"The show about the depressive cartoon horse is making me cry again." That's the kind of glib wankery I tweet out whenever a new season of Bojack Horseman gets released. But it's not because Raphael Bob-Waksberg's examination of madness, self-destruction, and the deceptive nature of memory is so poetic, but because it manages to do all this by paying tribute to American television.
Bojack Horseman is a show obsessed with the tropes of family sitcoms, and how they offer an ideal version of lifestyle and familyhood. To get a sense of this you only need to hear the theme song for "Horsin' Around," the show within the show. The song condenses this atavistic desire to criticise and praise sitcoms into a 90 second gag: "laughin' and livin' and lovin' a lot, every day is a dreeeeam!"
When I interviewed Waksberg for VICE recently, I asked if it was difficult to navigate sitcom clichés when you are critiquing them and harnessing them in equal measure. As he explained, "We critique that stuff, but we also really do embrace it… I think it's very easy to dismiss them [sitcoms], and a lot of our show certainly does critique them, and show the cynicism of them...but I want to be very conscious that there is a beauty to them."
Horsin' Around, the sitcom of which Bojack was the Saget-esque star, plays throughout Bojack Horseman as an alternate universe dreamscape—one in which Bojack is placated by canned laughter and saccharine familial ties. For Bojack, TV and memory are one, and he is caught between the unreality of both. The first three seasons of Bojack were driven by the tension created by the longing for that idealised artifice and the knowledge that it as just that—a cyclical, unsatisfying, simulacrum.
Not all the characters in the show feel that way. For the character Herb Kazzaz, the talent and particular genius that it took for him and Bojack to make Horsin' Around a primetime hit seems to give him pride. But for Bojack, like many real-life comics turned sitcom stars, the artistic vacuity of the show became the centrifugal drive of his self-worth.
In this latest season, the show has arrived at the immediate and the personal after three seasons of pulling on this thread. Bojack's view of himself as a hack in the first three seasons has grown into the notion that he was not so much a hack in his art, but in his life. His paternal relationship to co-star Sarah Lynn has turned sexual and ultimately destructive, his resentment of Herb's vision has destroyed his only real friendship, while also eroding his relationship with Princess Caroline because to him, her faith in his talent denoted her stupidity.
For something animation-related, watch this VICE doco:
Mr. Peanutbutter—the penultimate hack—is the figure who reveals to Bojack that his self-loathing and stagnancy are within him, and not a product of his work. This season opens with Mr. Peanutbutter literally lucking into his stardom by virtue of his joyous stupidity. His journey isn't a torturous one laden with doubt like Bojack's. In season 3 Peanutbutter finally breaks from his easygoing oaf role to "get real" with Bojack: "You're a millionaire movie star with a girlfriend who loves you acting in your dream movie. What more could you want? What more could the universe possibly owe you?" he asks.
Bojack responds, "I want to feel good about myself the way you do. And I don't know how." This cathartic exchange—which had been a long time coming—arrives during an overproduced celebrity quiz show, directed by an emotionally manipulative JD Salinger. ("Now this is television! Turn on the rain!")
The show's arc has traced us from artistic-doubt to regular self-doubt in subtle gradations, and the further Bojack dives into the root of his self-hatred the larger the glowing warmth of Horsin' Around looms in the rearview mirror. Television has formed the basis of Bojack's visual imagination and ability to empathise, whether or not he sees or accepts that unreality is the great unspoken conflict throughout the show.
In this season, we see the roots of an internal crisis. It becomes intergenerational as we learn the history of Bojack's mother. The scrambling and internal editing of memory becomes a primordial force—essentially the show's villain (besides Jessica Biel)—as the show ties erosion of remembered lives into the form and function of sitcom narratives and cartoon imaginings. As we are reintroduced to Bojack's inward journey, we are taken on another: the hauntings of place by those who came before, his mother and her family.
As Bojack sets about mending his childhood home we pass through its erosion: Matthew Broderick's chipper patriarch echoes the refrain that "time's arrow marches on" as the family pass through romanticised banter to loss, grief, madness, and then implosion.
When we first meet Bojack's grandparents they are introduced like characters in a Hepburn/Grant caper—all the trappings of the perfect wartime American family as idealised in film and early sitcoms alike. Bojack's mother regresses into dementia via patchy flashbacks designed to resemble a Billy Wilder screwball or Douglas Sirk melodrama. And like Bojack with his sitcom, her visual memory is shaped by the kind of happiness presented to her in radio-dramas and double features. And also like Bojack, her self-hatred lies in trauma, which her illness releases from the medium of filmic-memory and into the pits of blinding grief. Bojack can pull this off spectacularly via the audacity of its design: the animation bends, tears, and warps along with our realisation that the past rarely matches the projections of our mind.
In Bojack Horseman our traumas and our past are entwined with the media we consume, or in Bojack's case, create. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. The show embraces the shmaltz of sitcoms like the one that shaped Bojack's identity because it believes that they are modern fables. They are ways of presenting our personal crisis via a universal text that also has a decent Nielsen score.
Memory, grief, nostalgia—the ways we experience these emotions are all irrevocably tied to the pop culture we absorb, love, and loathe. Bojack Horseman tells us that to reflect on the artifice within a family sitcom or a quiz show or a memoir is a way to reflect on oneself.
Time's arrow marches on, do not skip intro.
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