📺 BoJack Horseman - An Attempt at a Thematic Analysis
We’d already seen a flurry of blog posts, videos and essays trying to deconstruct the success of Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman”. I too, finished watching the last season last year and really felt like commenting my version of the show.
The series spans six seasons, of which the last one was released in two parts. You’re not expected to watch all the seasons to understand this post, but I would still recommend it, to really understand the impact a well written story can have. Like most Netflix originals, the progression of the plot happens over every episode, which means that there is little to no filler content. This also makes it binge-prone.
In addition to being a web series, BoJack Horseman’s animated nature lends itself to depict complex topics like addiction in what appears to be a goofy cartoon at surface level. The show’s realistic portrayal of depression, addiction, relapse, self-hate, guilt and all those nasty feelings that cloud your mind, is seen in few other cartoons. I’m willing to bet that no-one in their right mind would classify BoJack as a comedy if it weren’t animated. It would be shunted to the already saturated genre of the procedural drama.
Now of course, it doesn’t just end with the fact that it is animated drama, no; it is also a unique depiction of a world where humans co-exist (and reproduce) with all kinds of sentient animal species one would usually expect to find in the wild. In fact, the titular character is a horse: a washed-up TV star from the nineties. This seemingly weird amalgamation of animals and humans allows the writers to explore complex emotional dynamics while still depicting what is literally a romantic relationship between a horse and a cat. And of course, the unlimited opportunity to make visual puns lets an entire layer of comedy unfold in the background setting of Hollywoo1.
Thematically, I think the show has many facets, executed to varying degrees of neatness. I personally find the idea of empathy or the lack of it to be the most relatable in the show. Many characters in the series portray varying degrees of concern for the people in their lives. For example, BoJack has no empathy for the surrounding people, even those that truly care for him. He ditches appointments, forgets critical errands, sabotages relationships and is unapologetic about his mistakes.
A less extreme but also problematic example is Mr. Peanutbutter, who while wishing good things for everyone, is completely incapable of understanding what other people around him are going through. He relies on protocols and his own charisma to win over people instead of actually trying to understand them.
Somewhere at the center of the spectrum is Princess Carolyn. She is BoJack’s agent and also his former girlfriend. While she is definitely capable of feeling for other people, she cannot do so without it seemingly affecting her job as a celebrity agent/manager. We see proof of this when she shows some serious emotional chops when she gets married to a mouse, tries to start a family, and also later when she adopts a porcupine baby.
Todd is the next major character on the list. His helplessness and generally low competence is balanced throughout the show by being exceptionally in touch with his own feelings and by extension, the ability to relate to others. This backfires in the form of failed business ideas with other enthusiastic characters, dysfunctional relationships with robots and an inability to do evil. His inadvertent squatting in BoJack’s mansion is also a result of his innocence. I think BoJack secretly values this, and is probably why he can’t kick him out.
We now arrive at the other extreme i.e. Diane Nguyen. Initially hired by a publishing company to write BoJack’s biography, she can’t help but get involved in the life and times of BoJack Horseman. She can’t keep out of BoJack’s life, to her own dismay. This also leads to a lot of the other characters taking her for-granted and even using her at times. It goes without saying that most characters owe her a few. Her various employers are always asking of her to go against the grain. Her acceptance of these impositions is a sign of her struggle to pursue her own desires.
The show’s most prominent theme though, is depression. It is the show’s forte. Depression is what BoJack was born to depict. I am continually amazed at my own experiences, and other people’s testimonials about how cathartic the show is. To finally see such an accurate rendition of a heavily misunderstood condition by those who do not suffer from it.
