(Originally published 12/20/2019)

On BoJack Horseman’s Impending Ending

Image via Fandom

With an eight-episode drop slated for January 31, BoJack Horseman — the first animated original series to air on Netflix — will come to an end. Endings are an opportunity for creators to shape how audiences will reflect on what they’ve seen. Given the tendency of television finales to determine the course of a show’s afterlife (Dallas, Buffy, Lost, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Mad Men, et al.) it’s hard to overstate the importance of a given series finale, let alone one as thoroughly and self-consciously steeped in that history as BoJack. From its very premise, which centers on the troubled, later life of its titular character (Will Arnett) — former star of a late ’80s/early ’90s Full-House-esque sitcom (Horsin’ Around) — to overt one-off gags, like when BoJack’s roommate Todd (Aaron Paul) is made to be responsible for The Sopranos’s iconic cut-to-black ending by accidentally destroying the last few frames of the reel — BoJack is patently haunted by the memory of its forebears.

However, if the first half of this final season (which established an unusually hopeful tone while somehow simultaneously anticipating its collapse, which we finally reach in the cliffhanger) is any indication, rather than setting the bar for the finale unreasonably high, BoJack’s reflexive relationship to television, its constant references to the medium’s history, will serve the series as well in its final breaths as it has throughout its six-season run. BoJack’s strength lies in its stance toward television — a self-awareness, which critics initially took to be unearned but which gradually became the core of the series. BoJack takes up the gaping emotional fissure between the contrived reality so often presented on television and the lived experiences of those who produce and consume it. By reminding us over and over that life is messier than television, BoJack does manage to do justice to life.

Image via IMDB

First-season reviews, however, were less than stellar. Mary McNamara wrote that “in parodying the celebrity life” the series “occasionally hits the mark,” but mostly “safely canters through familiar terrain: the oblivious narcissism of actors complete with drinking, drugs and random sex; the double-edge sword of social media, the ruthlessness of agents, etc., etc.,” Erik Adams also touched on its well-worn foundation, writing that “‘BoJack Horseman’ spoofs the emptiness of celebrity, but does so without any novelty or true insight.” Ben Travers observed that “again, we find ourselves watching a central character who’s an alcoholic asshole with a good heart,” and noted that even though the characterization develops considerably in the first six episodes (all that critics were allowed to prescreen of the twelve-episode first season) BoJack “is very comfortable in its own, slightly-too-familiar skin”

These reviews, which mistook the show’s preoccupation with the consequences of industry practice for a derivative and shallowly self-reflexive premise, were themselves the consequence of industry practice. Having been allowed to screen only the first half of season one, critics were unable to account for its eventual trajectory, which more than made good on its fluctuating emotional register by deftly exploring the more somber aspects of BoJack’s past. Initial gestures at BoJack’s traumatic upbringing may have seemed like a rationalization for his toxic behavior, but six seasons later it would feel wrong to reduce such a complex and believable character history to a derivative trope.

Image via Esquire

Any ending is cause for pause: to stop and reflect, often for the first time, at the moment an experience ceases to include you is only natural. Only then, when the limits have been marked, does it become possible to grasp something in its entirety, but BoJack invited such reflection throughout its run even as it insisted on dismantling the boundaries of reality and representation. Given that BoJack seeks to merge the experience of life as it is shown on screen with the experience of life as it is actually lived, to bring the messiness of life to television and vice versa, its finale feels like a formality. No matter how it wraps up, nothing will feel final and no limits will have been marked, for the series as a whole works to render such easy resolutions untenable.

In his dismissive initial review, Ben Travers opens with a quote from the beginning of the first episode, in which BoJack appears on Charlie Rose’s show to talk about Horsin’ Around: “It’s not Ibsen, sure,” BoJack concedes, “but look — for a lot of people, life is just one long kick in the urethra. Sometimes when you get home from a long day of getting kicked in the urethra, you just want to watch a show about good, likable people who love each other, where, no matter what happens, at the end of the thirty minutes everything is going to turn out OK.” Travers uses this quote as an example of how the series is “self-aware to a fault,” and effectively dismisses BoJack as an earnest regurgitation of “what those ’80s sitcoms did so well.” But rather than being a preemptive, reflexive justification of BoJack Horseman, Bojack’s defense of Horsin’ Around is posed as a counterpoint, for the show we’re actually watching is specifically nothing like those ’80s sitcoms. In fact, it dwells on the alienating, isolating dissonance that comes from internalizing the logic of such shows, which present life as a series of easy resolutions against the actual experience of life as a series of challenges, decisions, and consequences. BoJack is about flawed, relatable people getting kicked in the urethra, what they maybe did to deserve it, and why that doesn’t have to be the whole story. No matter what happens at the end — even if nothing turns out OK (read: especially if nothing turns out OK) — we’ll all likely feel a little less alone.