On some level, relatability is essential to good storytelling. We need to understand what characters feel in order to care about what happens to them, and that is far more potent if we can see ourselves in their plight. But so many of the best shows of television are only relatable in the abstract. We may feel the wounded pride at the heart of Breaking Bad, the masculine insecurity that fuels the characters in True Detective and anybody who has ever been in an emotionally abusive relationship is certain to empathise with a lot of what goes on in Hannibal, but the circumstances of those shows are so far removed from the lives of most of us and the parts we relate to are ultimately minor threads in the grand scheme of things.
A lot of things made Mad Men special, but chief among them was just how uncomfortably familiar the characters always were. Don Draper lived in a constant futile desperation to make his life more like the advertisements he peddled, a hunt for an artificial happiness that he helped convince the world existed. The reason this hit home so hard is because so many of us yearn for something more, something that we can’t even properly define, and maybe that is the simple happy endings that we see in television, film and even advertising. In a movie, Don’s impulsive proposal to Megan would have been the happy ending to a sad story; champagne and smiles all round. In real life, and in a TV show that excelled at emulating the vagaries and frustrations of real life, that was not the case. Don wanted to tie everything up with a neat bow, but unlike the happy ending of a movie he still had to get up the next day and live with the choice he had made, a choice that became more clearly foolish the longer he stayed in a marriage with a woman who was very different to what she seemed to represent to him.
The thing about real life is that even when we get everything we want, those things may not be what we want years down the line. We can strive for perfection but that elusive aim always shifts as we grow and change as people and so on some level the pursuit of happiness is akin to being a greyhound chasing a fake rabbit that’s engineered to always be just ahead of us. And that, more than the smart suits, the booze and the charisma, is what made us take so strongly to Don Draper. He may have seemed like everything we want to be, but the tragedy is that he is actually everything we really are. Melancholic, selfish, perpetually unsatisfied and obsessed with his own past; both escaping it and reliving it. Like the best characters he holds a mirror up to us, but unlike most he holds a mirror to the parts of ourselves that we are not so inclined to share with the rest of the world. That is what made Don so special.
Now imagine that character, that beautifully, elegantly written character, is an anthropomorphic horse.
The early episodes of BoJack Horseman weren’t promising; it seemed like territory that had already been well trod by better shows. An alcoholic man-child with commitment issues as the central character of an absurdist animated comedy? There was nothing BoJack Horseman was doing that Archer hadn’t already done. And it didn’t help that a lot of the jokes kind of fell flat. Sure, there was a stellar voice cast on board, but there wasn’t a whole lot to make the show really stand out. And if it wasn’t for the Netflix model of giving us a whole season at once, I doubt I would have stuck around for episode two. But, on a lazy rainy day it’s easy to just let the next play and the next. BoJack wasn’t bad, just a little unoriginal.
Editor’s note: It looks like Vox beat us to this Mad Men thought, but nonetheless…
Then came the end of episode four. BoJack spent the half hour at first reluctantly then with slowly growing enthusiasm helping his directionless housemate Todd pen a rock opera. It’s pretty standard sitcom fare. Naturally everything falls apart at the end, as things are wont to do in animated black comedies. But as Diane’s ex-boyfriend gave a heartfelt speech about the fact that people don’t really change, we saw in montage that the failure of Todd’s promising career came about because BoJack had knowingly sabotaged him. And it wasn’t funny. Sure, there was a slight chortle at the fact that “Character Actress Margo Martindale” had been a part of the scheme, but this scene wasn’t a joke; it was the first time we realised just how damaged BoJack really was. Because as much as he abused and belittled Todd, he couldn’t stand to be without his company. It was a dark, sombre, surprising note for the show.
And that moment might have only been an anomaly, but over the course of the first season BoJack Horseman leaned deeper and deeper into real emotional complexity. We saw how disillusioned and unsure of her direction in life BoJack’s seemingly well-adjusted biographer Diane was. We saw a growing sense of worthlessness in otherwise charming slacker Todd and the endless frustrations of BoJack’s acerbic agent Princess Caroline. And in the centre of it all we had BoJack, a man (horse) who got everything he wanted and didn’t know where to go from there. A man who missed what may have been his one chance of happiness because he was so busy chasing the things he believed he wanted when he was young and reckless. A man who constantly sabotages himself and everything around him out of a dangerous combination of cowardice, bitterness and spite.
Any screenwriting class will tell you that one of the most crucial things in storytelling is making the audience care about your characters. On the surface, there is little reason for us to give a crap about a washed up, self-centred sitcom star drinking his life away in his expensive mansion. Likewise the life of an alcoholic, adulterous ad man is unlikely fodder for empathy. But the brilliance of both BoJack and Mad Men was in finding a palatable veneer to draw us in, before taking time to establish how deplorable the respective central characters are. But there will always be something to root for in the story of a bad person who wants to change, and that is what keeps us coming back, no matter how many people BoJack or Don hurt.
The themes and characters of BoJack would not be out of place in a serious minded, live-action drama, but perhaps the greatest masterstroke of this show was choosing the format of an animated sitcom to tell its story. Certain expectations come with the medium, and so BoJack’s shift into dark, existential, character-driven drama was a thrilling surprise; it used its genre like a Trojan Horse to lull us into a false sense of security before hitting us with what it really wanted to talk about. In the early episodes, BoJack’s fixation on his past seemed like a dark joke; as the series went on it revealed itself as a tragic pathological obsession, an obsession that reached its logical endpoint in the penultimate episode of the second season.
