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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