You make me too sad.
Bojack Horseman hears these words from a woman that he loves. He’s driven from Los Angeles to New Mexico to try to break up her marriage. And as you probably expected, she says no. Because, if you spend time with the deeply sad Bojack, you’ll become deeply sad too.
So why do I, and so many of my friends, keep coming back to him? Why do I keep following Bojack to the depths of amorality, malice and despair? What am I looking for?
Is it schadenfreude? Am I a venomous person who finds comfort in the sorrows of an alcoholic whose traumatic childhood left him emotionally scarred for life? Or is it just empathy? Is it that Bojack is closer to the vulnerable, chaotic inner version of myself than I’d like to admit?
It’s a little of both, but not really either. After all, there are dozens of similarly wretched leading men on TV – on Californication, Dexter, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Seinfeld, yadda yadda. The reason I’m so captivated by Bojack is not that HE’s a flaming hot mess – it’s that the show is. Meta to the bone, it slings around Bojack’s rampaging, bipolar, self-loathing, attention-deficit-disorder spirit and barfs out a kaleidoscopic pastiche of styles and sentiments. Its refusal to be pinned down into a single role makes it one of the most unpredictable, and thus astonishing, shows on TV.
The first thing that “Bojack Horseman” wants you to know is that it’s an anti-sitcom. The beginning of the pilot briefly shows a clip of the saccharine sitcom “Horsin’ Around,” starring past-Bojack, then cuts to a plastered present-Bojack telling Charlie Rose that “life is just one hard kick in the urethra.” “Horsin’ Around” will be mined for contrast throughout the show, as a bleary-eyed, sofa-bound Bojack looks into a funhouse mirror of another life as a responsible, loving adult. Both Bojack and “Bojack Horseman” revile in the sitcom’s campiness, but can’t help be obsessed by its cleanness and optimism.
And so the shows speeds as far away from the multi-cam aesthetic as possible, into whirlwind-Birdman camera work, film noir detective drama, psychedelic acid trips, themed parties, flashy Spring Breakers crime. There are homages, five-second guest stars, mini-punchlines, cutaways, illustrated fables. Most of all, there are criticisms and “sick burns” against a lot of other things: the film industry, the 24-hour news cycle, the broke book industry, network television, pretentious theater, Bostonians, paparazzi, charity work, David Boreanaz.
There’s a saying that narcissists talk a lot in order to conceal deeply-held insecurities. Fittingly, much of the “Bojack Horseman” tomfoolery is smoke-and-mirrors distraction. The show tries everything, and makes fun of everything else, because it doesn’t quite know what it itself is. And when the show’s depressive core is revealed–whether it’s at the end of an epic, pills-fueled bender or in the midst of a live television game show with Daniel Radcliffe–it’s more crushing than you can possibly imagine.
Season three of “Bojack Horseman” came out on Netflix this week (way to bury the lede, dumbshit!). It traipses into the past to skewer the inanity of 2007 and lends a Scorsese-voiceover to a microtale of NYC disillusionment. And in typical fashion, the best episode uses an absurdist situational construct in order to conceal, and then reveal, a devastating truth.
In the season’s fourth episode, Bojack goes to an underwater city to promote a new movie. The water starts out as a comic device, as Bojack’s disintegrating cigarette and a hundred sardines packed in a room like, well, you know, are mined for easy laughs. You soon realize that Bojack can’t talk underwater, and that the whole episode will be mute, which turns it into a vivid commentary about alienation and cultural differences. It then rather abruptly turns into a male seahorse birth, then a hallucinatory trance music video, then a very silly take-off on “Jaws,” then a “stop that man!” taffy caper.
But what Bojack learns, after all that, is that his inability to communicate or admit his wrongdoings ruins his relationships, leaving him with no path forward into the future.
“Fish Out of Water” is dreamily animated, and flush with tiny punchlines and fascinating sounds. It’s a very pleasant world down at the Pacific Ocean Film Festival. But the silence becomes suffocating. And when Bojack looks at the note he has written for a betrayed friend, smeared and unreadable, you might recognize your own handwriting and lament the people you’ve lost due to bad decisions. And when the episode ends, you then realize a 22-minute silent movie about a horse protecting a baby seahorse underwater gave you an existential quarter-life crisis. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go take a shower so I can’t tell if I’m crying or not.