Okay, so let’s quickly recap what we’ve been over so far. The first part of this article established that Rick and Morty and Bojack Horseman represent major game changers to both the genres of comedy and animation, more specifically adult animation. This is because they are the first major series that chose to dedicate their thematic content to very real and seldom discussed topics. Instead of making cocksure political jabs, the comedic equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel, they both focus on the routine-but-perhaps-not-so-ordinary lives of their (apparently severely) depressed main characters. Rick Sanchez is a self-loathing narcissist who keeps his family at a distance with emotional abuse, and expresses a recurrent desire to die, by his own hand or otherwise. The other members of the family appear to be just as emotionally unsteady as Rick, and the season two finale finds him sacrificing his meager happiness for their well-being. That episode also marks a clear delineation towards the series’ move for continuity and broad story arcs, suggesting it may dive even further towards the dark themes at its core. As such, I made the dubious claim that Rick and Morty is, at least at this point, a humorous show with serious subject matter, while Bojack Horseman is a serious show with humorous subject matter.
To really prove this, you have to have more than a cursory knowledge of Bojack Horseman. When Netflix announced the series in the spring of 2014, it received little fanfare. Of course, Netflix ran an aggressive marketing campaign, standard for their productions, in the weeks just before the premiere, but critics and audiences were likely skeptic. Far from a unique production, Bojack Horseman seemed to be yet another series attempting to capitalize on the resurgence of popularity in animation among adolescent and adult audiences. The series takes place in a universe where humans and anthropomorphic animals live in coexistence. Bojack Horseman is the washed-up star of popular 90s sitcom “Horsin’ Around,” who know spends his days abusing drugs and wallowing in self-pity with his couch surfing housemate Todd, while his agent/ex-girlfriend Princess Carolyn (a cat) hounds him to whip himself back into shape. When he is assigned a memoirist to finish his autobiography, and his old acting rival Mr. Peanutbutter (a dog) reenters his life, things start to derail. By all accounts the initial episodes of the first season would even seem to confirm this mixed bag with most viewers. That is to say, these episodes only followed a loose sense story arc, instead focusing on random events involving Bojack’s rampant narcissism, and cheap animal puns.
By the middle of the first season, however, Bojack Horseman’s true colors begin to shine through. While the lighthearted gags and puns continue throughout the series, the plotlines increasingly become oriented around the show’s main plot threads, developing a continuous narrative arc. It quickly becomes apparent that Bojack isn’t like most shallow Hollywood personas. Beneath his intense narcissism and abrasive attitude, Bojack is evidently extremely depressed, as he often lets slip to his ghostwriter Diane before clarifying “but don’t put all that stuff about how sad I am in the book.” Despite this, he initially has no desire to change his ways, and often only sabotages himself and others into maintaining his cycle of unhappiness. In “Zoës and Zeldas,” Bojack deliberately ambushes Todd’s one chance at fame so that he can always have someone who won’t leave his side. “The Telescope” reveals that before the events of the show, Bojack betrayed his friend Herb Kazzaz, who created “Horsin’ Around” and was responsible for his fame, when the studio sought to fire him. In “Say Anything,” Princess Carolyn realizes Bojack kept her from happiness for years.
All of these events and relationships come to a head at the end of the first season. In “One Trick Pony,” Bojack discovers that Diane’s version of his memoir depicts him (accurately) as incredibly self-obsessed but tragically depressed, in direct defiance of his requests for the book. In an attempt to make him see it in a positive light, she publishes excerpts publicly on BuzzFeed. Bojack immediately fires her in response, which leads directly to the climax in “Downer Ending.” Now having to rewrite his memoir on a tight deadline, he stresses out and embarks on a drug fueled frenzy. Bojack immediately enters an intense bad trip, seeing terrifying hallucinations of all the people he’s betrayed or failed. Finally, he experiences a more normal, dream like hallucination of an idyllic alternate life where he married his old friend Charlotte and settled down. He wakes up face down in a parking lot in the rain, before proceeding on to a ghostwriter convention to confront Diane:
BOJACK: I don’t actually even care what the world thinks about me anymore. I just hated reading that book because I hated feeling like that’s how you saw me. Because I guess you know me better than anybody and if you think that- um. I guess my question is, do you think it’s too late for me? Am I just doomed to be the person that I am? The person in that book? It’s not too late for me, is it? It’s not too late- Diane, I need you to tell me that it’s not too late. I need you to tell me that I’m a good person. I know that I can be narcissistic, and selfish, and self-destructive but deep down underneath all that I’m a good person and I need you to tell me I’m good.
