What Are You Doing Here?:  Flawed Heroes and BoJack Horseman and put all of that in bold after the colon

What Are You Doing Here?: Flawed Heroes and BoJack Horseman and put all of that in bold after the colon

Writing a review of BoJack Horseman is going to be hard.  Well, writing a good one, anyway.

It’s destined to be uneven.

While it sharply satirizes the foibles and trappings of fame in Hollywood, along with the crushing emptiness that can often accompany success, one season two episode also features seven different euphemisms for, and two deaths from, auto-erotic asphyxiation (Strangle the Dirty Dangle; The Blue-Faced Blast-Off; The Strokey Chokey; The Two-Neck Squeeze;  The one hand on the Adam’s apple, the other one’s on the Adam’s banana; Gasper; The Funky Spider-Man).

BoJack tackles depression with a deft, delicate touch and catches the nuances and stigma of what it’s like to live with the disease.  Then, when it comes to addressing the touchy subject of abortion, the writers went with an anthropomorphized dolphin pop star named Sextina Aquafina singing “Get Dat Fetus, Kill Dat Fetus [BRRAP BRRAP PEW PEW].

It’s a broad net to be sure.  How do you talk about something as serious as dementia in the same sentence as a ski race for the governorship of California?  It’s difficult, but we know it’s possible because they did it already.  And that ridiculousness is exactly what makes BoJack so great.

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In this new golden age of television, we have become almost obsessed with the idea of a flawed protagonist.  It used to be that we looked for our TV characters to be better than us.  There were more President Bartlett’s than Frank Underwoods. However, the more we watched, the more bored we became with characters who could deus-ex-machina their way out of any situation – without repercussion.  The world had become a more connected, and therefore more nuanced, place and the storytelling needed to start to reflect that evolution.

It’s hard to pin down where this began though it’s easy to blame the Internet if we assume that people’s access to the darker parts of the world at-large inspired more diverse stories.  That’s certainly part of it.  But the real culprit was the advent of cable TV,  and, specifically, HBO and The Sopranos.

This is a clear endpoint where we have openly objectionable leading men with hidden motives, untoward desires and insatiable hunger for power and control.  In any other context, or written differently, they would be villains – they still might be.  But we have made them into anti-heroes, men who sacrifice the moral high ground in the name of some greater good – real or imagined – and give up some of their perceived humanity in the process.

And this was not relegated to just long-form dramas like Breaking Bad, House of Cards or The Wire.  It also leaked into our comedies, which makes perfect sense.  There’s fertile ground for comedy in the idea of someone who is a complete asshole, but goes about his or her day completely unaware that they are an asshole.  Where we once had Seinfeld, we now find it’s spiritual successor, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.  These are people who are so self-interested, they would turn on each other in a moment’s notice, but we laugh because that selfishness hamstrings their success.  Where we once only had Homer Simpson as the lone animated patriarch, a dad who tried his best but failed anyway, we now have Rick Sanchez, a man brazenly open about his disdain for the concept of not just familial love, but love in general.

In the midst of all of this is where we find BoJack.  He has everything he has ever wanted – fame, money, recognition – but none of the happiness he thought would come with it.  A product of his own abusive upbringing, BoJack simply can’t allow himself to be happy.  Even though he despises the question, he is constantly asking himself “What’s Next?” or “Isn’t There More than This?”.  While those are excellent song titles, they’re not the existential crises you want floating through your head on a semi-regular basis.  Season 4 might not be the  total culmination of that journey, but its certainly a cresting point.

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I found BoJack Horseman the same way most people find any Netflix original programming: mindlessly scrolling through the options looking for something and simultaneously complaining that there isn’t anything.  The first episode concerns BoJack taking the last available grocery store muffins from Neil McBeal, a seal who is also a SEAL.  I ended up binging the entire first season in a single Saturday.  Having pumped $6 billion dollars into their original content, Netflix was bound to find some winners here and there.  But I think even they would not have forecasted that the animated series where a horse vomits cotton candy off a balcony would become a critical darling.

Voiced by Arrested Development‘s Will Arnett, the titular character is a horse and washed-up 90’s sitcom actor (think Bob Saget) living in a stately mansion in the Hollywood Hills. His show, Horsin’ Around, ran for nine seasons and was the tale of one horse who adopts three orphans and raises them himself.  It has now been off the air for almost twenty years, and BoJack has done nothing since, leaving him perpetually unhappy, constantly sleeping off a bender or working on his next one.

At the beginning of the first season, the main characters of Bojack’s story are quickly established.

  • Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), BoJack’s long-suffering agent and ex-girlfriend, a pink tabby cat with almost too much ambition to handle.
  • Todd (Aaron Paul), BoJack’s perpetually upbeat roommate and best friend, a squatter who came to one of BoJack’s parties and just….never left.
  • The forever optimistic Mr. PeanutButter (Paul F. Tompkins), a labrador retriever and actor who rose to fame on a Horsin’ Around rip off, Mr. PeanutButter’s House, and mistakenly believes he and Bojack are best friends.
  • Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), Mr. Peanutbutter’s girlfriend-cum-wife and Bojack’s ghostwriter turned confidant, who is probably just as lost and confused as Bojack, but much more reticent to admit it.

