Hollywoo Babylon: Bojack Horseman and the End of TV’s Golden Age

One of the few silver linings of the otherwise atrocious situation we all have found ourselves in is that I was able to watch Netflix’s Bojack Horseman from beginning to end over two months rather than 6 years. Watching it as it came out, I appreciated the show but I don’t think the full scale of what was accomplished there came into relief until now.

During this article, when I write BH I’m talking about the show, when I write out Bojack Horseman I’m talking specifically about the character.

This review is gonna contain a lot of spoilers, and the show is very much worth watching. So if you haven’t seen it, go watch it and come back. The article will still be here.

Anyway, BH’s bizarre mixture of tones and techniques made for a confusing show at the outset. We have the tropes of the dark male anti-hero with a terrible childhood of Mad Men or The Sopranos (Breaking Bad’s largest formal innovation honestly was probably its complete lack of interest in Walter White’s childhood). There’s a long-suffering female character, Princess Caroline, whose relationship to the protagonist veers uncomfortably between relating to the protagonist like a lover or their mother. The protagonist then does bad things and we’re expected to explore perhaps our favorite conflict as a culture-how do we deal with people who we find personally likeable who do bad things, especially when that person is us?

But while engaging the tropes of the live action anti-hero TV drama, we’re also thrust into a brightly colored world filled with an enormous volume of background gags a la The Simpsons. We have things that begin to suggest parody or meta-criticism. The opening sequence, an animation of Bojack falling from a great height into his pool, is obviously supposed to evoke the opening of Mad Men while also evoking the opening of Sunset Boulevard. Yet at the same time, we’re looking at a cartoon horse, and, already being very familiar with the Mad Men opening, it feels somewhat ridiculous. Bojack’s sidekick Todd, voiced by the man who played Walter White’s sidekick Jesse on Breaking Bad, makes the initial impression of being a sort of riff on Jesse. Other examples of tonally diffused pastiche abound. By bringing all these self-aware elements into the tent, the show is very much a reckoning with the latest golden age of TV, what it actually all meant, and what that golden age has wrought.

The merger of animation absurdism with dark psychological realism seems like it shouldn’t work because on paper because the functional mechanisms of each would seem to clash. We take the darkness of the psychology of TV drama somewhat seriously because of the grounded tone of the programs right? Absurdist humor in that context would seem to suggest a lack of respect for the struggles of the characters and their trauma right?

This problem has tripped up many comedic and dramatic shows that have attempted to go into serious or dark territory-as a writer you don’t want to give the sense of disliking your characters especially when the audience is supposed to find them relatable. At best you need to leave them ambiguous, or as in the case of The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, implicate and then scold the viewer for their relating to the protagonist. But then you have a different problem: scolding in a power fantasy tends to just underline the powerlessness of the person doing the scolding and powerful qualities of the transgressor. Both of those shows could be very funny, but the humor wasn’t an expected occurrence and as such is consumed by the viewer as gravy in between weightier things. We relate to the characters of Tony Soprano and Walter White in certain ways, but we’re never given much ambiguity as to whether they’re bad people or not-they’re both very much terrible people.

Depending on how the TV industry deals with COVID-19, we could be looking at the end of TV’s second golden age. If this is the case, then BH is the epilogue to this period; one could say the golden age of TV began with the debut of The Simpsons and it may have ended with the BH finale. And even if we do get another show that’s as good, I’m not sure any other show could summarize, reflect, and move forward from that period as brilliantly as BH. The world building of The Simpsons meets the dark psychology of the anti-hero drama; the cultural optimism of the 90s is put in relief with the US decline of the 2010s; the innocuous but wholesome values we all told ourselves we held weren’t held very deeply or adopted with much consideration. The promise of a utopia made out of domestic boredom with slight hiccups, the bill of goods sold by the 80s and 90s family sitcom, turns out to be a barely functional repression of the id. When Bojack sees his fictional daughter for the first time, he goes on a bender and has wildly inappropriate sexual relations with her. We escape into boredom but long to get in trouble. Generally we lack the resources to get into too much trouble. But Bojack Horseman doesn’t.

The interior of the domestic home is probably the most potent and evocative symbol in the TV medium. This is the case for a number of reasons, primarily because it is while situated in the home that TV most resembles a wavy and distorted Narcissus mirror of the physical conditions where we consume TV. Technical limitations led to most early TV being relegated to one or two backdrops, one of which was almost always a recreated kitchen or living room on a studio set. This living room or kitchen is generally far more clean, orderly, and unchanging than the living rooms and kitchens of our actual homes. This living room is missing a wall because it exists to be observed. No one actually lives there.

In BH we have two primary “house” locations that constitute the world of Bojack-#1 we have the place elsewhere that was never actually real, can easily be projected onto, and ergo is the place most favored by Bojack, namely the Horsin’ Around set. #2 we have Bojack’s actual home. To further bring this contrast home, the majority of instances where we see the Horsin’ Around set, we’re also treated to reverse shots of a drugged up Bojack sitting alone in his giant mansion.

Bojack’s own house is extremely symbolic. We have the shelter of the house itself, the pool (which, if we experience the water shortage issues I think we’re going to, is going to look more and more potent as a sign of hedonistic self-indulgence) and then a giant cliff looking out into the stars the show uses to represent the void. We’re given few symbolic markers of death throughout the show but numerous symbolic markers of nothingness. The nothingness is the scary part of both life and death. Death is not going to provide the narrative closure and catharsis we want from this narrative.

