The summoning of Bojack Horseman

When I was teaching English, one of the staples of the course was an anthologized section from the Summoning of Everyman, the morality play written (most likely) in the 1500s. This allegory that raises the question of our own salvation and how to achieve it has created the framework for a continuing stream of novels, plays, and more recently movies and TV shows, and never any better than Bojack Horseman, the animated Netflix series whose final block of episodes was released on January 31.


Written by Raphael Bob-Waksburg, who also served as its showrunner, Bojack Horseman centered on a dissolute 90s TV star, a horse from the sitcom Horsin’ Around. Any successful animated series is sure to draw comparisons with the Simpsons, but there’s a major difference here. I say this with respect for one of my favorite aspects of Americana over the past thirty years, but the Simpsons deal with development and resolution in 22-minute cycles, with every new episode producing moments of awakening, of realization, of regret, and understanding. It's often poignant and frequently brilliant, and it has even enhanced our language, but the following week we start all over again.


Not so with Bojack. There’s an arc to his story as profound and consequential as that of any Shakespearean tragedy or medieval morality play. It is truly Everyman for the twenty-first century, and like Everyman there is darkness and despair along with an ever-present opportunity—sometimes even a quest—for redemption. Sure it’s about an anthropomorphic horse, a boundlessly happy yellow lab (Mr. Peanutbutter), a cat (Princess Carolyn), and a smattering of humans—Todd, Diane, Sarah-Lynn, others. That’s the kind of dichotomy that will turn off many viewers, and I won’t try to convince them otherwise except to say that they missed something significant...and that it’s still out there waiting to be streamed.


The 2000s had The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men; the 2010s had The Americans, the Leftovers, Homeland, and Bojack Horseman. They share a commonality—they all ask us to examine our lives, our relationships, our mistakes, our treatment of others. Early in season one of Bojack, Diane Nguyen, Bojack’s continual rescuer, reminds the depressed protagonist that we are responsible for our own happiness and peace. However, by series’ end she has rethought her own role in the universe:


—Diane: I wish I could have been the person you thought I was, the person who would save you.

—Bojack: That was never your job.

—Diane: Then why did you always make me feel like it was? ... I don't know, maybe it's everyone's job to save each other. 


Bojack Horseman remains the narrative for the age we live in—when we place a premium on empathy, when we face an epidemic of depression and loneliness, when #metoo has pulled the curtain back on horrible abuses, when we see cruelty disguised as policy, and when drug dependency has devastated a generation. Bojack stumbles through the same world we are stumbling through, and, since the anthropomorphic horse walks upright, he does it on two legs like his human counterparts. His behavior may be reprehensible and his actions appalling—he may be deserving of little if any sympathy—but Diane may be right: it still may be everyone’s job to save each other.


The Japanese art of “kintsugi” takes broken pottery and uses precious metal to bring the damaged piece back together. Kintsugi doesn’t attempt to hide the cracks, but to beautify them. In a moment of illumination Mr. Peanutbutter, the most stubbornly optimist character in the cast, cites that fact in his last conversation of the show. “Cracks in an object,” he says to Bojack, “are part of its history.”


Indeed they are, Mr. Peanutbutter. Indeed they are.




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