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Horsin’ around: discussing ‘BoJack Horseman’

and | Friday, September 16, 2016

“BoJack Horseman” is a fortunate anomaly of a show. Starting out as a relatively weak animated adult comedy, “BoJack Horseman” quickly evolved into a full-fledged character drama. Over the course of its three seasons, it has investigated the depression and anxiety connected to the way different personalities seek fulfillment and pulled no punches when portraying what happens to those who never find it. Myself and fellow Scene Writer Christian Bunker sat down in a cramped dark room to get into the BoJack spirit and dive into what the show’s excellent third season — which was released this past summer — has to offer.

John Darr: Alright, time to stop horsin’ around; let’s saddle up and rein in this conversation to discuss what we came here to discuss. Coming into season three of “BoJack Horseman,” what did you understand to be the position of BoJack, Diane, and Mr. Peanutbutter in the grand scheme of the show?

Christian Bunker: I had a pretty pessimistic view on Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter’s marriage. I thought that they would get divorced over the course of the season, but obviously I was wrong on that account. As for BoJack, I expected him to continue spiraling down. He pulls others down with him but for some reason — maybe his charisma, his celebrity or his appearance as a sort of male damsel in distress — others still tolerate him and even try to build relationships with him. He’s a static main character, which is weird; he repeatedly takes the same self-destructive actions regardless of what he situationally should be learning over the course of the show.

JD: That’s spot on. One of the oddest aspects of BoJack’s character is that he’s a sort of Trojan horse; the show feeds us this image of a person who should be able to change and every season we root for him to change. The big reveal at the end of each season is always the same: BoJack is a static character. He is an old horse who can’t learn new tricks, even when that trick is something as essential as finding and acting upon a set of values. He may have changed in subtle ways over the course of the seasons — he clearly values Todd’s friendship more than he used to — but even those changes don’t significantly change the course of his actions. I mean, he still slept with Todd’s childhood friend, which is not exactly the pinnacle of respect.

I think season two presented BoJack with the opportunity to establish a relationship with an individual, Wanda, who would give him honest feedback while loving him for who he is; basically, she gives him both accountability, and much-needed love and attention, while understanding that it will take time for him to change. Unfortunately, even though she’s the perfect companion to accompany BoJack on this personal journey, she realizes that BoJack can’t change fast enough, and that she’s going to waste too big of a chunk of her life trying to help a person who doesn’t really want to help himself.

I think we both agree that season two of BoJack Horseman was stronger than season three. How would you compare the two?

CB: Well, first of all, I want to say that season three is in no way a bad season; it just pales a bit in comparison to season two, which was excellent. Season two followed on the formula established in season three, so in that way it loses some of the freshness. Season two tackled charged political issues, especially that of sexual assault claims against celebrities, and managed to perfectly balance the show’s humor against incisive social commentary. To see that tactic recycled several times this season was a bit disappointing, even if the episodes were pretty successful. They’re also arguably replaying the death trope that they established with Hank’s funeral in season two with Captain Peanutbutter’s sudden illness as well as Sarah Lynn’s death.

JD: I agree that this season was more formulaic. That being said, I thought this season’s most politically charged episode, Brapp Brapp Pew Pew, tackled the issue of abortion wonderfully. It managed to contrast the media portrayal of abortion — the panel of white men in bow ties is absolutely phenomenal — versus the personal experience of going through one, all while managing to defend humor as a means for discussing really difficult issues. At this point, I think BoJack’s political episodes are becoming a real strength of the show even in spite of their seemingly formulaic nature; from “BoJack Hates the Troops” to “Hank After Dark” and even “Chickens,” BoJack has utilized its powerhouse cast and bizarre human/animal universe to deeply investigate controversial topics.

One aspect of season three that I do want to identify is the increasing density of the BoJack Universe. There is a flood of new characters and settings this season that is, at times, frankly overwhelming. Ana Spanikopita, Emily, Cuddlywhiskers, Jill Pill, Judah, Walter, Sandro, Captain Peanutbutter, Ralph and Stefani Stilton, The Closer, Jurj Clooners — that is a lot of names, real names, to be introduced during a 12-episode season of television. And then you also have the brand new, visually rich settings of the Labrador Peninsula, the Atlantean underwater city from “Fish Out of Water,” the ridiculously complex building where the Oscar Nomination ceremony is held — and that’s not even counting the dozens of scenes that take place in visual-joke-filled buildings that are seen once, then never again. This both benefits the show, which feels more colorful and rich than ever before, and hinders it by chipping away at the laser-like focus of the narratives it followed last season.

