Before delving into the mechanics of how BoJack Horseman simultaneously accumulated a dedicated fan base and equally appreciative critics and film scholars, it would help to dive deeper into the past of the animation industry itself.
Going as far back as the 1870s, this was the period where the vaudevillians Joe Weber and Lew Fields began to produce their well-known comedic acts. These traditions would go on to influence the Fleischers, who adopted the “two-act” form and concocted a relationship between their inversely sized protagonist and antagonist, which existed in the “material order of an industrial society, [where] the very closeness that brings friendship brings also exploitation, antagonism and ultimately violence” (Langer 9), a notion that strongly resembles the interpersonal relationship dynamics of BoJack Horseman’s characters.
In the context of the show, most of the primary characters know each other through their professional settings and capacities. Both strong ties and weak ties in the web of their social circle are mostly through their roles in and around “Hollywoo”. For instance, BoJack considers Mr. Peanutbutter an industry arch-rival, even though the latter might not think the same, and Mr. Peanutbutter’s former girlfriend Diane Nguyen proceeds to become BoJack’s ghostwriter first, and then gradually forms a difficult, codependent friendship with him. Princess Carolyn was BoJack’s former agent (then manager), through whom she meets Todd, who proceeds to become a nanny-like figure to her daughter in later seasons. Sarah Lynn, a former child actor who dies of an overdose, is first exposed to drugs through BoJack on their Horsin’ Around set, and meets her tragic end while consuming drugs with BoJack Horseman, an occurrence that is indicative of coming full circle.
There are instances where viewers witness relationships in more personal capacities, such as backstories to BoJack, Diane, and Todd’s families, but of course these are motivated more so by blood relation than by ulterior motives of finding personal or monetary gain through social connection. Speaking specifically in cases of the latter, the outcomes of these relationships are often fatal, and reflect strongly the notions that Langer set in terms of the Fleischers’ characters. Herb Kazzaz is the creator of Horsin’ Around, the show that skyrockets BoJack to fame. When a wrongful public scandal places his career in danger, BoJack shies away from siding with him and protects his own self-interests instead, creating a sense of antagonism between the two for years to come until Kazzaz’s death from cancer.
Mr. Witherspoon is the head of Vigor, presumably a Hollywood management agency, who constantly disregards the results of Princess Carolyn’s talent and efforts, by often commending his useless son Charley Witherspoon instead. Aside from the idea that this is a showcase of Hollywood nepotism, it also highlights the exploitation that Princess Carolyn suffers at the hands of the Witherspoons.
Lastly, violence is exhibited when BoJack Horseman is shooting a scene with his co-star Gina who he nearly strangles her to death because he is intoxicated on opioids. Not only does this momentarily endanger her life, it also kills any authenticity attached to her name in her acting career, because now she is primarily known as the woman who was “choked by BoJack Horseman”. All these isolated incidents point to Langer’s singular notion that in this society, all of their relationships bring with them “exploitation”, “antagonism”, and “violence”, all of which are especially pronounced in their dealings with BoJack himself.
In presenting these situations, the primarily animal world of the show exposes several human truths.
In trailblazing in this era of television content with more taboo themes, there came a transformation in how media commented on society, with shows “more readily [reinvigorating] the debate on the problems the American society faces” (Saura 293), especially with BoJack Horseman “not only [expressing] some public discussions going on at the time of emission (like sociopolitical issues, #MeToo, environmental issues etc.) but also [returning] many of their criticisms to the other side of the screen should not go overlooked” (ibid), something represented by the countless ways that the show’s metacommentary.
In early 2020, BoJack Horseman aired Episode 16 of Season 6, which was its last episode as a Netflix Original series. Also written by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, this episode provided closure, which came with BoJack’s conclusive individual conversations with some of the primary characters, namely Princess Carolyn, Diane Nguyen, Mr. Peanutbutter, and Todd Chavez. Each interaction carried its own weight, revealing the point that all of their relationships had reached with BoJack, and where their lives might lead them to next. However, while this episode marked the closing of this series as a whole, it left a lasting impact amongst film scholars that have been studying and documenting its place in animated television history like those before them.
A relatively recent research study dubbed BoJack Horseman a “smart sitcom”, describing it to have a “morally bankrupt antihero, employment of pointedly referential narrative arcs, intelligent treatment of mature themes and current affairs, and deep affection for irony” (Falvey 118), generally summarizing the points that my commentary has attempted to make.
This statement also works to reinforce the prior point about the show’s nuanced depictions of mature themes, which stray from the general escapism of animation and resonate with the deep-seated fears and imperfections of audiences and people at large.