Editor’s Note: this post contains spoilers for BoJack Horseman season three. You’ve been warned!
Why aren’t we talking about BoJack Horseman more? No, seriously, you guys—why? It’s got everything we like: Netflix ease, crafty animation, a seriously impressive voice cast (and guest stars), and a ton of rumination on tough topics with a poignancy rarely ever achieved in film, let alone a 30-minute cartoon comedy. Plenty of people are watching, and there is the occasional poetical waxing from critics when new seasons premiere. However, where other series like Jessica Jones or Making a Murderer or Stranger Things had fever-pitch excitement, fan art, tribute videos, mash-ups, and heightened buzz in the days and weeks that followed their arrivals, the responses to BoJack Horseman are considerably smaller and more measured, though not lacking in praise.
Maybe it’s because we can’t talk about BoJack too much—it’s too personal, too raw, too real of an emotional minefield to really comment on. Its depiction of depression and mental illness in a world overstuffed with commercialism and Hollywood evangelism the perfect microcosm for self-reflection in a hilariously heightened setting. It’s comedy and tragedy without the comfort of time; it’s a show that lives in absurdity, one that is earnestly played and totally real.
Or maybe we can’t talk about BoJack Horseman because it’s better to experience it in isolation.
Think about an episode like season three’s “Fish Out of Water.” Underwater, alone, and doing press at the Pacific Ocean Film Festival, the entire 20-some-odd minutes is done in complete silence, providing us with a slice of life—and character development—that we never could have imagined for a narcissistic and self-loathing character like BoJack if he’d been on land. It’s a fish-out-of-water story set in water, and what it accomplishes is nothing short of astounding. After a series of comedically unfortunate events—he can’t drink, he can’t smoke, and he can’t even complain aloud to others—BoJack finds himself in charge of a newborn seahorse, and sets out to return the wee baby to its father (who had previously birthed him on the bus. Because male seahorses do that). For a show that’s usually chockablock with sharp, witty dialogue, it was undoubtedly a challenging concept to render in 2D animation, filled with Herculean efforts from the writers, director, and animators.
And yet they achieved greatness: giving us a one-off episode that actually informed—and changed—BoJack’s loneliness and regret. There is so much that is said/felt/expressed outside of words (in fact, sometimes words betray us in ways we never expect, want, or think that they could). Towards the end of the episode, the seahorse father asks—though we can never really understand anyone from the underwater world that talks; it’s as if everyone is the teacher from Charlie Brown, but with bubbles—what it is, exactly, that BoJack wants for the return of his son. This moment, without dialogue, takes on the sort of knowing intimacy of the feeling BoJack has: he doesn’t know what he wants—he never has, and maybe never will. If the episode had dialogue, it would have, perhaps, ruined a moment that, in its wordlessness, transcended its two dimensions into something incredibly real, heartfelt, deeply sad, and poignant.
He’s alone. As we all are, watching it. That loneliness from a lack of want for anything, renders us all speechless.
Another aspect of that episode’s narrative harkens back to last season, in which BoJack’s inability to communicate is brought to life in a more physical (rather than emotional) manner. Throughout the festival, BoJack continually tries to apologize to Kelsey Jannings, the director of Secretariat whom he got fired. In a comedy-of-errors sort of way, the show puts not only verbal, but physical obstacles, in his way—a manifestation of his own inability to be vulnerable and honest with the people in his life. He’s his own worst enemy, dragged further away by outside forces, most of the time willingly (if not subconsciously). Even when he finally gets the note to her, the words have been smudged and rendered illegible by the water in which they both wade. BoJack is a juxtaposition of the high and low brows of comedy, the personal and the physical, the forces both internal and external that shape our existence.
And that’s not exactly easy breezy dinner conversation.
Neither is the moment in episode 11, “That’s Too Much, Man!,” when Sarah Lynn dies in BoJack’s arms. Reflecting on his influence and impact on the troubled child actor-turned-pop-star, BoJack realizes the true significance of his actions. BoJack is not one to tell its lead, “It’s OK—there’s nothing you could’ve done to save her. She made her own choices.” In fact, BoJack forces the opposite by showing, at length, the ways in which BoJack’s bad behavior and shitty self-involvement actively changed Sarah Lynn’s life for the worse. (We told you this shit was heavy.) In refusing to take the soul-soothing salve way, BoJack the character is revealed to himself in ways he doesn’t like. Sinking further into misery—upon seeing a pack of wild horses—he decides that maybe he’d rather run, repeating toxic patterns and enabling bad behavior that brings this cycle back around again.
Imbuing an animated series about an anthropomorphic horse with fairly heavy stuff is unexpected, to be sure. But its the unexpectedness of BoJack‘s narrative—particularly when the show first began—that takes the viewer out of their comfort zone, destroying their preconceived notions, and creates a viewing experience that’s much more personal. In a world where we constantly livetweet, recap, and SnapChat our thoughts about every single thing we ingest, BoJack forces a much more internal discussion between subject and viewer. In BoJack’s inability to communicate we see our own missed opportunities in a new way; in his slapstick physical deterrents we see our own reliance on things which soothe our fragile feelings or help us to make a scapegoat for our problems. By removing flesh and blood from the equation, we experience something far more human than that which the physical could give us. It’s a lot to be asked of a cartoon show about a drunk and disorderly talking horse that used to star on a hokey sitcom, and it’s a lot to confront in the external, when so much of what its dealing with is internal.
So maybe we can’t talk about BoJack Horseman so much. Because we’re not supposed to. Just as we are alone in our own experiences and journeys through life, so is the act of watching BoJack, Princess Carolyn, Todd, Diane, Mr. Peanutbutter, and all the rest. Some things are meant to be experienced and felt, rather than discussed.