How a cartoon horse changed my life

TV Sep 18, 2017

Or how Bojack Horseman reinvented drama.

Bojack horseman is a rare blip on the radar of popular culture — it’s a show that explores happiness, depression and the complexity of trying to be yourself.

The titular Bojack fights through depression, alcoholism and love but the show always comes back to his sense of identity. The central themes evolve from Bojack’s search for what makes him happy, and why he’s become so miserable.

One of the hardest things for Bojack is to resist forming his identity from those around him: he can’t let go of Princess Carolyn because she defines his working life. He can’t let go of Todd because he defines Bojack’s conscience. He can’t let go of Diane because she defines his ability to love. He can’t embrace Mr Peanut Butter because rejecting him defines Bojack’s sense of other.

In season 3, Bojack finally achieves his dream to play secretariat in a biopic. It’s the one thing he thought would make him happy.

After a deep loss, Bojack finds a new sense of purpose and becomes cheerful, enjoying his life as best he can. It’s one of the first honest expressions of hope in the show after a whole season of progressive complication and it coincides with landing his dream role.

In any other show, Bojack would enter the new season with his renewed attitude and a tragedy would befall him — someone in the hospital dies, a building blows up, a serial killer isn’t convicted — we all know how serialised drama hits the reset button after a great revelation.

Instead of showing us a dramatic twist, the show runners opt for a more subtle approach. Bojack’s new attitude clashes with his role as secretariat. In the episode, which forms the inciting hook for the season, the turning point occurs when Bojack realises he can’t have it both ways: he can’t be happy and play the one role that suits his addiction to destruction.

This reflects the show’s largest and most powerful theme, and one that channels the realities of life in a brutal way other shows take seven seasons to deliver.

Even when you think things will be better — even when you think you’ve finally arrived at the job or the relationship or the situation where things will get better, they don’t.

They never are.

Things get worse: they’re always worse.

We’re all trying our hardest, and everyone does bad things. Everyone does good things.

One of the biggest questions Bojack horseman asks its audience is: if we were more of the things we wanted, would it make us happy?

Bojack wonders if landing his dream role will make him happy. In the end, his happiness sabotages the role.

If a show about a cartoon horse can evoke questions about the nature of happiness and the inevitability of truth, chances are one of your ideas is valid.

Go make something.

Give it time — it might just pay off.


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David McNeill

David McNeill is the author of Maynard Trigg and editor-in-chief of ZeroIndent. He's a dedicated storyteller with a background in literary analysis and comms.

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