The Pursuit of (Un)happiness

By Kai-Arne Zimny

BoJack Horseman (voice by Will Arnett) is a long-faced, washed-up Hollywood star whose career ended two decades ago, along with his Nineties sitcom, Horsin’ Around. Since then he’s turned into a radical glass-half-empty kind of guy with a perpetually brimful glass of whiskey, as self-centered as he is self-loathing.

Oh, he’s also a horse.

Image credit: Etrg Torrent

Nothing unusual about that in the world of BoJack Horseman (2014 – present), which is populated by humans and anthropomorphic animals alike. Visually, that’s the most striking feature of this adult cartoon show, which makes it feel extremely detached from reality – at least at first. A few minutes into the pilot, you realize that this Netflix show is not primarily about talking animals, but is more of a witty satire on shallow celebrity culture and contemporary society as a whole, touching upon issues such as depression, bad childhoods, the inability to relate to yourself and others, and – on a philosophical level – the perils of (self-created) nihilism.

Whereas BoJack drowns himself in booze, pills, and cynical resentment in order to bear his unbearable reality, his (un)welcome housemate Todd Chavez (voice by Aaron Paul), an unemployed, well-intentioned human slacker, has almost nothing and is able to appreciate virtually anything, thanks to his childlike attitude.

BoJack’s complete antithesis is the cheerful, generally unaware Labrador Retriever and TV actor Mr. Peanutbutter (voice by Paul Tompkins), who is completely deaf to BoJack’s resentful sarcasm and greatly values what he perceives to be his friendship to the horseman. This naive mindset is also the basis of Mr. Peanutbutter’s relationship to his intellectual and sensible human girlfriend Diane Nguyen (voice by Alison Brie), BoJack’s memoir ghostwriter and sort-of love interest. Diane is much more intelligent and aware than Mr. Peanutbutter. And much less happy.

So, one of the many deep questions the show invites its audience to ponder might be: Is (a certain degree of) ignorance bliss? And doesn’t ‘realistic awareness’ of the world begin to turn into just another kind of ignorance, especially when it’s being used for justifying emotional detachment from anyone and anything and even oneself, therefore making anything that could be good inaccessible?

Watching BoJack Horseman is an emotionally ambivalent experience. At the end of an episode, I often feel heavy-hearted, despite having laughed a good deal in the previous twenty-five minutes. The comedy is well done; there are plenty of intelligent references and plays on words, along with bizarrely funny moments. Luckily, the show doesn’t rely too much on animal gimmickry, which is more like a running gag, adding freaky, interesting aspects to each frame, but not so much to the comedic premise of the show. Also, it offers ongoing comic relief and detachment from reality that comes in handy when witnessing BoJack’s futile and almost overly realistic attempts to fill his void of a life.

Unlike some adult cartoon shows, I feel that this one is still optimistic, or at least hopeful, simply because it deals seriously with questions like depression, loneliness, and the ‘art’ of messing up one’s own life without exploiting these topics for all too cheap, tasteless jokes. It doesn’t try to be cutting edge and cool by completely dismissing sentimental concepts and randomly cramming cynical sarcasm into every scene. That’s refreshing. And sincere.

BoJack’s pursuit of (un)happiness is not over yet. A fifth season has been confirmed by Netflix and is currently in the making. If you want to watch something that makes you think and feel both sad and humored, you should give BoJack Horseman a try!

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