Whenever we’re shown the inside of any other house besides Mr Peanutbutter’s, its usually to explore some aspect of Bojack’s desire both to self-destruct and to return to the domestic simplicity of childhood he never got to experience. This is most notable in the storyline where Bojack goes to New Mexico and stays with the family of an old friend for months. He gets some taste of what a functional family feels like. But ultimately its not his family. He doesn’t really have a family. He can’t handle the cognitive dissonance of knowing he finally got what he wanted but its on loan. He self-destructs yet again and leaves because he wants to have control over the heartbreak of his inevitably having to leave anyway.

That this self-sabotage takes the form of trying to have sex with the mother and then the daughter suggests heavy Freudian overtones-that Bojack’s healing from his abusive mother, at least in Bojack’s mind, needs to take the form of both radical acceptance he’s never going to get and violation of society’s norms and rules as revenge for his perception society abandoned him. Or, as he tends to put it, “nobody cares about me.” In a nihilistic rejection of society comes a profound sense of loneliness and lack but also brief feelings of incredible yet fleeting power; you’re alone but you can do what you want in brief moments because in your own eyes the social contract has been voided. There’s never an actual sense of ease, but brief surges of feeling powerful by violating social codes give a fleeting and illusory sense of control. When, as in the case of Bojack, there is no normal to return to, no equilibrium to reach, this can be a tempting proposition.

If we zoom out and take a macro view, Bojack’s self-indulgent excess in the face of extravagant wealth and good fortune can be seen as a metaphor for the decline of the US generally. The collective we were on top of the world for a long time. Many of us were granted material comforts that in prior centuries would’ve only been given to kings. Yet we continue to squander what’s left of this windfall in self-destructive posturing, and feel miserable doing so. We can’t replace the things we never got from other people with objects. And I think that narrative has played itself out enough where we don’t genuinely believe it anymore. But we don’t have an alternative thing to replace them with, so we keep trying to make the objects do it like a cargo cult. If the US is truly the greatest country on Earth, then why is our most substantial domestic product escapism?

Bojack is beloved by millions but feels unloved. Bojack has all the possessions you could ever want but all he feels is lack. In earlier anti-hero shows, there was, amidst all the moral posturing, hints you could potentially have it all. Tony Soprano is never really happy, but he can indulge in food, sex, and recreational consumerism as much as he wants. Walter White was gonna die anyway, but before he goes he gets to live out his Scarface fantasy and redeem himself by killing Nazis. On the sitcom side, the most superficially similar show to Bojack ever made, You’re the Worst, featured a finale where the friend Jimmy has abused goes out of his way to make sure Jimmy’s happy, and depression magically cures itself and love conquers all with some technical differences from the standard issue fantasy. There are moments of reckoning, but a fear that too harsh a reckoning will alienate the audience. TV wants us to know it personally but not so much as it wants to be liked.

Genuine happiness in the midst of rampant self-indulgence is impossible, yet our culture’s go-to self medication for feeling unhappy is rampant self-indulgence. And at the height of US imperialism abroad, this was almost taken as a sign of pride-we’re unhappy, we work too much, but we have cooler stuff than everywhere else and the reassurance that, through privilege, things will generally be fine even if we aren’t happy. In some cases, misery and stress are seen as points of pride, signs that one is on the level. A stressed out person with a nice house is seen as admirable, a relaxed person on the verge of homelessness is seen as a leech.

The split final season of BH is the first TV anti-hero reckoning that has come since the US finally accepted it was in decline and it shows. A once arrogantly proud and powerful creature has run out of options; he looks forward at us with his back to the stars and the void. He’s still here, but the idea of himself is dead without any promise of rebirth, the rituals he used to comfort himself and assert control have lost whatever potency they had. His self-indulgence didn’t lead to excitement or adventure-it didn’t make life at least heightened if unpleasant. It just scared away the people who cared about him and ruined him financially. The prior anti-hero reckonings meet their own meta-reckoning.

Season 6B of BH also extends the exploration of the social values hidden in tropes back to the 1930s with an extended riff on the first ever romantic comedy, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. In this movie, as in many 30s screwball comedies, a fast talking but extremely charismatic rogue is presented to a woman who’s engaged to a guy who’s nice enough but boring. In season 6B of BH we’re introduced to two reporter characters who are absurd caricatures of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. They act out riffs on various scenes from the film. Meanwhile, we’re given two romantic resolutions that stand as direct criticisms of the It Happened One Night values.

When Diane meets literal Chicago Bull and future husband Guy, I don’t think any viewers would say he’s actually that interesting or compelling. Honestly he’s kinda boring. But he’s stable and supportive. And Diane only escapes her cycle of self destructive behavior by realizing the thing that’s less exciting is better for her, and that she has to reject the thing hurting her (Bojack) even if she probably loves and understands Bojack more than she does Guy. To further underline this point, Bojack’s agent Princess Caroline, who begins the series in an extremely unfulfilling romantic relationship with Bojack, ends the series by marrying the least Bojack-like character on the series, Jonah.She begins the series thinking her only value is as a caregiver but eventually, like Diane, realizes it not an awful thing she needs someone to take care of her too.

A thing they tell you in therapy that isn’t discussed much outside therapy is that dysfunction is very compelling and exciting. Often moreso than the alternative. You know its bad for you but you feel almost bodily compelled to stay like when you accidentally touch electrical current. Your brain releases strong chemicals like adrenaline and conditions your supply on getting hooked into repetitions of the dysfunction. But like electrical current, there’s a lot pain and a large price to pay if you can’t pry yourself away.

The fact that our cultural golden age of TV production was so obsessed with redeeming or at least empathizing with awfulness and violence while exalting entertainment value as a moral value in and of itself was telling. And in denying Bojack the dramatic catharsis of death, thereby damning him to continuing to live with his mess, BH both stands as an all-time high water mark of the anti-hero genre and delivers its eulogy.

 

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