The penultimate season two episode sees BoJack leave his job and friends behind to travel to new Mexico and find Charlotte, the one that got away. It’s strongly reminiscent of all the times Don Draper did the exact same thing; abandoning his life when things got too difficult in order to pursue fantasies instead. Even the way the episode played out felt entirely like a Mad Men plot; learning that Charlotte is happily married, BoJack instead fixates on her daughter Penny, who happens to be the spitting image of her. This should be and is repulsive, but it’s made extremely clear that BoJack’s flirtation with a seventeen-year-old is less a sexual thing and more a symptom of his desperation to hold on to his past. He tells Penny as much as they release balloons out over the desert; “you remind me so much of your mother.” Right when the whole thing starts to seem creepy, BoJack rejects Penny’s advances and goes to talk to Charlotte. He wants to reminisce but instead he gets a serving of the kind of brutal truth that Don Draper might have benefitted from, “it doesn’t matter where you go, you can’t escape you.” BoJack might want to run away with Charlotte, but she is an adult now; too wise and mature to deal with BoJack’s brand of arrested development. So BoJack does the exact thing we feared he would; he returns to Penny, a version of Charlotte who think he is impressive and attractive, a version of Charlotte with whom he can pretend he’s still young and hopeful.
But the real Charlotte catches them and her admonishment is both gutting and completely justified; “If you come near me or my family again, I will fucking kill you.”
Nobody ever called Don Draper out on his bullshit so powerfully, or at least, nobody who Don cared enough about to listen to. In his need to reconnect with his past, BoJack has burned that bridge for good and now he has no choice but to move forward. It’s an immensely moving and powerful episode of television, building on what we know about this character and his backstory to go to the kind of territory that few shows would dare to.
Did I mention that this show is still about anthropomorphic animals?
Even the absurdist humour in BoJack Horseman is layered. One of the show’s best recurring gags is Princess Caroline’s boyfriend “Vincent Adultman,” a businessman who is quite clearly three kids on top of each other wearing a trenchcoat. It’s the kind of dumb joke that gets funnier and funnier the more oblivious to it the characters are, with BoJack seemingly the only person who realizes what is really going on. In a recent interview with Vulture, BoJack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg explained why the character really resonates so much:
“Why am I wearing a tie? It’s because I saw an adult wear a tie and I thought, Oh, that’s what people do. We’re all just trying to be what an adult is. I don’t know, I don’t know how to do anything. I’m just like, doing impressions of what I’ve seen other people do, and hoping no one knows that I’m actually just a little monster in a human suit making my arms go up and down. That’s why so many people respond to Vincent Adultman, because I think we all sometimes feel like three kids stacked on top of each other under a trench coat. Like, I’m not a real person, and I’m terrified that people are gonna find out.”
And it makes perfect sense. This is the kind of show that can make even an uproariously funny gag into a sly commentary on maturity and how much on some level we are all just kids with no idea what we’re doing, trying and often failing to grow up.
After those uneven early episodes, even the humour really managed to click into place. The sight gags got sharper and funnier and the Hollywood satire went from fairly shallow to quite brilliant. A Diane-centric episode in the second season delivered a cutting commentary on the Bill Cosby case and the way we allow celebrities to get away with things, blaming the victims and those who chose to speak out rather than confront the fact that people we idolise might be capable of reprehensible things. It’s a blackly funny episode that builds to a downbeat conclusion as Diane is driven away and criticised by her loved ones purely for trying to do the right thing.
One thing the second season excelled at was developing the supporting characters outside BoJack in new and unexpected directions. Mr. Peanutbutter, established early on as BoJack’s foil and rival was always depicted as a fairly simple, happy-go-lucky character; after all, he is a walking, talking Labrador. And this doesn’t change, but it does take on new depth when he is put up against the other characters in the show. In one episode that focusses on three romantic relationships in the aftermath of a disastrous surprise party, Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter’s relationship is put under the microscope. Early on, their relationship seemed like one that was doomed to fail and their marriage in the first season at least for a time just appeared to be another obstacle that BoJack had to overcome to get together with Diane.
Instead, the show subverted this, demonstrating that these two really did love each other, but their differences were going to cause huge problems. Mr. Peanutbutter explains to Diane that when she’s out working, he just sits at home and waits for her. “I’m an old dog,” he admits, and while Diane wants excitement and adventure, Mr. Peanutbutter has done all that and just wants to be with her. But where a lesser show might have made this the point of division, BoJack let its characters do the mature thing, to accept their differences and love each other for them. That’s not to say further problems won’t arise (they do) but it’s a somewhat hopeful suggestion that just because things seem doomed, doesn’t always mean they are.
There are large thematic and even some plot similarities between BoJack Horseman and Mad Men, but crucially BoJack is very much its own beast with its own concerns and method of exploring them. Vincent Adultman is perhaps a perfect metaphor for the show at large; on the surface funny and ridiculous, at its heart dark and replete with painful emotional truth. Mad Men’s conclusion this year left an undeniable void. It seems we’ve found the exact show to fill it.