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Why the long face? Bojack Horseman artfully mines the underbelly of Hollywood and human existence

With season 5 of 'Bojack Horseman' coming, we look at the philosophy at the heart of the hit Netflix series.
UPDATED JAN 14, 2020
Bojack Horseman (Source: Getty Images)
Bojack Horseman (Source: Getty Images)

At a casual glance, 'Bojack Horseman' may seem like the life of a Hollywood star, in this case a horse, and the way he deals with the ups and downs of such a life.

But the glitter of a Hollywood life is based on a foundation of depressed lives, supported by the ugly narcissistic reality of the movie industry.

'Bojack  Horseman' touches upon less observed or ignored aspects of Hollywood society -- hollow, plastic and ugly --be it the studio executives persistent on making more money rather than valuing artists, the grand award shows which only award the popular and already uplifted ones, all of them trapped in the chores of daily life and the sheer meaninglessness of it.

Multiple circumstances touch upon the less-spoken elements of the society like depression, anxiety, happiness, Hollywood hollowness, and both purposelessness and people dealing with it. With the new season of the show expected to arrive this year, we take a look at the philosophy of the Horseman.

The titular Bojack is shown in his formative years as he is trying to watch an interview on television of his role model- racehorse Secretariat, the 1973 triple-crown winner. 

Bojack moves closer to the television to listen because his parents are fighting in the background, his father is breaking dishes on the kitchen floor yelling at the top of his voice.

Bojack’s mother Beatrice is shouting back, “That is not even a dish it is a saucer,” to which Butterscotch, his father, replies, “Why do we even have saucer we don't even drink tea?!”

Little Bojack is trying to avoid the background noise and focus on the Television.

This dysfunctional family background marks Bojack’s childhood, and which becomes the cornerstone on which his entire adult life is built. He turns into a narcissistic, self loathing and self destructive personality.

After Bojack’s hero Secretariat commits suicide after being banned from horse racing after being accused of betting on his own races, Bojack turns towards stand-up comedy and meets Herb Kazaz, a sitcom creator who lets him be a lead of 'Horsin Around' - the show with a Horse and his orphans living together.

Fast forward to Bojack Horseman during his mid-life crisis: he lives on a hill in LA. It is a morning and his girlfriend and acting agent Princess Carolyn is leaving the house, cutting him down as unlike him she has work to do.

He retorts, “I was on Horsin around” and she informs him that it was 11 years ago.

“Where does the time go,” Bojack ruminates, while sipping from a bourbon-filled flask.

Bojack is rich and famous, but unemployed; he wakes up, involves himself in unnecessary hullabaloo and skips the rest of the day in perpetual drunkenness. His life has no purpose, and he goes along with things just to distract and keep himself involved.

These distractions involve booze, meaningless parties and sex with strangers.

His roommate/best friend is a mooch who once came to one of Bojack’s parties and never cared to leave. Todd is someone that Bojack uses to feel better about himself.

Todd lives off of Bojack in every aspect of the word. Nevertheless, things change when once Todd comes up with 'Newtopia,' a sci-fi  rock opera, but Bojack goes behind his back to sabotage his creation to keep Todd in his house, to have somebody to share his lonely and miserable life with.

A lot of Bojack’s behaviour is self destructive and not very pleasant; his narcissistic personality hurts a lot of people in order to acquire something selfish. When Todd realizes Bojack’s was behind his failure he sums him up, “You are all the things that are wrong with you.”

His ugly personality comes from his terrible childhood and parenting.

When the Penguin from a publishing house (I know) approaches Bojack with an idea of a memoir, he is pumped up about the idea and this is creating a purpose in his life, finally he has something to do.

After a lazy week Bojack has no progress over the memoir so the publishing house forces him to hire a ghost writer, Diane Nugyen, who helps in writing Bojack's memoir. Through this interaction, Bojack develops a relationship with someone who is normal and understands Bojack in an intimate way.

On Parenting and Childhood.

Bojack is a caricature of the result of a terrible and violent childhood because of a dysfunctional family, he says “You know sometimes I feel like i was born with a leak and any goodness I started out with just slowly spilled out and now it is all gone.”

His mother Beatrice was part of a bigger problem too, her father was a misogynistic douche who did not encourage her love for reading; she constantly used fairy tales and fiction to escape from her father’s hate and later even that ended.

