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Why Bojack Horseman will save us all

There’s a certain kind of conversation you will have in your undergraduate years if you are doing a Humanities degree. You will be at the pub, or at a party, and he (it is nearly always a he) will start to wax lyrical, dropping some half-read, half-arsed quotes from Nietzsche, Marx, or David Foster Wallace.[1] However, I’m going to shamelessly be that guy, because I’ve just finished re-watching Bojack Horseman and Rick and Morty, which are two popular adult-orientated cartoons, and it made me think of Wallace.

David Foster Wallace, in his essay ‘E Unibus Pluram’[2], writes about TV, and he points out that TV has become its own greatest critic, with shows making fun of themselves. This makes them much harder to criticise, because if they know they’re silly, it’s much harder to poke holes in them.[3] There’s a culture of detachment forming as a result, and the main disseminator of this ideology is TV. So how does TV force this into culture? Well, Wallace’s beef was that TV knew it was TV, and started making fun of itself, being detached and ironic. This happens in a lot of adverts now. Both Oasis and Spotify have advertising campaigns where the entire shtick is that these adverts are aware they’re adverts. This means the advert can transcend being what it is, from having a purpose, from admitting that it’s trying to do something. We do this all the time, too; distance ourselves from things and claim that distance is in itself a legitimate position. This is a great self-defence mechanism in a world that frequently can be harsh and nasty and not care about us.

But what about TV right now? Wallace’s references are old hat – he refers to SNL and Leno. What can we do about 2017-era TV? That’s where the popular twosome of Rick and Morty  and Bojack Horseman come in. Both are massively popular, both are dark, both are animated. On the surface, there’s quite a lot to link the two. I think they’re worlds apart. Rick and Morty is a show that centres on Rick, who’s a nihilist scientist that doesn’t really care about the people around him. There’s two scenes which I think sum up Rick and Morty. The first is a scene in which Rick invents a sentient robot with the sole purpose of passing him the butter for his morning toast. One day, the robot asks ‘What is my purpose?’ Rick responds ‘You pass butter.’ A moment passes, and the robot simply replies ‘Oh my God’, while looking at its hands in despair. It’s absurdist dark comedy at its darkest, and takes as much inspiration from The Stranger or Waiting for Godot as it does from The Simpsons. Another scene is one wherein Rick completely screws up the world he was living in, so teleports to another dimension, which contains a world completely like his own, only he and his grandson Morty have just died. He arrives, and instructs Morty to dig a grave, and bury his own mangled corpse in it. They take their places, and live in that dimension for the rest of the show. The fact that Rick left the rest of his family in the old dimension to live their lives out in a world where most citizens are horribly mutated is rarely mentioned. Rick’s attitude permeates the show – he is rampantly against the things that give us identity. He hates government, finds marriage pointless, dislikes other people, and seemingly holds his family in high disregard. He actively breaks apart his daughter’s marriage, using the fact that he walked out on her while she was young as emotional leverage. He tells Morty in one scene that love is merely neurochemicals.[4] He regularly breaks the fourth wall, turning to the camera to say ‘WUBBA LUBBA DUB DUB’[5], his catchphrase, or referring to ‘nine more seasons until I get that dipping sauce, Morty!’ Wallace rails against this tactic in particular, because breaking the fourth wall is the ultimate way of acknowledging you’re ‘just a show’. It’s likely the reason that Rick will give for not caring about anything – there are many fan theories that state that Rick knows he’s just a character, and Wallace was right in his diagnosis of this stylistic issue – it strips the soul out of TV. Simply put, Rick and Morty tells us that we’ll never be happy, but that doesn’t matter, because none of it matters anyway, so why give a shit? This nihilistic streak is in other shows. Look at Peep Show. Full of great, well-written, interesting characters who are absolutely terrible people. Now, think about how Peep Show ends. Mark and Jez, on the couch, where they started. Mark silently thinking ‘I must get rid of him.’ They’re presented to us as being in a sort of hole, an unsolvable position that is utterly inescapable.[6] It’s emotional fast food – it doesn’t make you feel good, or fully satisfied. It just makes you feel weird, and you know that you like it.

This is what brings me to Bojack Horseman. Bojack is a hard-drinking washed-up actor who is relentlessly self-absorbed. He allows his best friend Todd to live with him rent-free because he provides entertainment, rather than out of selfless affection. On the surface, Bojack and Rick are deeply similar. Scratch the surface though, and there’s a deep-running difference between the two that is crucial. Bojack really, really cares about other people, and what they think of him. He really cares about his friends, and the tragedy is that his own flaws prevent him from being the good person he wants to be. In this way, it’s like a classical tragedy – we can all see the elements of Bojack that prevent him being happy, and they’re intrinsic to him. He regularly tells his friend Diane that she’s a great writer, and genuinely cares in his own damaged way for Princess Carolyn, his ex-girlfriend. Is Bojack a good, moral character? No. He screwed over his best friend, he is awful to Todd most of the time, he contributes to the drug-induced death of his friend Sarah Lynn. But Bojack is sincerely looking for redemption. Rick doesn’t believe such a thing exists. That’s the difference between the two – although Wallace didn’t think that a return to the saccharine tropes of old TV was possible, he argued for more sincerity and truth in our entertainment.

