A Washed-Out Dr. House—With Hooves
We’ve suffered a rash of cynical, sarcastic, hyper-competent white manchildren on our TV screens: “House” was one of the purest versions of this creepy fantasy, where self- and other-loathing make you cool and insightful. Recently there has been a bit of a backlash. Leading men (Walter White, Don Draper) now display the gross and pathetic nature of entitled narcissism, no matter how well the narcissist does his job. We’ve even reached the second stage of backlash, where former Houses try to learn to be human beings; my favorite of these is Johnny Lee Miller’s Sherlock Holmes on “Elementary,” all gritted-teeth emotional honesty and terrible decisions, although I guess you could count Draper here as well.
These reactions were probably inevitable. What was definitely more evitable was that one of the most enjoyable recovering manchildren on television would be a depressed celebrity horse.
BoJack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett) is a manfoal of the lowest order. He’s a sort of reverse centaur, with a human body and a horse’s head, in a cartoon world where many of the people are similarly half-owls or half-cats. BoJack was the star of a ’90s sitcom in the vein of “Full House,” but he hasn’t worked in decades. He’s all washed up, drowning his sorrows in enough vodka to kill a horse. Then into his life wanders Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), who’s been assigned to ghostwrite his memoir. So begins a show filled with introspection, articulate despair, romance, adventure, and roller-skating owl women.
My second-favorite thing about “BoJack Horseman” (created and mostly written by Raphael Bob-Waksberg) is the sheer wiggy variety of its jokes. The show has great sight gags, often playing off the “animals are people too” conceit. There are dumb puns and reference jokes: “Andrew Garfield loves lasagna? Andrew Garfield hates Mondays?” But there’s also absurdity, as when BoJack’s agent falls in love with “Vincent Adultman,” who is literally three small children stacked on top of each other under a trenchcoat. There are hilarious little throwaways (an amused Richard Nixon growls, “Owooo!–or whatever a laugh sounds like”) and sharp, funny/sad exchanges where BoJack and his friends try to sort through the wreckage of their lives.
I loved this exchange between BoJack and his closest friend and personal chew toy, Todd (Aaron Paul), about Christmas traditions:
Todd, syrupy: Things don’t become traditions because they’re good, BoJack. They become good because they’re traditions.
BoJack, half-drunk: You know you can’t just make yourself sound smart by saying things backwards?
So right there you’ve got an actual true statement about how tradition shapes our identity, phrased in perfect Chestertonian couplets—and immediately followed by an equally-true deflation of that Chestertonian (or #slatepitch) style.
But my favorite thing about “BoJack Horseman” is how badly BoJack wants to think of himself as—and even, if he’s desperate enough, wants to be—a good person. Just tell me I’m good is the constant undertow of his motivation. He doesn’t want to be cool or happy. He wants to be a good person, in spite of all the genuinely awful things he’s done. He’s ashamed of himself, sure. But he tries to disguise his failures as successes, as cocktail-party anecdotes and, if necessary, as lessons learned.
He has this exchange with Diane, which runs exactly parallel to the character vs. actions bit from “Mistress America” (BoJack knows the zeitgeist!):
BoJack: But do you think I’m a good person, deep down?
Diane: …I don’t know if I believe in ‘deep down.’
“BoJack” is a pretty scathing portrayal of the insufficiency of self-awareness. BoJack knows what his problems are and states them frequently and with often-hilarious bluntness, and it doesn’t help. As a different family entertainment once taught us, knowing is half the battle—but it turns out not to be the half where the battle is won.
There’s a surprisingly low amount of pure shock humor—for example, we’re carefully not encouraged to consider just how humans and horse-people mate, or horsemen and owlwomen, etc. The glaring exception is one episode centering on autoerotic asphyxiation, so just know going in that that happens. I can see why the show went there, though. Seeking release from the self in degrading solitary activity, which transforms something that should connect you to other people into just another empty mansion, something shaped like pleasure but creating greater need instead of satisfaction: that’s basically the show’s archvillain. (Unless BoJack is the villain, which is also a strong possibility.)
That episode is also the only one in which Christianity comes up. A dude who used to be into autoerotic etc. is now heavily into Jesus. Jesus is his replacement drug, another thing that promises escape from the self but never actually brings you into contact with other people; you stay trapped inside your religion, wherever you go there you are, gasping, waiting to lose consciousness.
Which is sort of heartbreaking since it means the only thing anybody can tell BoJack, in his despair, is, Try harder! Just do the right thing, day after day, jog up that hill again, and eventually you’ll die.
The end of the second season finds BoJack trying really hard this time. He is, like American culture generally, bent on self-improvement. He is not a moral relativist. He really means it.
One of the reasons I love this show is that I don’t think they’ll let him get away with it.
Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the newly released novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab.