Love Letter to Bojack Horseman

Back in the 90’s I was in a very famous TV show
I’m BoJack the horse
BoJack the horse
Don’t act like you don’t know

And I’m trying to hold on to my past
It’s been so long I don’t think I’m gonna last
I guess I’ll just try and make you understand
That I’m more horse than a man
Or I’m more man than a horse

I recently finished watching the third season of Bojack Horseman, and I have to say, this show is brilliant.  It’s funny, it’s silly, it’s deep, it’s therapeutic.  It’s the story of a half-horse, half-man comedian who, as the oddly haunting theme song exposits, had a very successful banal sitcom in the nineties called Horsin’ Around. The show made him rich and successful, but he is haunted by his inability to recapture the magic of that early success.  In other words, BoJack Horseman is a show about the particular pains of middle age.

First world problems, you say?  Why yes, the trevails of an obscenely wealthy misanthrope may seem to be unworthy of your scarce prestige tv-viewing time, even if he is half-horse and half-man and is voiced by the brilliant and unsparing Will Arnett.  But hear me out.  The show’s emotional range is bigger than anything else on television.  The show’s humor includes ridiculous dumb jokes about its many animal characters, like how Mr. Peanut Butter, a yellow labrador retriever, drives his car with his head hanging out the window, tongue out, face radiating pure joy.  It also includes sharp satire of entertainment and celebrity culture, as in the episode in which Mr. Peanut Butter’s wife Diane accidentally tweets that she is going to have an abortion, but because she’s got a gig writing tweets for celebrity pop star killer whale Sextina Aquafina, she actually tweets that Sextina is getting an abortion, and hilarity ensues as Sextina rides the wave of social media approval that goes with her owning her fictive abortion.  And with emotional clarity, the show manages to represent the urgency of Diane’s need to end her pregnancy, the tenderness of Mr. Peanut Butter’s feelings for Diane, the absurdity of a culture in which the extremely privileged can be celebrated for pretending to have the struggles of ordinary people, and the continued relevance of women’s right to control their own bodies.

Much of the show is about the divide in the world between two types of people: those like BoJack and Diane who lead lives of quiet, overthinking desperation and those like Mr. Peanut Butter and Todd, Bojack’s houseguest/entourage/hanger-on, who are just along for the ride.  (Which camp am I in? Do you even have to ask?) Todd joins up with Mr. Peanut Butter to launch an ride-sharing service called Cabracadabra when a girlfriend mentions that as a woman she is sometimes creeped out by her Uber drivers.  In another beautiful moment of social satire, Todd tells Mr. Peanut Butter, “Turns out there’s a huge demand for a safe space for women — WHO KNEW???”  This plotline celebrates the cluelessness of corporate masculinity, as Todd decides that their safe ride-sharing service for women should move into the untapped market of male consumers, but first they need to hire more sexy drivers to attract their new target rider… and hilarity ensues.  Dark, feminist hilarity (a.k.a. the best kind).

A lot of the show builds on the contrast between Bojack and Mr. Peanut Butter, who also had a successful sitcom in the nineties called Mr. Peanut Butter’s House.  According to Bojack, that show was a pale imitation of Horsin’ Around, but that doesn’t seem to bother Mr. Peanut Butter, who, true to his lab personality, is just happy to be Bojack’s – and everyone’s – friend.  While Bojack ruminates about the hollowness of fame and obsesses about whether his life is of value and has a romantic interest in Mr. Peanut Butter’s girlfriend-then-wife, Mr. Peanut Butter just greets each day as proof of the goodness of the universe.  Bojack yearns for another career success, but he agonizes that nothing he does will ever be good enough.  Mr. Peanut Butter, on the other hand, would seem to have all the same problems as Bojack, yet he’s content to keep working on commercially successful drivel, hosting a reality show called, J. D. Salinger Presents: Hollywoo Stars and Celebrities! What Do They Know? Do They Know Things? Let’s Find Out! 