In fact, for my money, Bojack Horseman represents the very best of the ‘New Sincerity’[7] that we can, and we should, aim for. We can have characters who are ironic and bad people and detached from the world around them, but we need them to not have that as their defining feature — we need them to offer us more than that. So, to look closer at the show, Bojack Horseman at first might appear nihilistic and detached, because, yeah, its titular character attempts to be, but the show is punctuated with moments of raw emotion and monstrous relatability. The ending of season one, where Bojack demands to be told he’s a good person, is absolutely heart-wrenching. Here’s Bojack’s dialogue. ‘I guess my question is, do you… Do you think it’s too late for me? What? I mean, am I just doomed to be the person that I am? The person in that book? It’s not too late for me, is it? It’s not too late. Diane, I need you to tell me that it’s not too late. I need you to tell me that I’m a good person. I know that I can be selfish and narcissistic and self-destructive, but underneath all that, deep down, I’m a good person, and I need you to tell me that I’m good, Diane.’ That moment — the moment where Bojack reveals in himself the desire to be recognised and known as good by others — honestly reduced me to a wreck. It is, to this day, the most painful and relatable bit of TV I’ve ever seen — which sure, may say a lot about my psyche — but that’s the point, isn’t it? You will relate to Bojack in a way that you will never relate to characters from Seinfeld or Friends. There’s a difference between being ‘Such a Monica!’ and actually relating to characters in a meaningful sense. Bojack Horseman offers you sincerity, offers you something that will grab you where it hurts because you can relate to it, and you understand that these characters are looking for meaning and reassurance in the same way that you are. No-one is ‘exactly like’ Bojack in every way – his drinking alone would kill you, as he has the tolerance of a horse, and I would hope his many, many, deeply-ingrained character flaws are not concentrated into one person in the real world, but you’ll find a character in the show that has at least one scene which will floor you. Maybe it’s a Bojack scene, maybe it’s another character. A friend of mine was struck by a line from Wanda, one of Bojack’s girlfriends in the show – ‘when you’re wearing rose-tinted glasses, all the red flags just look like flags.’ The reason that the show has these moments is because it has a core that believes in people. Beneath it all, Bojack seems to really believe he can be happy, and he believes that he might just find some of that in his relationships with other people.

I think that shows like Bojack Horseman are actually really important to us, now more than ever. There’s a movie about Wallace’s life – After The Tour. It’s got Jesse Eisenberg in it, which in my experience means it’s quite good. Wallace states that in a world where home entertainment, particularly VR pornography, is only going to get better and better, there will be a huge effect on people’s general well-being. ‘In a very real and meaningful way, you’re going to die’ laments Jason Segal, as Wallace. Did Wallace actually say this? I honestly don’t know. I do know that humanity was a big part of his work as a journalist – A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is made better with his stories of other people, as is Consider the Lobster. That’s why I turned to him in providing a theoretical background for these two shows, because what differs in them is the way that they view people, and much like Wallace, I agree that that entertainment is crucially important in shaping the way we view the world and each other. After all, in a post-truth, Trumpian world, it might be tempting to us to retreat into the Seinfeld worldview where nothing really matters that much, where we are detached, and our problems unsolvable. In the UK, we, for years, have had a discourse wherein many people are saying they’re not going to vote because ‘all parties are the same’. They’re demonstrably not, and we know this. It’s just saying they’re the same is the discursive equivalent of the advert that claims to know it’s an advert. It’s a kneejerk reaction to the agony of choice. Look, I’m not saying that the problems of Trump, or whatever terrible political ideology is next, are going to be solved by better TV shows. I’m just saying that Bojack represents a really good TV show that for a couple of hours, made me feel like whoever wrote it really got me.[8] I’m just saying that the world is shit right now. Everywhere you look there’s really, really shit stuff going on. People are tired, and jaded, and fed up. Bojack gets points for not being yet another TV show that says our problems are unsolvable, and it gets more points for reminding us starkly that we need other people if we’re going to be whole. In a world with President Trump, where our political culture has taken a difficult and hardline shift, a TV culture that tells us not to care isn’t good enough. So often, our focus is on what divides us. Sometimes, that’s important, but sometimes it’s divisiveness for its own sake. I guess that maybe it’s a lonely and washed-up horse searching for human connection that will, in the end, save us all.

[1] Recent development in this sort of thing: Slavoj Žižek!

[2] Yeah, it’s happening, time for some riffing on the concept of sincerity!

[3] I did it in my first paragraph. Much harder to think I’m a pretentious tit if I’ve already acknowledged it!

[4] This scene proved that it’s literally impossible to make this argument without sounding like a petulant teenager who’s just had his crush turn him down in favour of the guy who’s much better at football.

[5] It’s revealed later in the show that wubba lubba dub dub means ‘Help me. I am in extreme pain.’ in the language of Birdperson, Rick’s best friend.

[6] At this point, I’m actively just riffing on classic Wallace tricks. This footnote has nothing to do with the text. Just be glad I didn’t put it at the end of the book. Something something tennis. Happy now?

[7] Yeah, I went there. I went Full Wallace.

[8] I know that’s a cliché.

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