BoJack is once more, our extreme example of a depressive and all the dysfunction that usually accompanies it. His recurring attempts to excel at his profession, self-doubt, superficial relationships and an inability to give up alcohol are all hallmark symptoms of the affliction. His success in the early stage of his career has ensured that he leads a lavish lifestyle that at one point, allows him to buy an entire restaurant on a whim. This is also how most of his professional work succeeds; through the attempts of other stakeholders to make what they can of the minimal effort he puts in. Given that all he has to do now is live out his life on this “gravy train” of sorts, he struggles with the more existential questions. This sometimes leaves him incapacitated and is another sign of his depressive personality. Some may also contest that his massive initial success and cynical personality lead directly to his depression and how his stardom is also a curse. I do think there is some merit to this argument, though knowing this fact does not necessarily lead us or BoJack to the solution. However, this same self-awareness is an excellent aspect of the show’s realistic portrayal of depression. BoJack is always painfully aware of his mental state, which is only interrupted by self-inflicted benders or other inconsequential distractions. It also explains why he appears unreliable in the eyes of his friends.
BoJack’s constant effort and subsequent failure to resolve his mental issues slowly evolves into the character defining trait of self-hate. At some point in the show, you start questioning if BoJack is sabotaging himself in an effort to achieve mental congruity. This self-hate is revealed in parts over the course of the show. It is probably rooted in the mentally abusive upbringing by his parents. BoJack’s father is a physically present, emotionally disconnected alcoholic who regularly cheats on his wife. His detached attitude towards his son is the subject of many flashbacks that we see. BoJack’s mother is also an alcoholic and as detached as his father. She is also unable to keep the house maintained presumably because she resents her husband’s cheating. This toxic environment is the reason for BoJack’s cynicism and general inability to maintain relationships. The only person he’s able to relate to is his co-star Sarah Lynn, from their T.V. show in the 90s. And even there, BoJack’s involvement is partly due to his guilt of having introduced her to alcohol. This however, does not stop him from messing up that situation too. He eventually sleeps with her and later on also provides the drugs that cause her to overdose and die. Given all the terrible missteps and accidents that BoJack falls into are a result of his personality and depression, the character becomes an amazingly relatable one for so many viewers who have been through similar situations.
Diane is also mentally confused and becomes properly depressed in the later seasons. The reasons for her depression are very different from BoJack’s. She is the only sister among a mass of siblings and feels like the odd one. She’s starved for appreciation and vies to do something great in her life. In the middle seasons, this is exactly why she falls in love with Mr. Peanutbutter. His overt attitude of loving and caring is something that was deeply missing in her life, and she seems to have finally found it. She eventually breaks up with him, once she realizes his behaviour is shallow and that he’ll never understand her as she truly is. As the show progresses, she gradually makes more than a few compromises on her principles, which leads to feelings of insecurity and self-doubt. In the later seasons, she starts procrastinating heavily on the one task she’d always wanted to do: write a book. In the end, only with true self-acceptance does she seem to be in a stable state. The show ends with her acknowledging that the blues can hit anytime and one simply has to cope with it.
Princess Carolyn comes in next with her own personal issues handling success as a Hollywoo agent. Initially, she’s just trying to be a good employee, then transitions to becoming a manager with her own company, and then also a mother. All the while trying to find love, which she barely does. Her primary gripes are with the exhaustion of balancing a healthy work and personal life. She compensates for the loneliness with her headstrong nature, and thus suffers less compared to BoJack and Diane. As the show concludes, she finds solace in the form of her adopted daughter.
Todd’s personal issues are more varied, but he seems to cope much better. Earlier in the series, his issues deal mostly with being a failure and not having a job. Once he proves himself to be a serial entrepreneur of sorts, his new problem becomes better understanding his own sexuality. He also consciously works on repairing his relationship with his parents. All this while battling the risk of burning out and failing. In the end, he comes out adjusted and comfortable in his own skin.
Finally, we have Mr. Peanutbutter who is almost never sad. And when he is sad, recovers within a few minutes. It doesn’t take much to distract and appease him. His friends generally hate his cheery attitude, acquaintances tolerate it, while his fans find it endearing. As a result he’s a successful celebrity, with many friends but few close ones. For the most part, he doesn’t seem to realize this and unknowingly throws wrenches in the well-laid plans of others.
