The most existential show on television is a cartoon about an alcoholic horse

BoJack Horseman continues its singular exploration of empty, hollow lives


With just two syllables, the final moment of BoJack Horseman's second season suggested that the alcoholic anthropomorphic horse was on the mend, that things could — would — get better. In front of a swath of bright green grass, looking up towards the sky, BoJack had his epiphany.

Season three, which dropped on Netflix on Friday, begins in darkness, with BoJack intoning, "It's a dream come true." And for a precious, fugacious moment, you almost believe him. Then you remember that this is BoJack talking, and dreams end the second you open your eyes.

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BoJack Horseman is the most genuinely existential show on TV. It actually understands existentialism instead of relying on a Wikipedia summary. One acerbic throwaway joke involves BoJack mocking people's misunderstanding of Sartre as an excuse to be awful people (the French hate him; also, they smell). Instead of pontificating on the meaningless of life, like so much misery porn, the show allows its characters to create meaning — if they want to. But not everyone can be saved. Some people don't want to be. Some shouldn't be.

BoJack (Will Arnett) is on a quest for an Oscar and for meaning in his life. He gets neither. Following a dalliance with happiness, he returns to his emotionally sabotaging ways, taking down anyone who continues to cling to him like a perpetually sinking vessel. Most of his friends have already let go.

Bojack is the emotional focal point of the show, even when he isn't in a scene. His hamartia is a lust for self-destruction, which proves as addictive as alcohol or drugs, and the tragedy of his self-destruction is the collateral damage it causes. Helping him, and maybe hurting him, is his publicist and sometimes love interest Ana (Angela Bassett), who was a caricature of slippery Hollywoo(d) publicity last season but becomes a fleshed-out tragic character herself this season.

Success for BoJack is a cadmean victory. He lives an ephemeral life for ephemeral fame. He resuscitated his career with Oscar bait, but now he's obsessed with the halcyon days of Horsin' Around. (Nostalgia on BoJack is corrosive. It's poison for the present.) Now he wants to be a respected actor working on indie films. Now he wants to make amends for all the pain he's caused. Now he's here, now he's gone.

BoJack is that rare show that can serve platitudes as well as it skewers them. It understands the solipsism of sadness and the fetishization of self-destruction, how society veils depression with romantic golden hues to make it look poetic. Depression is not poetic on BoJack. It's an affliction that ostracizes and destroys. But it would be unfair, and untrue, to pretend BoJack is just a show about a sad horse. It's still a satire, and it has some severe barbs. The cynical, surreal depiction of characters, both humans and animals, constantly enveloped by culture feels almost hyper-real. Like a millennial who scours Twitter to aggregate news all day, BoJack has an uncanny awareness of celebrity buzz and trends; unlike millennial news aggregators, it uses familiar phrases and faces to say something meaningful.

The show depicts modernity as a meme, a world of celeb gossip, the enmeshed trajectory of life and life styles, social media masochism, the short-lived half-life of cultural relevance. It mocks the industry and consumption of the industry, both of which are governed by ass-kissing, aka networking. Abortion rights and safe spaces are given the same irreverent treatment as petty celeb bickering because social media treats these not-equal issues with similar importance. Todd (Aaron Paul) and Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins) put together a sincere plan to create a driving service that will be safe for women; it ends up getting them rich and doesn't make life any better for women.

People handle smartphones the way everyone at Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Price has cigarettes nestled between their fingers. Diane (Alison Brie) now does social media posts for celebrities, because writing something that matters doesn't pay the doctors. An errant tweet costs her her job (briefly), then causes a hashtag activism movement (briefly). The ordeal lasts around 15 minutes, and all of it is fleeting.

BoJack is one of the best-directed animated shows of all time because the mock camera movements have meaning. Rick and Morty has more stuff happening on screen, but BoJack has precision. How many animated shows harken back to the work of John and Faith Hubley, as well as Georges Melies? In the first episode of the season, BoJack sits in a New York cafe with his chic Black Widow playwright friend, as the city passes by in beautiful, melancholic monochrome in the window over BoJack's shoulder. "This does not taste like dreams," she says, biting into her omelette.

In the astounding fourth episode, which is mostly devoid of understandable dialogue, a series of unusual occurrences sets BoJack on an underwater odyssey with a baby seahorse. His fantastical jaunt strands him in a realm of lambent jetstreams and luminous foliage and lush washes of electronic music that brings to mind The Life Aquatic as much as it does Spongebob Squarepants. Since Mike Nichols sat Dustin Hoffman in front of a fish tank in The Graduate, water has been the go-to visual metaphor for malaise, but BoJack fully submerges us in the concept. It traps us. All the pleasures and pains of life — alcohol, cigarettes, words — float away from BoJack. The suffocating absurdity of self-loathing is palpable as he watches the whiskey writhe out of his flask and disperse uselessly. This looks and sounds like dreams.

A sliver of hope does cut through the pessimism, but not for everyone. Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), the Peggy Olson of the show, has finally let go of BoJack, and finds love, and meaning, though who knows for how long. This glimmer of hope is a trait BoJack shares with Kafka, a man with a penchant for talking animals. Now, in front of a swath of azure sky, looking down, BoJack has his epiphany. Life is an ouroboros, and BoJack is Sisyphus rolling a beer bottle up the Hollywood hills. We must imagine BoJack happy. We must imagine he wants to be.

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Greg Cwik

Greg Cwik is a writer and editor. His work appears at Vulture, Playboy, Entertainment Weekly, The Believer, The AV Club, and other good places.