead role, and most importantly, there are stand-out episodes where the writers challenge themselves to focus on something more interesting than show-business follies and wacky hijinks. That could and should have been the whole show. There’s a lot of talent in it, but its popularity and critical acclaim are a measure of alienation from both nature and the barnyard.