BoJack’s addiction to alcohol only compounds his other issues. Many of his personality traits are aggravated because of the substance. We see him attempt to give up the bottle, only to foil his own rehabilitation. All the regrettable things that BoJack does over the course of the show, happen under the influence. His experience with the substance is cyclic in nature, usually inflecting at points of emotional highs or lows. Given that his parents also suffered from the addiction, one could say that alcohol is the reason for all of BoJack’s issues. He’s shown to be a well-mannered horse before his success with the TV show and subsequent addiction to alcohol.
Mr. Peanutbutter is also slave to an addiction, but of a different kind. Most of his actions are driven by a need for validation from others. He is extremely concerned with his image, often to the exclusion of everything else. This is evidenced through his obsession for V-neck t-shirts, sunglasses and organizing parties. His narcissism becomes a big enough deal, to cause his then girlfriend Diane to leave him. Towards the end of the series, he too comes to the realization that the world does not revolve around him. This small but very important realization takes the entire six seasons to accomplish.
Princess Carolyn straddles the line between being passionate for work and being a workaholic. This conflict between her work and her personal life is a very relatable theme for most viewers. The most obvious example is her initial relationship with BoJack where she’s simultaneously his girlfriend and celebrity agent. Later on, it’s her attempt to be a celebrity manager, while trying to work a relationship with contending agent. In the later seasons, she’s trying to run a business that is at odds with her desire to start a family.
While it is definitely tame in comparison to others, Diane is a perfectionist. She’s often asked to compromise on her ideologies, in order to make a living. This causes her a lot of mental strife and self-doubt. Over various seasons we see her fretting over the completion of Bojack’s biography, phrasing the right tweet, producing a movie and writing her own book. A lack of confidence and a desire to do everything correctly cause her to procrastinate all the time.
Todd, for the most part lacks a passion for a single thing. As a result, his life is a meandering one in terms of livelihood. This does allow him to spend a very generous amount of time discovering himself, try out new things with little to no cost. Among all of Todd’s wonky ventures, only one needs to really succeed for him to make it out of homelessness. However, even Todd is not fully immune to life’s pleasures. More than one of his ventures have failed because he was set up for binge-ing by either BoJack or through pure circumstance. And since he has great friends and no possessions, he’s usually got very little to lose. He’s an example of how a lack of addictions and dependencies can help a person explore life effectively.
Now that we have established the themes, there are some very interesting patterns to note here. On all the above axes, BoJack always appears on the extremes. This explains why the show is called “BoJack Horseman”. Todd is always on the other half of whichever side BoJack is, which explains their regular conflicts and difference of opinion. Mr. Peanutbutter and BoJack share the same side for the scales of Empathy and Addiction. This is certified by their inability to truly understand each other, but still bond over their vices and flaws. However, BoJack is the harshest critic of Mr. Peanutbutter’s obnoxious happiness, as shown by the polar opposition on the Depressive scale.
Diane’s depressive nature and excellence at empathy make her the best possible person to write BoJack’s biography. Them sharing the same side of the depressive scale, while opposing each other on the empathic one illustrates this pairing really well.
Princess Carolyn serves as a balance between the extremes of the other characters and is known for her ability to handle any challenge situation that is thrown at her. Her consistent position in the center is justified by her versatility and grit.
While the above dimensions help us better understand the characters, their behaviour and motivations; it is at best a generalization. The show is far more layered with meaning than what this post makes it out to be. For me, a re-watch always highlights some interesting perspective that I’d missed before or an amazing joke that I’d missed in the background. But I’ve always felt the above themes to be the core of the show and what really makes it worth a watch.
The show’s setting is Hollywood, but is humorously renamed to Hollywoo. This is after certain events in the show cause the last ‘d’ in the “Hollywood” sign to fall off. ↩