Waiting List Cinema: Bojack Horseman

I’ve had this thought for a while now. We all have those shows or movies that are “comfort cinema” for us. It could be because it’s a movie we saw at a time in our lives we’re nostalgic for, or simply the content of it just cuts right to the core of our own issues or struggles. These are the examples of media we turn to when therapy has a waiting list.

For the first post in this series, I knew it had to be Bojack Horseman. It came out in August of 2014, but I avoided it for a while thinking it was going to be a cheap South Park rip off like so much of the “adult” animation on Netflix at the time. A couple years later though, I gave it a try when I felt I’d otherwise scraped the bottom of the streaming barrel, only to discover the show had me feeling some pretty deep emotions right off the bat.

The show centers around the eponymous Bojack Horseman, an actor who had previously starred in a sitcom in the 1990’s, but hasn’t done much of anything since. His previous fame has earned him enough money to live a life of hedonistic luxury, which only allows him to discover the very depths of human meaninglessness. For a nihilist cynic like myself, the show feels like an old friend, sharing our observations on how “fake” everyone else is while we sit in the back of the room.

Bojack isn’t allowed to wallow in his lonely superiority though. The show starts with the introduction of Diane Nguyen, who’s been hired to help him complete his autobiography. While he tries to provide her the safe, sanitized, and marketable version of his life’s story, she presses him to be more honest and vulnerable. This push and pull begins to serve as the core of the show for the first season or so, as we watch Bojack vacillate between growing as a person and slipping back into his self centered pleasure seeking lifestyle.

Unlike so many shows centered on a character’s growth or fall, Bojack Horseman doesn’t’ take the simple road of showing the characters straightforward growth. In your typical setup, we’d see Bojack and Diane fall in love and grow better together as people. Instead, while we do see Bojack make such a declaration of love, Diane rejects him, and their relationship as friends is really never on stable ground after that. Bojack’s repeated failures and backsliding helps to set the show apart, you’re left truly uncertain how his story will end, as he often takes three steps forward, then two steps back, or even completely crashing and burning. We see several moments where we hope he’s finally learned his lessons and is on the road to wholeness, only to see an unexpected setback or frustration to lead him screaming back into his old self destructive – but safe feeling – ways.

This line of thinking leads to a show filled with characters that feel “real” with development you can get invested in. You find yourself emotionally attached to whether the talking cat is able to deal with her desires for a family and inability to trust any romantic partner. Or when the wacky slacker dude comes out as asexual and tries to find his way in a world that’s often ignored or mocked by most entertainment, you will find yourself heart warmed at his journey to self acceptance and learning to set boundaries.

I love Bojack for a lot of reasons, most of which boil down to seeing my own personal issues and self hatred projected onto fictional characters. But the reason I want to recommend it to others is because those same characters try to grow and learn while also repeatedly failing. Bojack reminds us that progress is messy and never in a straight line. And that no matter how “good” we might try to be, sometimes our mistakes can still bring us down in the end, and the struggle with accepting that.

One final note I need to recommend from this show, but this last bit is on the darker side, so additional content warning here regarding self harm stuff.

In the second to last episode, we are treated to a look inside Bojack’s head, where he is able to converse with characters who had previously died. One is a fictional version of Secretariat, which in this world is a famous horse athlete Bojack looked up to who later killed himself when it was discovered he had placed bets on his own races.

The character recites a poem he wrote after his own suicide. For a while, I thought this was a poem one of the writers had found and was quoting, but it is apparently an original work. If I were still in high school, I would have started competing in the dramatic reading category just to be able to perform this monologue/poem. It’s something that’s helped talked me down from the metaphorical edge a few times, particularly over the past year.

You can read the poem on the Bojack wiki here: https://bojackhorseman.fandom.com/wiki/The_View_From_Halfway_Down_(Poem)

Someone made this YouTube video where they laid the character reading the poem over the earlier scene of that same character jumping off a bridge. I find it incredibly moving, but I also know it could be way too much for some people to watch. https://youtu.be/5egyZUhGVSA

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