There is no doubt that Bojack Horseman is one of the funniest and yet simultaneously most devastating shows on television. And it doesn’t even go around just (SPOILERS) killing off our favorite characters. (There must be a statistic somewhere about death ratios in Quality Television series.) How do the creators of Bojack pull it off without hemorrhaging animals?
Clearly they have devised some trickery that devastates us over and over.
The key lies in find a framework, spun from the first episode of the show itself. The words spoken by playwright Jill Pill about the main character in her tragedy, “Gary Kinglear,” suffice to lay this framework. Through Pill, we have the key to understanding Bojack—the horse-man and the show.
“It’s that he’s a marionette. And he doesn’t even know someone else is pulling his strings.” — Jill Pill
In a show of hints and double meanings, it is a line too on-the-nose to be advice to Bojack himself. So what if it’s advice to us, the show’s audience? Let’s examine how the show manipulates us, like marionettes, to feel the devastation we keep feeling when the shit inevitably hits the fan. It takes a second viewing to sink your fangs into this theory—animal pun intended—but it’s worth the double-round of tears and emptiness. Right? Maybe?
Anyway, I’m watching it twice that way you don’t have to. And there is much to see the second time around.
Before we dive in—more on that phenomenal episode in another post—there is a cinematic concept that will be valuable to us. It is (a slight revision) of Hitchock’s theory of suspense.
Hitchcock says, in a nutshell, that you can create tension by telling your audience what’s going to happen before it happens, but keeping it a secret from the characters. For instance, an ordinary dinner conversation becomes quite tense if the audience knows that beneath the table a bomb is set to explode. My revision here is that, rather than tell them the bomb *will* go off, you tell them that it is faulty and *might* go off.
The key is that the extra instability: it gives the audience just enough wiggle room to hope… and therefore be truly let down. Sound familiar?
Comedy, suspense, storytelling, all these things hinge on that which is unexpected but inevitable. The unforseen twist that couldn’t have happened any other way always takes the cake.
Like the finale of this third season. (Now there will be real spoilers.) Bojack Horseman stares across grass plains from his car as a pack of wild cowboy-horses runs freely in the wind. If I told you that there was a painting of this exact scene in the first episode in Bojack’s hotel room in New York… would you believe me? Take a peek for yourself.
This is one of many many setups that we only realize—if even then—was a setup once the punch-line lands. Usually it’s a line that literally (virtually?) punches us in the face.
The legion of colanders Mr. Peanutbutter buys on a whim after a hypothetical brainstorm with his accountant. Bojack’s decision to go with a “mirror” ad for the Secretariat poster. The first image of the season is of Bojack running wild. Yet the glory of that image is diminished as we zoom out to reveal a poster hung in a repetitive press room. That same press junket becomes is a microcosm for the whole third season: Bojack is asked questions that miss the point by people that don’t know him.
But the biggest set-up—with the biggest repercussions for all parties—is in the Oscar Nomination plot. We are led to expect that Bojack will get an Oscar nomination (and maybe an Oscar) for his role in Secretariat. We are also led to expect that he won’t feel any different because of it; and that that will put him into another spiral.
The creators of Bojack know just how “unstable” this proposition (faulty bomb) is, and the kinds of hopes and dreams it inspires in us. We are the marionette, let’s not forget.
And what ends up happening? What’s up next for Bojack after the nomination? The question he’s been asked over and over falls apart. Bojack (and each and every one of us) has been preparing for the emptiness and dissatisfaction that we expected would come with success; instead we get a failure that blindsides us.
It is crushing. Bojack feels lied to by his friends; we feel lied to by the show.
Bojack decides that his truest friend must be Sarah Lynn—even if the only reason is that he is her role model—and so they party. We’ve seen what happens when Bojack parties. It ends badly. Again.
In a tragic metaphor, Sarah Lynn dies from two things. The first is her idolization of and friendship with Bojack. The second is an overdose of heroin literally called “Bojack Horseman.” (It seems worth mentioning that Bojack was already aware that his namesake killed a stripper.) Aptly, Sarah Lynn’s death is possibly the closest thing to Bojack’s own death we have seen in this show. A vicarious suicide.
The show implores us to ask these hard questions. But it is not the events themselves that do this. It is rather their pre-establishment that truly burdens our minds, the way we were set up before the events happened. You have to be driving fast to die in a crash; you have to be flying to get caught in a spiderweb.
The pre-establishment is simple: hope. Season three is about people (animals—er, people and animals) hoping for change. The 2007 storyline gives us access to a multitude of befores and afters:
– Princess Carolyn’s single day off leading to a normal and ego-free date.
– Cuddlywhiskers’ retreating to Ojai upon realizing that “only after you give up everything, can you begin to find a way be happy.”
– The simple satisfactions of Mr. Peanutbutter’s hometown; his non-celebrity “older” brother’s comparative life.
– The episode evaluating who is the “good guy.”(Ultimately it’s Gecko-Rabinowitz.)
– Todd’s pre-Bojack life, where his ideas were congratulated rather than called stupid.
“Oh you’re in the entertainment industry. When I said the Industry I mean the Auto-Glass Industry. We call our business The Industry because we think we’re more important than everybody else.” — Date No. 2
These windows to the interior lives of characters show us that before celebrity they didn’t appreciate what they had. Their sights were set on a shining potential future and not a satisfying and real present. The most apt 2007 metaphor is PC’s boss, Marv, throwing the scripts to two of the best movies of that year into a shred-capable ceiling fan. No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood are both rejected for having lengthy titles.
In season three we have a story that demonstrates how hopes for fame promise a perceived happiness; but only leave people high and dry.
All of this is deftly woven into the web structured around Bojack’s (potential) Oscar nomination. The creators of Bojack Horseman warn how we undermine our own happiness by dreaming and hoping and planning… for the wrong future.