Why “Hollywoo”? In an early episode of the show Bojack steals the D from the Hollywood sign as a grand gesture for Diane, thus turning Hollywood into Hollywoo for the rest of the show.  All of the characters can be broken down by the extent to which they recognize and are troubled by the hypocrisy and emptiness of Hollywoo.  Bojack is troubled to the point of being immobilized, as is Diane.  Princess Carolyn, Bojack’s cat-agent, understands the machinations of Hollywoo as a grand game that she chooses to play, until she doesn’t anymore.  Most of the minor characters appear to willfully ignore the bullshit because the promise of success is a trade-off they’re more than happy to make.  And there’s Kelsey, a smart indie film director who refuses to surrender her intellect and integrity.  Kelsey is visibly wearied and worn down by the system, but continues to work within it using anger and bitterness as her outlet.  The show poses the question, if you are sensitive enough to see the cracks in the system, how do you continue to exist hoping to find fulfillment and meaning within that system?

So you see, it’s not just about Hollywoo, it’s actually about the human condition.  (Does anyone even say that anymore? Whatever, bear with me.)  I don’t know how you watch this show if you are under the age of 30, or 35, or 40, or 45.  You could enjoy the goofy animal jokes and the sharp satire, but how do you understand BoJack’s predicament if you are not conscious being in what Richard Rohr calls the Second Half of Life?  Rohr writes that the first half of life is the part where you build your identity, your career, and your place in the world.  This is utterly necessary and part of the human drive to have security and a sense of self.  The second half is the part where you interrogate the meaning of it all, where you face tragedy, loss, fall from grace.  I can’t quite swallow Rohr’s argument whole – after all, there’s plenty of existential contemplation in the first half of life.  But there’s something that happens to a person at a certain age, once the career path is set, the children are birthed/not birthed, relationships settle down/unravel, and one stops creating and producing for long enough to look in the mirror and face uncomfortable truths and questions.  If any of these strike a chord, you may be in the second half of life:

  • Your human needs are largely met – for food, shelter, love, stability, social support, and yet you wonder what your purpose is.
  • You have attained your goals for creating a family, a home, a career but are uncertain about how these became your goals.
  • You wonder whether you should have aimed higher, succeeded more fully, or taken a different path.
  • You wonder whether you have lived up to what you were meant to be and whether the world is better off for having you in it.
  • You wonder how you could be a more generous parent, friend, spouse, daughter, sister, colleague, intellectual to the people and world that you love with all your heart.
  • You have been so many things to meet the needs of so many different people and institutions that you wonder which is the authentic self.
  • You have to decide what to do with the rest of your life, and the path that you are on, even if it has served you well, may not be quite right.

I have a special dispensation for all of this navel-gazing, by the way.  It’s called “the cancer card.” It gives me license to live with my nose pressed up against the windshield of my own mortality (to borrow and mutilate a phrase from Susan Gubar’s wonderful memoir).  But I’d be lying if I said these thoughts weren’t lurking in the edges of my consciousness before my diagnosis.

Or maybe you don’t worry about any of this.  Maybe you’re more like Mr. Peanut Butter, who tells Diane, “Sweetie, you know I support you, whatever you want to do, but you’re not gonna find what you’re looking for in these awful made-up places. The universe is a cruel, uncaring void. The key to being happy isn’t a search for meaning. It’s to just keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually, you’ll be dead.”

Bojack’s own spiritual and psychological darkness does not stop him from pursuing and achieving continued career success, as he lands his dream role playing Secretariat and earning critical acclaim.  It’s his personal life that suffers.  In Season 3 we watch Bojack attempt to reach out to the important people in his life with authentic caring.  He tries to have a grown-up relationship and has moments of genuine grace when he moves toward accepting his past self, acknowledging the mix of pride and shame that he has for his early work on Horsin’ Around.  But the strain of caring for others is ultimately too much for BoJack and the season ends with a tragedy and BoJack’s life once again in shambles. As the brilliant Emily Nussbaum observed, “It does what ‘BoJack Horseman’ does best, allowing the most heartbreaking parts of life to leach into the genre that’s meant to soothe them.”

Except I’m not sure that Nussbaum has it right.  The absurd elements of BoJack are not just the spoonful of honey that makes the existentialism go down.  They are more like a door offering passage to truth and maybe even redemption.  They pose the question, How can you be so hard on yourself when you are making your way in such a ridiculous and nonsensical world?  We live in absurd times.  We live in a time when the leader of the most powerful nation on earth regularly lies, defames, and spreads hatred for fun and profit. It’s enough to break your heart, but joking about it allows us the consolation of seeing that we are not alone as we carefully pick our way towards a reconciliation with ourselves.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver