Television

Diane Nguyen Was BoJack Horseman’s Most Flawed Character, and Its Most Important

Casting a white voice actress as its “Asian Daria” was a critical mistake. Fixing it was a critical opportunity.

Diane Nguyen in a scene from BoJack Horseman
Diane Nguyen in a scene from BoJack Horseman Season 5, Episode 2, “The Dog Days Are Over.”
Netflix

BoJack Horseman, the animated dark comedy that recently wrapped up its six seasons on Netflix, set a high bar for zaniness, particularly with its main cast. There was BoJack, the narcissistic addict movie star with deep reserves of callous zingers; Princess Carolyn, the highly competent Hollywoo powerhouse agent of alliteration; Todd Chavez, the earnest layabout in a constant state of upward free fall; and Mr. Peanutbutter, BoJack’s relentlessly likable and unflappable foil.

And then there’s Diane Nguyen. Hired to ghostwrite BoJack’s memoir in the show’s pilot, uptight, judgmental, dependable Diane stands in stark contrast with the circus around her. On a show full of nuanced weirdos, she’s practically a stock character, except for one clumsily executed fact: She’s Asian American.

At first glance, there’s little to like about Diane. A morally superior wet blanket and self-described nerd, she’s never as much fun to be around as her less-controlled friends. Immediately after BoJack starts working with Diane as his ghostwriter, he tells his publisher it’s not working out, dismissing her for being “so … functional.” But when BoJack meets her family, including the brothers who teased her by calling her “Cry-anne,” he realizes there’s damage beneath her deadpan.

That dysfunction, as it turns out, becomes essential to Diane’s identity. As the series progresses, she’s less and less the cute writer BoJack had a thing for when they first meet. Her Debbie Down–about-towning, her party-ruining, and her moral grandstanding are frequent causes of friction in her marriage. Her first major relationship after her divorce is saturated with her depression. “I’m not like you,” BoJack says to her in Season 3, “I don’t fetishize my own sadness.” Woof.

Diane’s essential lameness isn’t a mistake. She’s the story’s superego and straight man—in many ways, she’s Shadow BoJack. “I always tell people you’re like the not-cool version of me,” he says. That she understands his profound unhappiness without cutting him more slack than he deserves is crucial to the show and to their friendship. In the series’ final scene, she’s the one sitting next to him on a rooftop, their uncertain future telegraphed by muted, Graduate-like side glances. The lesson BoJack has to learn—over and over again—is how to be good to those around him, and as the only character with a consistent political and moral worldview, Diane’s high expectations of him occasionally propel him into healthier behavior.

Still, there’s this glaring question about Diane.

“What’s Diane’s deal again?” says Sarah Lynn says on her last bender with BoJack, after they’ve broken into Diane’s house. “She’s like an Asian Daria?”

“She’s a little more complex than that,” says BoJack.

“But she’s basically Asian Daria, right?” says Sarah Lynn.

Right?

Diane’s faint connection to her Vietnamese American heritage starts out as a loud punchline. When she and BoJack visit her blue-collar Boston caricature of a family, Diane’s brother Artie complains, in a nasal Southie drawl, that “all the jobs are going to immigrants these days.” When Diane points out that they are Vietnamese immigrants, he shoots back: “Step off! We’re American as pho!”

It could have worked. BoJack’s animated zoological zaniness creates a sort of utopia, in which animals of all species live together, albeit speaking (mostly) English and walking (mostly) upright. The audience is rarely confronted with signs of human “real-ness”; in six seasons, none of the characters except Diane and BoJack visibly age or change their looks. And there’s nothing unrealistic about an American child of immigrants who doesn’t speak her parents’ first language, has never been to her parents’ birth country, or doesn’t belong to a community with people from the same ethnic background.

Yet depictions of nuanced people of color on TV are rare enough that when they do appear, expectations get heaped onto their identity, serving as a basis for an interrogation of their ties to whatever group they’re meant to belong to. And more egregiously, the show could have filled its payroll with actors of color, and, at least initially, it didn’t.

If it weren’t for the bizarre choice to create a Vietnamese American character with no obvious reason to be Vietnamese American, especially one voiced by a white woman, BoJack might never have needed to reckon with its treatment of race. Alison Brie’s voice came to have an uncomfortable extra texture, and Diane came to represent a flaw core to the show—by trying hard not to represent race in any realistically human way, the inevitable happened: The show became, by default, white.

In January 2018, before Season 5 was released on Netflix, creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg tweeted his misgivings about “color-blind” casting and said if he were to start again, he wouldn’t have cast the show solely with white actors. That season the show very obviously beefed up its supporting cast with actors of color: Rami Malek, Hong Chau, Stephanie Beatriz, Issa Rae, and Wanda Sykes, among others.

By that season, Diane’s lack of connection to being Vietnamese had hardened into a scab ready for picking. After her divorce from Mr. Peanutbutter, she goes to Vietnam for the first time and writes a checklist whose first item is “reconnecting with your ancestral roots.” The episode cleverly plays with those expectations as well as the pain of going looking for a shared heritage that doesn’t, or can’t, exist.

One of my favorite bits of wordplay on the show happens in this episode, written by Latina writer Joanna Calo in consultation with Vietnamese American actress VyVy Nguyen. Narrating the travel guide listicle she’s writing about Vietnam, Diane says, “You want to truly immerse yourself and get the full, non-L.A. experience.” She then runs smack into a stack of nón lá, Vietnam’s iconic conical hat. In that gap between Season 1’s pho joke (the laziest of all Vietnamese-to-English gags) and one that can only be appreciated by someone who speaks Vietnamese or has spent time in the country, there’s considerable, and considered, progress.

Diane probably should have been white. But several seasons in, BoJack Horseman couldn’t undo this clumsily written ethnic designation, and Bob-Waksberg couldn’t, or wouldn’t, replace Brie as her voice. But the way he tried to deal with it, however imperfectly, made the show better. On screen, it brought to life Diane’s social isolation. But it also highlighted the way Asian Americans often do move in society as white, and raised questions about how characters of color are expected to represent their groups. And most importantly, it taught a visible white male producer an essential lesson: that a character may choose to ignore their identity, but its creators can’t.

There is ultimately something personally liberating about Diane Nguyen. It’s freeing to see a character on a well-written mainstream(ish) American TV show who really does “look” exactly like me—a judgmental liberal Vietnamese American Daria-type writer—and feel no obligation to identify with her, to have the choice to say, man, I’d still rather be that cat lady. When it comes to developing great characters of color, Hollywood can’t only add badass innovator princesses and basically perfect rom-com heroines. To make progress, we need wet blankets of color, too.

The correction still went off course more than once. In Season 6, Diane starts a relationship with Guy, a buffalo voiced by Lakeith Stanfield who, notwithstanding his species, is coded as black. In contrast to Mr. Peanutbutter, who famously stood for nothing, Guy is grounded and ostensibly shares Diane’s politics. But ultimately it’s a missed opportunity, not just for characters of color on the show but also for Diane. Her new love interest, for all the superficial things going for him, is frustratingly devoid of any personality, failing to deliver a single funny or clever line in the seven episodes in which he appears.

In the last season, BoJack seemed to set aside its insecurity about Diane by embracing a part of her identity that’s, in a weird way, far safer: her mental health. There’s a hint of what’s coming at the end of Season 5. After Diane takes BoJack to rehab, reflecting on him finally being able to admit that he needs help, she seems to consider asking for some herself. Her face falls with the weight of carrying so many of BoJack’s issues on top of her own for so many years, and the season ends with her driving alone down the Pacific Coast Highway.

The last episodes see Diane ultimately distancing herself from BoJack, first by moving out of Los Angeles, then by walking out on him when he asks for help with the fallout of the Sarah Lynn story. By Season 6, her failed attempts to speak truth to power have stacked up like piles of unread magazines: serial predator Hank Hippopopalous, faux philanthropist Sebastian St. Clair, the Amazon-like conglomerate Whitewhale, even some of the worst truths about BoJack. She finally trades in her memoir from the “front lines of the war on women” for a young adult series about a bubbly preteen food-court detective, her Daria jacket for flowy dresses, her untreated depression for a modicum of lightness. And she has to give up Hollywoo, and BoJack, maybe for good.

The final scene shows the two side by side. The line “Hey wouldn’t it be funny if this night was the last time we ever talked to each other?” hangs heavy in the air. It’s clear that they both need to move on from their asocial tendencies for healthier relationships. For BoJack, that might mean moving toward her. For Diane, that almost definitely means moving away from him.