Bojack Horseman: Whiplash Comedy

The following is an article I wrote about Bojack Horseman last summer after season 2 was released. It was meant to be published somewhere but that kind of fell through, and ended up sitting in my Articles folder for a year. I thought I’d post it here, as with the release of the third season it’s not as pertinent to be hosted anywhere else. I will likely be writing another article on the show in the next few weeks.

Bojack Horseman returned for its second season this year on Netflix, and came back in a big way. The first season was fairly hit-and-miss, only really coming into its own when it engaged with the sad reality of Bojack’s life. The combination of tragedy and comedy, depression and animal puns, was never truly reconciled – until now. Season two does a lot of things right: the treatment of its female characters, its satire of Hollywood, its excellent depiction of bipolar disorder – but what elevates it on a moment-to-moment level is how it handles the tension between its dramatic and comic elements. Too many shows, adult-targeted cartoons especially, tend to land twenty minutes of comedy before one character sums up what they’ve learnt from the events. There are some exceptions – Community follows this structure before deconstructing and poking fun at the trope, while It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia often uses this climactic moment to show that the lesson learned is pointless, or avoided entirely. Emotional stakes tend to reach their peak by the episode’s end here too, but Bojack isn’t scared of injecting pathos into the otherwise ridiculous, or ending a devastating scene with irreverent humour.

When Bojack’s chain-smoking, abusive mother tells him that “I hope you die before I do so you never have to learn what it’s like to lose a mother”, he replies “Well as long as one of us dies, that’s good enough for me!” Before I had time to recognise the callousness of her comment, I was met with the humour of his response and laughed out loud. Moments later, I thought about the initial comment and realised its emotional weight. In terms of gut, emotional response, this was a car speeding off before making an emergency stop. This whiplash effect is very deliberate, and part of what makes the show so interesting.

While joy and sadness are polar opposites, there is a significant relationship between the two emotions. Laughter and tears are extreme expressions of these feelings, and often the most immediate and powerful responses media can elicit from us. One of the key elements of Bojack is this interaction between positivity and cynicism. Todd and Mr. Peanutbutter are relentlessly positive, bouncing back from failed schemes and emotional trauma with energy each time. Bojack, on the other hand, finds himself unable to stay at that level for too long. While their divergent personalities caused a lot of conflict in the first season, here Bojack opens up to Mr. Peanutbutter, telling him that “I want to feel good about myself – the way you do, but I don’t know how, I don’t know if I can”. Even PB’s positivity tends to be treated with slight irony, his naivety possibly setting him up for a fall. When he manages to land a job after putting absolutely no work in, he declares that “It just goes to show, with the right attitude, every single one of your dreams will always come true.”

Todd’s antics are mostly saved for the B-plots, and so are mostly entirely comedic, but even in this regard Bojack mixes things up. ‘Hank After Dark’, an otherwise brutal episode exploring the way the media vilifies outspoken women, features several background gags showing Todd’s adventure swapping lives with the Prince of a dictatorship. It lifts the mood until he reappears near the end of the episode, horrified by the fact that “a genocide may or may not have been perpetrated in my name”. The balance of light and dark storylines allow for the episode to have dramatic weight and humour, the comic bringing catharsis to the tragic. The way the series drops in and out of this balance feels purposeful, and the biggest laughs and most gut-wrenching moments often come when our emotional expectations are challenged.

The second season goes further to juxtapose the titular character’s optimistic youth with the cynical person he has become. Depression and self-destructive depraved behaviour arises out of the naïve, hopeful young Bojack. It’s in the premise of the show too, as behind the scenes of a popular, saccharine sitcom is a damaged alcoholic. It feeds into the overall tone – profound sadness cloaked in absurdist comedy. Powerful, emotional realisations take place – but all within an absurd, indifferent world. Where the show will end up remains unclear, as the end of the second season takes Bojack to a particularly dark place before showing him taking the first few steps towards becoming a better person. Regardless, it looks as if the series will continue to play with our expectations, both in its overall narrative and the trajectory of each joke.


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