The Weird and Wonderful Storytelling of BoJack Horseman - Part 1

You can read this without having watched the show - don't worry.

I’m back. And so is this newsletter. Forgive me for how long it’s been, but, you know, *gestures vaguely*.

Last week, I watched three season of BoJack Horseman in two days. I’m surprised the Netflix account didn’t tweet about me like: To whoever just watched three seasons of one of the most depressing shows we offer in two days, we care about you and need to tell you to please seek treatment. I would have been okay with that, actually. After watching seasons three, four, and five, I really should have asked myself: am I okay?

The answer to that, I’m sure, is for another newsletter.

I watched the first season of BoJack Horseman when it originally aired. I wasn’t the biggest fan. Sure, it was kinda depressing in the way animated shows usually aren’t. Sure, it was depicting the more seedy side of Hollywood I’ve always been interested in. Sure, Will Arnett’s voice does to me what ASMR does to others. But, I wasn’t pulled in. When the second season aired, I half-ass watched the first few episodes and just quit. As the seasons progressed, the viral appeal of the episodes increased but not enough for me to actually go back and watch it. I knew there were episodes where there was unconventional storytelling or episodes that covered topics not usually addressed in TV, let alone animated TV shows. I just didn’t care enough to watch. It existed in my cultural consciousness as something I only knew circumstantially.

For those who haven’t watched BoJack Horseman or ever heard of it, BoJack Horseman follows its titular character BoJack, a former TV actor who found success on a late 90s TV show called “Horsing Around” and now is a self-loathing alcoholic. The first season introduces a slew of characters including: Todd, his freeloading roommate; Diane, the ghost-writer of BoJack’s memoir who eventually fills a bigger role in the series; Princess Carolyn, BoJack’s agent and sometimes girlfriend; and Mr. Peanut Butter, BoJack’s TV rival.

BoJack is a horse, Princess Carolyn is a cat, and Mr. Peanut Butter is a dog, while Diane and Todd are both humans. I don’t know how it works. It just does. The universe is some alternate reality where anthropomorphic animals live side-by-side with humans. They have sex with each other, too. Kinda crazy if you think about it, but don’t try to think about it too much.

BoJack Horseman, especially in the latter seasons, has taken creative liberty with its narrative storytelling. In each season, there is one episode that pushes the bar on how stories are told through television and how the animated aspect of the show enhances its storytelling to push new boundaries. In many ways, BoJack Horseman can only do the things it does because it is BoJack Horseman. Episodes become surrealists works with beautiful animation and horrifying depictions of a somewhat grounded reality. For this two-part newsletter, I wanted to briefly touch on a few of my favorites and how the storytelling works so well in inventive ways. As I stated in the preamble to this newsletter, you don’t have to have necessarily watched the show to understand these analyses but do watch the show. It’s great.

“Fish Out of Water” Season 3 Episode 4

BoJack Horseman - Netflix - “Fish Out of Water”

In the third season of BoJack Horseman, BoJack has come off of successfully filming “Secretariat” - a biopic of BoJack’s childhood hero a successful racehorse named Secretariat. During his press tour, BoJack travels to the Pacific Ocean Film Fest which is located underwater. The rules of the underwater environment are established quickly: you must wear a diver’s helmet for oxygen, so that means you cannot drink or smoke regularly. BoJack finds himself in silence, both unable to speak through the helmet and unable to comprehend the language of Pacific Ocean City. If you watch enough BoJack Horseman, you know that his favorite things are drinking, smoking, having sex, and talking. Most of what makes him who he is is taken away from him. He is frustrated again and again at how much he is a, *ahem* fish out of water.

In this episode, BoJack eventually takes a bus only to fall asleep and find himself out of the city stuck helping a male seahorse give birth. You know, the underwater equivalent to his species. His alternate reality.

BoJack Horseman - Netflix - “Fish Out of Water”
BoJack Horseman - Netflix - “Fish Out of Water”

After getting kicked off the bus and watching the male seahorse walk away with his newborn children (I know, stay with me here), BoJack is alone and 30 nautical miles away from Pacific Ocean City. Suddenly, he discovers that one newborn seahorse did not make it back with his father and BoJack makes it his mission to reunite the newborn seahorse with his father. BoJack and the seahorse go on a journey through the Pacific Ocean allowing for a host of new characters and environments to emerge: a shark who owns a convenience shop, phosphorescent sea creatures, and the taffy factory where the male seahorse works. BoJack eventually reunites father and seahorse and makes his way back to Pacific Ocean City.