Speaking of focus, let’s jump back to the main characters we set out to investigate in this article. You’ve expressed before that you have a theory about BoJack, Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter in the greater context of the show. Could you elaborate on this?

CB: In my view, the three characters that we’re investigating form the core of the show, not only in the obvious plot sense, but also allegorically. The show itself is driven by regret, frustration and angst and BoJack, Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter represent the three different ways in which this can materialize. Diane embodies the kind of angst that is closest to the surface in most people. Her frustrations come mainly from social issues and political concerns, which makes sense since the show’s more political episodes typically revolve around her. For example, the Hank Hippopopulous episode about sexual harassment in season two and the abortion episode in this season are both driven by her actions. Moreover, one of the biggest character shifts in the show is the destabilization Diane experiences after seeing the tremendous poverty in Cordovia and her own inability to confront it. So she really is a very socially conscious person, but at the same time is fairly happy with who she is as a person and her place in the grand scheme of things, a sense of security that her counterparts clearly lack.

BoJack, then, represents angst that is entirely personal. Throughout the show he is tormented by whether or not he is a “good person” and makes many desperate attempts to become someone he can be happy with, yet continuously fails. In particular, this season we see him display intense regret over the catastrophically bad choices he made in New Mexico toward the end of season two. Unsurprisingly, we also see him try to lay those demons to rest, but fail. And while many times the show offers us a chance to rationalize BoJack’s abominable character by depicting how bad his childhood was, he never forgives himself and we as an audience can’t either. So throughout, BoJack remains indicative of the angst that comes from being unhappy with yourself and your choices.

Finally, there is Mr. Peanutbutter, who is, for the most part, a character completely devoid of angst. He is characterized as completely happy-go-lucky over and over and over, and the fact that he is a dog plays into this archetype as well. This season, we get to see his hometown in the Labrador Peninsula, which initially confirms all presuppositions about him. After all, the saying says, “Nothing bad ever happens on the Labrador Peninsula.” But when something bad does happen — the diagnosis of Mr. Peanutbutter’s beloved brother with a possibly fatal twisted spleen — the normally smiling dog exhibits a rare frown. His subsequent contemplation about death and the vastness of the universe reveal Mr. Peanutbutter as the archetype of existential angst in this show. He is comfortable with how the world is and who he is as a person, but for a brief moment we see Mr. Peanutbutter show true sadness. However, his contemplation of death disappears as quickly as it came, since life is too powerful a drug for death to distract anyone for long.

JD: That’s a pretty well-founded explanation. However, I would assert that Mr. Peanutbutter is not a stand-in for the “average person.” Mr. Peanutbutter has a lot of stability afforded by his financial situation and social finesse that allow him to distract himself beyond the point of really worrying about anything at all — something he himself admits. The only time where we really see him distressed is when he receives the news that his brother is sick. I would also add that BoJack is a very existential character as well. I think BoJack is consumed with personal existentialism — asking questions about why he isn’t happy, what his purpose is and similar questions because he doesn’t have values or relationships to fall back on when he loses his way. Mr. Peanutbutter is more of a situationally existential character who faces those questions far more rarely; his attention to others allows him to build and maintain a relatively good support system. Let’s also not forget that Mr. Peanutbutter always has his nihilistic philosophy to fall back on.

One thing I do find very interesting about Mr. Peanutbutter’s character is his relationship with Todd. Todd is, in many ways, Mr. Peanutbutter Mark II, but is in a very different position in life. They are both very happy-go-lucky people and rarely delve into deep things. In fact, Todd may only be a tool to allow the writers to explore wacky side plots with absurdist humor. Do you think that Todd has a place in the character construction you were talking about earlier?

CB: Todd mostly fits into my construction as a non-example. He has no angst, nor does he seem to really care about anything. He doesn’t even demonstrate any sexual passion, as the writers have hinted at for a while and reveal in this season. So if Todd were to feel angst, it would be out of frustration that he doesn’t feel angst like the rest of the characters do. I could imagine him stopping for a moment and wondering, “Why don’t I care about anything?” But then he would stop caring about that too.

JD: What a show.

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