Very sad and serious things happen on BoJack Horseman. The third season alone, which recently dropped another motherlode of Hollywood satire and unrelenting bleakness onto Netflix, features story lines involving tragic drug overdoses, abortion, pop songs about abortion, alcohol abuse, sexual harassment, and potentially terminal cancer diagnoses. Everyone on this show is miserable, self-involved, and either in the middle of an existential crisis or merely taking a brief break before the next round of soul-crushing “Why am I here and what’s the meaning of life?” questions start again.
Yet somehow, improbably, watching this show is a joyful, even giddy, experience. What should be the most depressing series on TV and/or mobile devices is actually one of the most pleasurable ones, and not just because so many of the jokes are funny, although that certainly helps. It’s because of the specific worlds from which this cartoon cautionary tale draws inspiration, and the way those inspirations highlight faint yet discernible rays of sunlight peeking through the show’s clouds of doom, gloom, and unattainable redemption. BoJack, the former ‘90s sitcom star whose entire face is basically a flaccid phallus and whose temperament makes him incapable of taking lasting pleasure in anything, may never find happiness. But BoJack Horseman, the show, is actually a little hopeful about humanity … or anthropomorphized animal-humanity … or both. Let’s go with both.
Though various works are referenced in each pop-culturally attuned episode — from Charlie Chaplin films to Fuller House — BoJack Horseman reminds me most consistently of the two most influential animated franchises of the past 30 years: The Simpsons and Pixar movies, both of which project a sense of optimism that BoJack does not embrace nearly as openly. But in small but significant moments, it does, cautiously and tentatively, embrace it a little.
The Simpsons clearly has a much more pronounced cynical streak than anything that ever came out of Pixar, and therefore has more obviously in common with BoJack Horseman in that regard as well. Like pretty much every current animated series aimed at grown-ups, BoJack owes a massive debt to the Fox comedy, the first modern, mainstream, non-live-action show to skewer American culture so sharply and at such a rat-a-tat-tat pace. Both shows also have an abiding love for Easter egg humor: visual jokes that either pop up and quickly disappear or sit patiently in the background, waiting for eagle-eyed viewers to notice them. In the third episode of BoJack’s third season, BoJack, his publicist Ana Spanakopita, and his friend/social media manager, Diane, attend an elementary-school holiday play as part of BoJack’s Oscar glad-handing routine. The whole scene, rife with jokes about the ludicrousness of the play’s non-denominational theme and the coddling of America’s youth, would be right at home in a Simpsons episode. That’s further confirmed by the visual kicker that punctuates it: a quick view of the school’s sign, which says “Rounded Corners Prep: A Gluten-Free Learning Experience.”
Where the two dovetail most significantly, though, is in their sardonic view of the world. The Simpsons has always maintained a pretty dark take on how society works. Springfield is a place where you can work for the same tyrant for decades and he still won’t remember your name; where intelligent girls like Lisa are marginalized and ignored; where a father can look his children in the eye and say, “Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is: Never try.” Yet everyone on The Simpsons keeps trying. The show never fails to point out the ways in which America’s various systems are broken, but it consistently reminds us that its characters, flawed though they may be, love each other and believe in each other, even when more than 20 years’ of evidence suggests that doing so is foolish. (Seriously: In real life, Marge would have divorced Homer long before the ‘90s ended.)
Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the creator of BoJack Horseman, has said in interviews that he admires that mix of sweetness with the bitter. “I was very moved by shows that combined things that were funny and sad,” he told the Times of Israel in a 2014 interview. “I remember liking ‘Simpsons’ episodes in which emotions were central.” While BoJack never expresses the same depth of emotional commitment that Homer and Marge share, there are moments when he almost gets there, whether it’s accidentally telling his girlfriend Wanda that he loves her in season two, admitting that Todd is his best friend (also in season two), or, this season, attempting to apologize to all the people in his life that he’s hurt. True, the fact that he’s often blacking out or frightening people while saying sorry undermines his effort to a significant degree. But somewhere in that cranium filled with depleted brain cells, BoJack does have a conscience. He has the desire to be a better man — Horse-man? Man-horse? — but just doesn’t know how to get there. That desire, at least, represents some hope. As Will Arnett said in a recent Vulture interview: “A guy like BoJack is someone who is is self-serving to a point that it harms other people. That’s what he is grappling with, and it’s the first time he’s becoming cognizant of it. A real narcissist wouldn’t actually recognize that.”