Unsurprisingly, Diane refuses to answer Bojack’s question leaving the room in an uncomfortable silence after he’s reached the lowest (so-far) depth of his behavior. In the epilogue, “Later,” it’s revealed that the book’s publishing revitalized Bojack’s career, but has damaged the few relationships he had. In response, Bojack determines to be a better person, so that his inner self will be the one people see.
Season two picks up from this point, with Bojack listening to motivational tapes in order to encourage his slow upward climb, and for a time, he certainly appears to be improving. With help from Princess Carolyn, he lands the lead role in a biopic about Secretariat. Shortly after that he begins a serious, stable relationship with Wanda Pierce (portrayed by Lisa Kudrow), an owl and network executive who just awoke from a thirty-year coma. However, it seems that things can’t go well too long. In “Yes And,” an alcoholic and depressed Diane moves into Bojack’s home after living a lie to spend time away from Mr. Peanutbutter. When Wanda singles her out as a negative influence and asks Bojack to kick her out, the two have a fight and quickly breakup.
In “Escape from LA,” following this and pressures from his film, Bojack takes off without warning to New Mexico in order to find his former friend Charlotte. He discovers that Charlotte is married with children, but quickly finds a place to live in their home as a dear friend. Months pass, and Bojack ignores the desperate attempts at contact from his friends in Los Angeles, having become part of the family. Bojack agrees to take Charlotte’s teenage daughter Penny to the prom, where he shows her how to enjoy herself without caring what others think. When they return home, Penny attempts to have sex with Bojack; he scolds her and sends her to bed. After a brief conversation with Charlotte, he confesses his love to her and begs her to feel the same. Horrified, she demands that Bojack leave in the morning for good. When she walks past Bojack’s trailer and hears voices, however, she enters to discover Penny in bed with Bojack. In shame and once again having reached rock bottom of a downward spiral, Bojack returns to LA to find that his friends haven’t fared much better. In the season finale, “Out to Sea,” Bojack attempts to right his wrongs by helping his friends work through their troubles. When it’s said and done, Bojack attempts to go for a run, but quickly gives up and lies down in the grass, where a man leans over to talk to him.
MAN: It gets easier.
MAN: Everyday it gets a little easier.
MAN: But you got to do it everyday. That’s the hard part. But it does get easier.
As the man leaves to continue running, Bojack stares up at the sky with a determined face, stating a mere “okay” as the screen cuts to black, leaving him in a bittersweet place.
So what separates Bojack Horseman from Rick and Morty is that its episode plots are wholly dedicated to exploring the depths of Bojack’s, and his friends’, emotional turmoil, with gags, puns, and absurd elements interspersed throughout to keep the show’s tone from spiraling too far into the melancholy. Choosing to watch Bojack Horseman is most often more than wanting to kill 30 minutes, it’s a conscious choice to watch an episode (quite possibly more than one) that will more than likely leave you feeling hollowed out by the end credits. In comparison, Rick and Morty’s episodes focus exclusively on completely absurd sci-fi plot threads, like hiveminds and interdimensional cable. It’s the underlying tension of Rick’s psychological state that propels the viewer forth to watch more, which sporadically culminates in moments like those from “Ricksy Business,” “Auto Erotic Assimilation,” and “The Wedding Squanchers.” Ultimately, however, both shows drive us towards similar examinations of ourselves in relation to the characters. Certainly due in large part to that fact, it appears that both are here to stay for a long time coming.
Nicholas Kohomban is the Head of Directors for VCTV, Vassar’s first and only student-run film production organization. Learn more at www.vctv.org