As much as this is a show about Bojack’s journey to self-love, it is also about each of his friends finding their own version of contentment.  Each wit their own growth and realizations, dealing with their own drama and neuroses.

At the end of season 3, BoJack was a lost man, er, horse.  His book had been a huge success, and he had “starred” in his dream project, Secretariat and his career was never going to be hotter. But he had never been more miserable, on the verge of committing vehicular suicide after shoving his friends away, one by one.  They had, frankly, grown tired of his shit- the constant negativity, poor decisions and predictable apologizing – not only because of how it affects him, but how much effort he puts into bring them down to wallow in it alongside him.  BoJack thinks of himself as toxic, and anathema to everything he touches.  So, he goes somewhere he thinks he will be alone – his grandparents’ Michigan summer home.

If there first three seasons were a path to his nadir, the fourth is a decided tick upward for Bojack, at least emotionally.  Upon finally returning to Hollywoo, he is introduced to a girl whom he believes to be his daughter, a nineteen year old horse named Hollyhock Mannheim-Mannheim-Guerrero-Robinson-Zilberschlag-Hsung-Fonzarelli-McQuack (which is the only time I will be writing out her name in its entirety).

Adopted by eight gay dads in a polyamourous relationship, Hollyhock believes Bojack to be her blood relative and is proven correct by a DNA test.  The remainder of the season is a look into Bojack desperately trying to keep his toxicity away from her.  He worries that it’s gotten to her already, coded deep within her genes like a bomb he planted himself.  The guilt might be completely manufactured, but its results are real as Bojack attempts to push her away.  He’s up front about it, but it doesn’t necessarily make it noble all of the sudden.

And just as Bojack is trying to figure himself out, so is Hollyhock, maybe even more so.  She has all the love she could ever want – eight dads! – but still feels like there is something missing, a hole that should be filled, smaller but identical to Bojack’s.  And as is customary, this is where the show takes a turn and finds its voice.  The writers weave together three generations of mental illness and depression through Hollyhock, BoJack and his mother, Beatrice, who eventually comes to live with them.  There is an equal helping of both nature and nurture in explaining why BoJack and Beatrice are who they are, and why BoJack is right to push Hollyhock away.  As Beatrice told him in season two, BoJack “comes by it honestly”, and so does Hollyhock.

Perhaps the best episode of season 4 is episode 6, “Stupid Piece of Shit”.  Featuring BoJack’s inner monologue and catastrophic imaginings, it literally illustrates how depression attacks a person’s will.  The disease, like a snake devouring its own tail, feeds on the misery it has created to sustain itself.  It is episodes like this one – that deftly weave together comedic tones with dramatic revelations – that the show hits its stride.  Bojack‘s writing team is as adept at the surreal and weird of a drug trip as they are with emotionally devestating scenes or animal puns.  It’s a bizarre cross-section, but all-together, it works.

This season seemed to focus less on our main characters interacting with BoJack so much as how they learned to operate without him.  Todd, for example, has spent so much of his time as a 20-something with no direction, that his pivot toward a more stabilized life made sense.  He resists labels, but labels mean distinction and direction.  In the first three seasons, Todd spent a majority of his time just existing and letting the world happen to him, describing his own life as “a series of loosely related mis-adventures.”  In season 4, Todd begins to realize that he has his own wants, needs and desires and maybe using labels for that is a step in the right direction – including coming out as asexual.

With BoJack off in Michigan, Todd is living with Mr. PeanutButter and Diane, the only couple to survive all three seasons thus far.  Alas, they were not meant to make it a fourth.  Their relationship had always been a bit of a conundrum – the logical, meticulous, considered Diane with the happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care Mr. PeanutButter.  That came to a head this season as Mr. PB ran for governor of California – a farce by definition from its inception (“YES WE MIGHT!”).

To appeal to voters, Mr. PeanutButter starts to take positions that challenge Diane’s, ideologically, including leasing their house out for fracking.  At first, this results in more passion than they’ve had in months, but the crash back to Earth was all but inevitable.  This is highlighted in an ultimately uneven episode 5 “Thoughts and Prayers”.  Tackling gun control, and mirroring the ideas employed by Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt months earlier, the episode ultimately almost feels too heavy handed.  While it serves to highlight the growing schism in Diane and Mr. PB’s relationship – they literally give dueling talking heads to MSNBSea right after sex – the message doesn’t land like it did with previous Diane-centric episodes (“Hank After Dark”, “Brrap Brrap Pew Pew”).

The implosion of their relationship ultimately came down to reality versus fantasy.  Diane’s ability to project fantasy is what kept her going, committed even when she knew better.  Mr. PeanutButter can make any reality into a fantasy.  When his agent dies and he finds himself on the verge of financial ruin, he just gets a job at a Lady FootLocker and loves it.  His tireless optimism is his defining character trait so when he proclaims his love for Diane, he means it.  When she says it, it’s more hopeful.  She knows she can, and she wants to, but it takes so much more effort because of how different they are.  That’s typified by their magic eye poster discussion in the season 4 finale, “What Time Is It Right Now”.  Mr. PeanutButter could just stare at that poster for hours – maybe seeing nothing, seeing as dogs are color blind, but still always looking for the magic.  He’s the guy trying to put a square peg in a round hole in perpetuity, continually shouting “It’ll fit, it’ll fit!””  Diane is going to be squinting, focusing, straining herself to see what’s meant to be there, longer than she should and to her own detriment, but at some point she’s going end up exactly where she is now – “tired of squinting”.

