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There’s No Cure for Vice

Today's newest antiheroes don't pretend to be anything other than what they are: terrible people.
absolutely fabulous boat

The third season of BoJack Horseman arrived the same day the long-awaited Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie opened here in D.C. So audiences who want to watch appetitive people careening through aimless lives have two starkly opposed portrayals of antiheroes who gobble drugs and guzzle booze, corrupt minors, and abase themselves for fame and maybe kill people.

AbFab is the simpler pleasure. The movie plays like an extended episode of the TV show, in which lifelong best friends—neurotic Edina (Jennifer Saunders) and ferocious Patsy (Joanna Lumley)—stumble and scramble their way through the worlds of puff-piece media and pop fashion. AbFab lets catastrophic excess be fun. (Arguably you can’t have fun without it. If it were less catastrophic we’d just call it “joy.”)

AbFab, which debuted as a comedy sketch in 1990, is amoral in that ’80s/’90s way. Patsy and Eddie are constantly thwarted and never punished, and the terrible things they do somehow always turn out harmless. For the show to be fun they’ve got to be underdogs whom nobody takes seriously: Eddie, in desperate need of a car, yowls, “I need wheels!” but her assistant Bubble drawls, “Ohhhhh, yet you have only been given feet.” They’ve got to be callous toward everybody else, but constant to one another: When Eddie is moaning about the fat old lady she sees in the mirror, Patsy growls, “You don’t need that! I’m your mirror!” Patsy inspects Eddie’s lipstick-smeared face and pronounces her, with the conviction of blind loyalty, “fabulous.”

The initial setup of the show revolved around generational conflict: the drug-fueled, sex-crazed middle-aged best friends vs. Eddie’s straitlaced, purist, and miserable daughter Saffron (Julia Sawalha). Eddie and Patsy torment Saffron—Patsy would frequently insinuate that she was a problem that should’ve been solved in the womb, with a knitting needle—and part of the show’s genius was letting her be silently heroic but never quite likable.

In the movie we get a new angle on the child issue. Saffron has a daughter of her own now, a mixed-race 13-year-old named Lola (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness). Donaldson-Holness is brilliant in her first movie role, all gleeful teenage impulsivity. The child desperate to get herself corrupted is a great character type, and the movie’s only real flaw is how little Lola is given to do.

Patsy and Eddie are at their most transgressive in their refusal to have epiphanies. They barrel along from crisis to catastrophe, deploying sincerity only when it might get them what they want. Sometimes they get speeches shaped like epiphanies, but with absurdly venal content: On the TV show Eddie closes one peroration with, “I don’t want more choices! I just want better things!

BoJack Horseman, now that’s a show where the epiphanies swarm like mosquitoes. One of the show’s bleakest and most insightful sources of humor is the way all the characters have moments of clarity, where they figure out exactly what’s wrong with themselves or those around them and express these insights in unambiguous terms—and then nothing changes.

In season three the insights, especially in the front half of the season, seem more pat and normal than before. We’re told to stop checking obsessively on whether or not we’re happy, and to settle for good-enough love. We’re told that BoJack does bad things so that when people reject him he can tell himself they’re rejecting his actions and not him as a person. Any show since 2001 will tell you these things.

The first two seasons insisted on the characters’ need to feel like they are good, in spite of all their awful actions. In the third season they talk more about whether they’re happy; this is boring. Fortunately the back half of the season begins to make fun of moral ambitions again, with disastrous Hollywood icons BoJack and Sarah Lynn going on a kind of Ninth Step road trip.

The satire of amends here is ferocious—and very similar to 2014’s Maps of the Stars. Making amends is intelligible to Americans, because we want to believe we can fix things; it’s DIY redemption, a moral approach to life that ignores or even rejects a spiritual approach. Also, amends are always hilarious because they’re inherently inadequate.

BoJack is a contemporary show, not throwbacky like AbFab. It takes place in a moral universe. People really get hurt; contrast Lola’s outcome with that of the fawn girl BoJack almost slept with. (I would prefer, I think, a show that didn’t pretend doing the wrong thing always causes visible psychological damage. That makes the goodness:happiness equation much too easy.) This season gets a bit preachy, most noticeably in the abortion episode, where we’re preached at not only about abortion rights but also about the moral value of jokes about abortion.

I guess that’s the price the writers paid to make a season so focused on children as icons of hope and responsibility: childrearing as escape route from the hedonism hamster wheel. The brilliant, nearly-wordless underwater episode is only the strongest hint of how central children will become to this season. The underwater episode is psychedelic and poignant, BoJack at its weird and heartfelt best. This is a terrifically-paced season, with the show’s characteristically wild range of types of humor: the sly feminist commentary of the Cabracadabra debacle, the shock humor of the abortion music video, the ridiculousness of the spaghetti-strainer payoff.

The third season raises the stakes for our half-horse unhero. An early episode is called “BoJack Kills,” and those interlocking themes of parenting or killing—the two ways out—recur with increasing urgency as the season barrels toward its close.

Where can BoJack go from here? Part of the point is how stuck BoJack is; if you’re frustrated by that, well, life is frustrating. But the amends road trip suggests the show could wring a lot more humor out of extended attempts at self-improvement than it tries to. I’d love to see something about how ridiculous people are even after they’ve been rescued. I don’t know that BoJack Horseman wants to be that show. But it’s pushing its central character toward a crisis.

If they’re really cruel the writers will let him escape, like Patsy and Edina, unchanged—eternally unscathed.

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.

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