What makes this episode so great is that there is almost no dialogue for the entire episode. The denizens of Pacific Ocean City speak a garbled language that is incoherent to the listener and BoJack. BoJack himself can’t be understood as the helmet prevents any sound from escaping. We watch in near silence as BoJack quickly creates a fatherly bond with this seahorse he cannot communicate with and risks his life to take care of the seahorse. “Fish Out of Water” effectively tells a poignant and personal story without the need of dialogue. We are in the water hearing the garbled sounds around us. We are as disoriented as BoJack.

In true BoJack Horseman fashion, we become sympathetic to BoJack’s cause only to be utterly disappointed in his choices. We want him to succeed despite how deeply flawed of a character he is. We watch him struggle, struggle to make sense of the world he’s been thrust in. We hope that, even after watching for two point five seasons, BoJack does some good. This episode isn’t without its dramatic irony. After unsuccessfully trying to reconcile with Kelsey Jannings - the other plot line of this episode that ends with BoJack writing an apology note only to have the ink dissolve in the water as a final fuck you to BoJack from Pacific Ocean City - BoJack stands silently in self-pity but is cut off by an abrasive man behind him yelling at him.

BoJack Horseman - Netflix - “Fish Out of Water”
BoJack Horseman - Netflix - “Fish Out of Water”

BoJack finds that his helmet had a speaker button he could have used this whole time. Before BoJack could even finish his sentence, the episode cuts to black. So good.

“Ruthie” Season 4 Episode 9

BoJack Horseman - Netflix - “Ruthie”

“Ruthie” tells the story of Princess Carolyn’s best day. The episode starts rather untraditionally - the narrator is a young cat named Ruthie, who we quickly learn is the great-great-great granddaughter of Princess Carolyn. Ruthie presents the best day of Princess Carolyn’s life for her “Ancestry Day” presentation. As the viewer, we naturally assume that this episode will revolve around Princess Carolyn becoming pregnant and having a child, a birth story told from the perspective of a future child trying to make sense of all the choices and moments that came together to create her lineage. We easily accept the realities of this situation as we had in the previously discussed episode “Fish Out of Water.”

What we learn is that this is the worst day of Princess Carolyn’s life.

But, as the viewer you know it’ll work out. Despite all of it, Princess Carolyn will give birth, have a child who will have a child and so on, and eventually, Ruthie will give her presentation. It has to work out, right?

So, we watch Princess Carolyn’s worst day. First, she heads to a rival agency to see if she can get her client Courtney Portney in:

“Corpse Me If You Can-Can” the 1940’s Cannes, France-set story of a can-can dancer who contracts cancer but continues to can-can as a canny cadaver who plays the accordion with Kevin Corrigan, Kevin Kline, Chris Klein, Chris Pine, and Chris Kattan.

God, this show’s writing is stellar.

But ends up getting fired by Courtney Portney. Next, Princess Carolyn finds that her precious family heirloom, her signature necklace, is actually a fake her mother gave her. She discovers that her trusted assistant Judah declined a merger deal that would have saved her company and fires him. At her gynecologist appointment with her albino Rhino gyno, she learns that she had a miscarriage. The albino Rhino gyno even kicks her when she’s down and states:

BoJack Horseman - Netflix - “Ruthie”

Rough. Or should I say, meow.

If you unsubscribe after that line, I don’t blame you. If you subscribe after reading that line, welcome:

So, Princess Carolyn’s day sucks. Absolutely terrible. I’m sure you’re asking yourself, but if she had a miscarriage, how was Ruthie born? In the end, Princess Carolyn finds herself in a self-induced solitude but is suddenly interrupted by a call from BoJack who selfishly tells her about how bad his day is. She attempts to console him with what helps her out on her worst day. She tells him:

BoJack Horseman - Netflix - “Ruthie”

I imagine my great-great-great granddaughter in the future talking to her class about me. She’s poised and funny and tells people about me and how everything worked out in the end. And when I think about that, I think about how everything’s gonna work out. Because how else could she tell people?

BoJack responds: “But it’s…fake.”

And Princess Carolyn states:

Yeah, well…it makes me feel better.

The narrative storytelling serves as both the dramatic irony element of the episode and, more so, as an embodiment of Princess Carolyn’s coping mechanism for dealing with the trauma of her miscarriage. What a gut puncher of an episode.

- to be continued in the next newsletter Wednesday, June 5th -

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