There’s an old adage in the realm of television sitcoms: status quo is god. The format of weekly television has historically limited the creative options for television writers. A sitcom is a product, even more than film or dramatic television. Viewers expect to tune in every week to see the same people in similar hilarious situations. A change in the status quo can ruin a sitcom. If the relationships between the main characters are changed, it dramatically shifts the way the series has to be written from that point on. Difficulties can come up quickly when you consider screen-time requirements for certain characters. Keeping it safe is imperative, which is why serious changes are often ret-conned or pushed off for as long as possible. Countless shows have been ruined after romantic tension is resolved in their key relationship. If we grade the forms of film on a scale of commercialism, sitcoms rate just ahead of soap operas. They are much more product than art, due mostly to the limitations of the business model.
The Netflix model, however, allows Bojack Horseman to do something completely different. A binge-able show is a very different proposition than a weekly series, and allows for greater creative freedom. I don’t want to praise Netflix too much, since I don’t think they necessarily have an edge on creative talent. It is by the nature of their business model–not the inherent quality of their programming–that they’re able to give creators more freedom.
Several critics have assigned Bojack Horseman the moniker of “sadcom”, since it appears to be a comedy but deals with darker elements and a continuous (somewhat tragic) story-line. While it’s true Bojack is possibly darker than it is funny, I think the sadcom term is an oversimplification. Bojack Horseman is in fact, the anti-sitcom.
Bojack Horseman is the story of a horse who was a successful actor mostly known for playing the title role on a popular 90’s sitcom. Bojack has spent the last twenty years or so as a washed up alcoholic, much to the dismay of his agent and longtime friend, a cat named Princess Carolyn. In a bid at regaining his relevance, Bojack hires a young writer named Dianne (who happens to be dating Bojack’s clueless nemesis, Mr. Peanut Butter) to ghost-write his memoir. The show is a vibrantly realized critique of Hollywood and the nature of stardom, but at its core it is a fully-realized character study of a pathetic but relateable anthropomorphic horse.
Most shows take a few episodes to come into their own, but in the case of Bojack Horseman, it takes about eight before it becomes clear what the show is. There are good things to hang onto in the early episodes, but it would be a lie to say they aren’t a bit of a grind. Bojack’s blase attitude towards his own self-destructive behavior seems like a tired nihilistic throwaway joke. The show appears shallow at first, but is actually just biding its time developing the characters and situations rather than cramming it all into a pilot episode. We start to realize the show is different when we see Bojack suffering the long-term consequences of his actions. Episode 8 changes everything, and makes us start to understand how deeply and truly broken Bojack is. Perhaps more importantly, it lets us know that this show is going to explore his inner turmoil, rather than simply exploiting it. He isn’t Peter Griffin or Cartman or Archer. He’s a complex character who’s motivations and behaviors all have deep-seated explanations. The status quo changes on a near-constant basis, but the central conflict never changes: Bojack is unhappy.
Before I go any deeper into the dramatic elements of Bojack that make it so unique, I want to reiterate how strong the comedic aspect of the show is. This show is funny, even in darker episodes. Refreshingly, the comedy comes in many disparate forms. Sight gags, social commentary, one-liners, throwaway gags, subtle fourth-wall breaks and endless background jokes all make appearances, in addition to the expected situational comedy. One of the best tricks the show plays is cutting the punch-line out of the joke. Instead of directly drawing attention to something, a line will imply the joke without outright stating it.
For example, in the episode “Let’s find out” we meet a mouse named Mia McKibbin. We know this is her name because she says “my name is Mia McKibbin” as part of an expository diatribe when we first meet her character. Rather than a character in universe pointing out how forced and expository her dialogue is, she puts in a line that makes no sense with the rest of her lines to subtly break the fourth wall and critique the lazy exposition of Aron Sorkin type dramas without drawing too much attention to the fact they’re making a meta-joke.
The sight gags involving animal characters are also among the funniest in the show. The show never explains why most (but not all) of the characters are anthropomorphic animals. For the most part, it doesn’t appear to affect their daily lives, yet they do share characteristics with their real-life counterparts. For instance, anthropomorphic birds are able to fly by flapping their arms, despite physics suggesting they’d have no better luck with this than the fully human characters.
Bojack Horseman exploits the way other adult cartoons have trained your brain to respond. When something horrible happens to a cartoon character, we expect it to be undone or ignored immediately. A bad decision leads to hi-jinks, may or may not result in a lesson and is forgotten by the next episode–that’s the status quo for most adult cartoons. Bojack explicitly subverts this. In the early episodes, Bojack appears to make the kind of decision that leads to throwaway hi-jinks, but later episodes call back to and examine the consequences of his short-sighted actions. By the second season the viewer is trained to remember details, since the impact of any choice could come back to bite Bojack. Every one of Bojack’s hedonistic benders comes with an appropriately painful hangover.
But Bojack isn’t the only complicated and compelling character. Princess Carolyn, Todd, Dianne and even Mr. Peanut Butter are nuanced and realistic people. In the third season it struck me how deeply I’d come to care about everyone in the main cast. In most TV shows my attachment to a character is directly related to how entertaining they are, or the ways the show would change without them. My anxiety related to character deaths is usually more connected to the ensuing quality of episodes rather than my ability to believe in them as actual humans. Without losing focus, Bojack Horseman manages to be a character study with multiple subjects. Imagine the characters of your average sitcom are acquaintances you see on occasion and enjoy a light but enjoyable evening with. The characters of Bojack Horseman are lifelong friends you know everything about but love anyway (no matter how self-destructive they might be).
So let’s go back to sitcoms. The one thing that most sitcoms have in common is certainty. These people will be back, behaving in similar ways in similar situations every single week. Any changes that happen will not undermine the basic conceit of the show. In contrast, Bojack is defined most by its uncertainty. We are uncertain if Bojack will ever be fulfilled, or if fulfillment is even possible. When he tries to make amends for his mistakes, he repeatedly makes things worse, leaving us uncertain if his redemption could ever occur or what it would look like. The very nature of life and existence are questioned, and any potential answers are repeatedly cast into doubt. Bojack tries desperately to latch onto a meaning or purpose, but his own cynicism prevents him from committing to any direction, as his potential pathways close off one by one. Where the average sitcom is designed to live forever, Bojack flies headlong towards the inevitability of its own death. The show, much like Bojack’s lifestyle is unsustainable. And yet, just when the situation reaches its darkest point, we get a glimmer of hope.
All of this results in a story I don’t think we’ve ever seen before. It isn’t a fall from grace, since Bojack is washed up from the start. So far it hasn’t been an inspiring comeback story either, since things have arguably only gotten worse. It isn’t arrested development, since Bojack has grown, no matter how much he backslides. The show is unflinchingly mature. No victory is cheap or easy, and they mainly end up hollow. The uncertainty and ever-changing nature of the show makes it totally unique. How and where Bojack’s story will end is truly impossible to say, which makes me all the more desperate for Season 4.