Among the many targets of barbed satire in BoJack Horseman’s third season—shameless popstars, Oscar-bait Holocaust movies, Jessica Biel—the only one the show shares an online home with is fellow Netflix original series Fuller House. But that toothless reboot has little in common with BoJack, an almost painfully bleak cartoon that features abortion, drug-fueled downward spirals, and clinical depression, along with other family-unfriendly topics.
In its latest season, the protagonist of BoJack Horseman, a middle-aged former sitcom star attempting a Hollywood comeback, is approached about appearing in a sequel to Horsin’ Around, the cheesy show that made him famous in the ’90s. (For the uninitiated: BoJack, in addition to being an alcoholic C-list celebrity, is also a talking horse. Just go with it.) A simulacrum of the heartwarming family sitcoms of the late ’80s and ’90s, Horsin’ Around, about a horse who adopts three orphans.
For BoJack Horseman, show-within-a-show Horsin’ Around is a frequent source of comedy. But it’s also more than that. Alongside its hodgepodge of genre influences—showbiz satire, slapstick comedy, nuanced character study—BoJack slyly borrows a tool from the cheesy family sitcoms it loves to mock: the neatly packaged life lesson. Of course, the lessons of BoJack Horseman don’t sound anything like the sappy, unearned messages offered by Full House and its compatriots: Lying is bad, nothing is more important than family, don’t do drugs. In BoJack, those kinds of pieties are mocked, pissed on, and snorted by the dissolute denizens of Hollywood. Yet Horsin’ Around is key to understanding why BoJack isn’t as cynical as it may seem. The saccharine lessons of Horsin’ Around are at the crux of this show’s existentialist DNA, central to the way it approaches the question of whether people can change.
Within the first few minutes of BoJack Horseman’s first episode, we learned (via animated Charlie Rose) that Horsin’ Around was dismissed by critics at the time as “broad” and “saccharine” and “not good.” And the snippets we see of the sitcom—mostly in brief scenes where a drunk or depressed BoJack watches reruns of himself on screen—show something worthy of that scorn. Like Full House (or Step by Step or Family Matters or any other Miller-Boyett production), Horsin’ Around is filled with obvious jokes, aggravating catchphrases, and clumsy puns. (“Neigh way, Jose” is one of the least nonsensical examples.) We hear about very special episodes tackling racism, eating disorders, and “not looking directly at a solar eclipse.”
Amid the disdain, though, BoJack treats its show-within-a-show as an object of melancholy wistfulness. For the horse in Horsin’ Around, all it took to create a meaningful life was being forced to adopt three kids. In the Season 3 finale, a self-isolated BoJack watches himself deliver a heartwarming message to his young ward in an old episode of the sitcom: “We’re a family now, no matter what, and I will always be there for you.” You get the sense that BoJack, who has failed everyone in his life, wishes the real world could be that simple.
The bright colors and talking animals allow BoJack Horseman to get away with self-serious dialogue—earnestly delivered lines like “All you are is just the things that you do” or “It doesn’t matter where you go; you can’t escape you”—without seeming pretentious or pat. And unlike Horsin’ Around or Full House, in the ultra-serialized BoJack Horseman, problems are never truly solved. (In an early episode, BoJack steals the “D” off the Hollywood sign; three seasons later, people are still calling it “Hollywoo.”) While characters may receive flashes of insight, the epiphanies rarely stick.
Last season ended with an epiphany so persuasive and motivating that I pinned a GIF of the scene onto my desktop. BoJack is collapsed on the grass, after trying to jog up a hill, when a bearded macaque in running shorts appears to offer a pearl of wisdom that wouldn’t be out of place in a self-help book or therapy session: “It gets easier. Every day, it gets a little easier. But you gotta do it every day. That’s the hard part.” The ending was hopeful and inspiring, and it was followed by a season where BoJack descended into even more unforgivable levels of self-destruction.
Lines like this resonate deeply with BoJack’s fans and are among the most shared lines from the show online. In a recent New York Times Magazine profile, show creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg is described as someone who “despite his biting humor still cries at Hallmark card commercials.” That explains a lot: The show he created is comfortable reaching for Hallmark-card levels of sentimentality. The season’s fourth episode, the wordless “Fish Out of Water,” follows BoJack to an underwater film festival where, unable to speak out loud, he struggles to apologize to a friend he has let down. His first attempt is clumsy, but at the episode’s end, after a strange and gorgeous journey, he scribbles down a note: “In this terrifying world, all we have are the connections that we make.”
Perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that the Times Magazine profile leads with a story about former Disney chairman Michael Eisner using BoJack Horseman to offer life advice to Michael Bloomberg’s girlfriend. The show offers rules to live by, even as its damaged, self-destructive characters ignore them. BoJack has been called cynical and nihilistic, but there’s a therapeutic quality to its portrait of spiritual malaise, as it turns psychological subtext into text.
The third season of BoJack Horseman finds BoJack consumed with the question of legacy: Will he be remembered for anything but the risible sitcom that made him famous? On a press junket for his new movie, Secretariat, the entertainment reporters keep insisting that Horsin’ Around was a “sucky show” and a “piece of shit.” But BoJack the show isn’t nearly as dismissive of Horsin’ Around as it may seem. (Bob-Waksberg recently told Vanity Fair that he’s seen and enjoyed every episode of Fuller House.) The show is relentlessly cynical about the people who produce television but not about the people who watch and love it. In the finale, after alienating most of his friends and taking his former co-star on a weekslong bender that kills her, he tells Diane (Alison Brie) that he has done nothing but make people’s lives worse.
“When I was a kid, I used to watch you on TV,” Diane tells him. “For half an hour a week, I got to watch this show about four people who had nobody, who came together and became a family. And for half an hour every week, I had a home. And it helped me survive. BoJack, there are millions of people who are better off for having known you.”
In BoJack Horseman, Hollywood is a corrosive swamp and the industry is run by the venal and dissolute. But television itself—even, and maybe especially, bad cheesy television with its sappy lessons and empty idealism—is a refuge.