Diane and BoJack are drawn to each other in that way.  They are always looking for more.  Diane’s “Belle room”, and BoJack’s Oscar “nomination” are proof of that.  They believe their lives are better lived in the hypothetical.  For Princess Carolyn, it’s the opposite.  She wants to have it all, but the key difference is she knows exactly what her “all” is.  The issue is where and when she’s willing to compromise to maintain it all.  She wants to be good at her job, respected as a manager/agent (what’s the difference again?), and start a family.  It’s the latter that’s giving her issues, now.  She’s gone from dating BoJack to Vincent Adultman, literally three children in a trenchcoat, to the adulterous Rutabaga Rabbittowitz.  So, it was a welcome change to see her with someone who actually cared about her in the “mousy” Ralph Stilton.  Given that she was literally a cat dating a mouse, it was telegraphed that this would end in disaster.  However, the revelation of Princess Carolyn’s continued miscarriages and issues conceiving were altogether unexpected.  It helps to explain her character, always mothering those around her and fixing their problems in an effort to allay her fears that she may never fix her own.

That belies the great tragedy for all of the BoJack characters.  Often, the people who are happiest are those not looking for anything in particular, making the best of any situation, like Todd and Mr. PeanutButter.  The minute they set out to do or achieve anything, they fail spectacularly.  Their reactions to it inform their paths from there.  BoJack and Diane default into self-destruction, while their better halves re-group, and solider on as if nothing happened.  Princess Carolyn is a wildcard, vascillating between each option.

The message or theme – insofar as there is one – seems to be that we have to cherish our victories, little and small even if the disappointments and missed opportunities sting more, and linger longer.  It is OK to lean on others for strength, but don’t make your burdens theirs to carry.  We are not our misfortunes, only our reactions to them.  In that way, when the credits finally roll, we can at least write our own story.

“Back in the 90s, I was in a very famous TV show….”

REVIEW: 9.5/10

EASTER EGGS (SPOILERS BELOW):

After crashing his Tesla through the living room and into his pool at the end of season 3, BoJack’s patio door/window is broken in the opening credits.

The premiere episode of season 4 is the first of the series that does not feature BoJack at all.  It also has unique end credits with lyrics focused, instead, on Mr. PeanutButter.

The show only uses the expletive ‘fuck‘ once per season.  In seasons 1-3, it is always directed at BoJack (by Herb Kazzaz, Charlotte and Todd). Season 4 is the first time it is not.

Every season we hear Diane’s ringtone at least once, always featuring a different NPR personality.  Season 1 was Ira Glass, season 2 was Serial’s Sarah Koenig, season 3 was Terry Gross and Jonathan Lethem, while season 4 featured Audie Cornish and Robert Siegel.

We get to see that Todd decided against having his season 1 prison tattoos removed, and just edited it to “LAtin Kings” and “SKINny jugHEADS”

Hollywoo continues to have the most literal banner printers in the universe.

This is the first season that does not feature an extended flashback sequence (for BoJack) and, as such, there is no decade-centric theme song.

In season 2, Diane is a script supervisor on the set of Bojack’s movie Secretariat.  She is tasked with making sure no one trips over a camera wire, but doesn’t do so, resulting in an on-set accident involving an intern’s face and hot coffee.  The injured girl, who has now had a face transplant, makes at least one appearance in each subsequent season.

Season four guest stars who voiced versions of themselves include Zach Braff, Vincent D’Onofrio, Paul Giamatti,, Tim Gunn, Sopranos creator David Chase, Felicity Huffman, Sir Mix-a-Lot, and Jessica Biel.  Biel actually asked writers to be harsher after her season 3 appearance, believing they had been too soft.

Other guest voices include Keith Olbermann, Andre Braugher, Marc Jacobs, Rami Malek, Lin-Manuel Miranda, RuPaul, Natalie Morales, Lake Bell, Matthew Broderick, Hannibal Burress, Jane Krakowski, Wendie Malick, and Aparna Nancherla.

There is a call-back in the season 4 finale to Mr. PeanutButter’s earlier work as a spokesman for Seaborn Formula imitation seahorse milk, first seen in season 3’s “Fish Out of Water”.

Todd identifies as asexual for the first time in season 4.  During episode 3, “A Todd Episode!  Hooray!” he mistakenly becomes the face of Sharc Jacobs fashion line.  By season’s end, everyone is wearing his trademark outfit, Todd having now “reproduced”, asexually.

In the first episode, “BoJack Horseman: The BoJack Horseman Story, Chapter One”, BoJack goes on a rant about how much he hates honeydew in fruit salads.  In the final scene of season 4’s finale, Hollyhock has a similar complaint.

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