Now, about the Pixar connection: In too many important ways to mention here, BoJack Horseman is nothing like a Pixar movie. (I can’t stress this enough: BoJack Horseman is not for kids. If you turn it on for your 5-year-old because you think it looks like a cute cartoon, you will wind up with a completely disillusioned kindergartener who regularly uses the term shitshow and has a lot of questions about whether horses can have sex with manatees. Just don’t do it.) BoJack is actually the kind of show that specifically makes fun of Pixar movies, as it did last season when a drunken Diane blurts out: “Idea for a new Pixar movie: What are pizza boxes thinking about?”
That said, it’s undeniable that BoJack’s flair for humanizing animals and for building fully imagined worlds is reminiscent of what Pixar’s filmmakers often do.
In BoJack’s Hollywoo, humanistic animals and actual humans co-exist in an environment that, more or less, resembles actual Hollywood. But the show sometimes delves into unexplored sub-sections of that world that feel as clever, freshly conceived, and richly detailed as, say, Monstropolis from Monsters, Inc. or Riley’s pinball machine of a brain from Inside Out.
Season three in particular excels at this, most notably in the flawlessly executed episode “Fish Out of Water,” which introduces us to Pacific Ocean City, an underwater realm that’s home to Free Willy International Seaport and the Rinse-Carlton Hotel, and where BoJack, a mammal, is forced to exist with a voice-muffling, oxygen-providing dome over his head. A trip to Mr. Peanutbutter’s home, the Labrador Peninsula, achieves something similar by unveiling a dog-dominated paradise where Frisbee is played using one’s mouth and children — puppies, really — go for walks with their parents while, naturally, staying on-leash.
In just about every Pixar movie, a central character realizes he or she has to let go of something in order to move forward. In Toy Story 3, Woody has to let go of Andy, the boy he originally belonged to, and vice versa. In Finding Nemo, Marlin has to give Nemo the space to grow up. In Inside Out — you know where I’m going, and you’re already crying just thinking about it, aren’t you? — Joy has to let go of Bing-Bong, Riley’s childhood imaginary friend, before she can get Riley’s brain back in healthy working order again. She also has to allow Sadness to steer the controls for a little bit.
BoJack lets sadness steer his controls almost exclusively. But in season three — alert: this is the part that reveals spoilers, so proceed with caution — he also tries to let go of things, too, echoing the advice he gets from Cuddlywhiskers, his collaborator on the failed The BoJack Horseman Show, in episode three: “Only after you give up everything can you begin to find a way to be happy.” In the season’s final scene, BoJack leaves L.A. and seems hell-bent on driving his way into oblivion when he pulls off the road and notices a bunch of horses running. They’re running like people, on two legs, not four. But it still feels like a natural expression of what horses are designed to do, what Secretariat, who BoJack plays in that Oscar bait of a movie, was designed to do: streak along in an open field, happy and free. That instinct and that ability is in BoJack’s horseman DNA and it’s like he never realized it until that second.
This moment, unfolding the way it does to Nina Simone’s “Stars,” is utterly crushing. It’s the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever seen in an animated series.
But — and maybe this is because I’ve seen too many Pixar movies — I also saw something hopeful in the moment, because it echoed something that happens in the very first episode of the season, one of those funny, toss away, Simpsons-esque gags that’s much more meaningful when considered in conjunction with the season’s conclusion.
BoJack’s buddy Todd, dreadfully lost in a New York hotel, pauses at a window to bemoan his existence, and encounters a nicely dressed bird, standing on the ledge. “Listen, kid, I don’t need your life story,” she says. “I just came out here to commit suicide.” She jumps. But because she’s a bird, she instinctively soars upward. “Oh, crap,” she says. “I forgot I could fly.”
At the end of the season, BoJack is ready to commit suicide. But then, in a way, he, too, remembers he can fly. That simple idea, an anthropomorphized animal suddenly realizing that his ability to find happiness has been hiding in plain sight? Yes, that feels like something that could be in a Pixar movie. Just, you know, minus the suicide part and the wrenching Nina Simone song and all the horrible shit that happens to BoJack right before he contemplates killing himself.
Does that make BoJack a hopeful show? Not entirely, no. It’s a difficult show. But it’s also one that never forgets that flight — for birds, for humans, even for sad, broken horses — is always possible.