The grown Beatrice hated stories, she never really appreciates Bojack’s sitcom and is cynical about it consistently. Beatrice says she was smart and beautiful until she had Bojack, Beatrice ditches her own ball and went to hookup with Butterscotch and got pregnant. 

To resolve this Beatrice and Butterscotch got married and had Bojack but the marriage however, went on to become a disaster with constant fights, verbal abuses and of course Butterscotch's affair with Henrietta the housemaid.

All these events disturbed Bojack enough to become a narcissistic and self destructive personality. He never really got anything from his parents except for his mothers cynical and critical attitude.

This influence is remarkable throughout the story, and his relationship gets complicated with Diane, and he confronts her, “I need you to tell me I am a good person Diane. I know I can be selfish and narcissistic and self destructive. But underneath all that is the whole need to "I am a good person and I need you tell me that I am good.”

This comes from the darker places of Bojack which he does not want to know. After Diane published his memoir One Trick Pony, he sees an honest reflection of himself and he is not ready to be a damaged outcome of a shitty marriage and a self loathing man.

Workaholics: A distraction from the meaningless existence.

A lot of existentialism in the lives of the people in the show is clear, the creators use other characters to paint  a broader picture of their situation.

Blaise Pascal, a French philosopher said when given too much time to think, humans will eventually contemplate their own insignificance in this world which eventually bums them out.

This leads to finding a distraction in our lives, Princess Carolyn finds it in her work and repairing the life of others, in one of her monologues, she says, “Because my life is a mess right now and I compulsively take care of others when I don’t care to take care of myself.”

She is the acting cast agent of Bojack (and in an on-and-off fling with him) and makes a lot of effort in helping him with his life. Carolyn works for majority of time with rigor and dedication, she goes out of the way to have some great success in life, this keeps her away from her insignificance in the world. She never finds contentment and security in her life.

Princess Carolyn is so busy with work that she does not celebrate her birthday, at the end of the work her co-worker asks “You are gonna head out now?” To this she replies, “Where else would I go?”

However, PC has found a sense of comfort in her own fantasy. She wants to “have it all” - a successful career, a relationship and a family. However, she knows she can only dream of it, not actually have it all.

“I imagine my great-great-great-granddaughter in the future talking to her class about me. She’s poised and funny and tells people about me and how everything worked out in the end. And when I think about that, I think about how everything’s going to work out. Because how else could she tell people?," she tells Bojack during a phone call.

“But … it’s fake,” a stunned BoJack says. “Yeah, well,” Princess Carolyn answers with a sigh. “It makes me feel better.”

That just sums up how we want our life and the only way we can have it.

On Hollywood

There is a scene where Bojack is doing the 'Secretariat' movie and has trouble doing a scene and the director comes to him and says, “I don’t care how you feel you have a job to do.”

This marks a stand on the showbiz under Hollywood. The sitcoms, movies and stars have turned selfish and crude.

Bojack Horseman not only shows the reality of it but breaks it into parts -- Oscars or award shows in general being just about popular people getting more popular or the studios only caring about the money.

Charlotte, Bojack’s old friend, puts LA into one image, “See those tar pits? Hollywood's a real pretty town that's smack on top of all that black tar. By the time you realize you're sinking, it's too late."

We think "celebrities have everything, how could they be not happy" to which Bojack has a sarcastic reply, “Great house. Great career. Great life. How could I not be happy?”

This is a great insight into how money can’t buy happiness. 

Cuddlywhiskers the creator of "Horsin around" later gives up on the work, and says, "I don't know what to tell you. I'm happy for the first time in my life and I'm not going to feel bad about it. It takes a long time to realize how truly miserable you are, and even longer to see that it doesn't have to be that way. Only after you give up everything, can you begin to find a way to be happy."

All this fame, money and awards people dream of are meaningless to those who have it, he also has a thing to say about how it feels to win an Oscar, "I remember when I won my Oscar standing up on that stage looking at the statue and I thought that this is supposed to be the happiest moment of my life and I never felt more miserable."

All these are powerful messages for Hollywood and people in general, celebrities have everything people dream of but sometimes they are just as miserable and unhappy

Bojack Horseman in a subtle way addresses darker aspects of society, like the plasticity of celebrities, sexuality, gun control and sexual harassment. However, these elements should rather be perceived from the brilliant TV show itself, social and political satires are trending on the TV, talking about subjects which the conventional medium does not take into consideration.

Bojack Horseman is an intelligent, insensitive and hilarious show, which is a perfect combination for a comedy show.