As the 2020s begin, a show that personified the 2010s has come to an end. Bojack Horseman, called the “Defining TV Series of Our Time” by Paste, aired its final season on Netflix last week. What started out as an irreverent, cynical comedy in the first wave of streaming television quickly became a cultural touchstone, acclaimed for its sharp humor and weighty themes. For six seasons, Bojack has explored topics that defined the 2010s: mental health, power structures, celebrity culture, substance abuse, media narratives, and #MeToo. Despite the fact that the world of the show was filled with anthropomorphic animals, Bojack Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg and his team crafted a story that dealt bluntly and honestly with what it means to be human.
Although the first season was met with uneven reviews, Bojack was funny from the beginning. Each episode combined silly puns, high-minded satire, and jokes that took several rewatches to understand. The season one episode, “Bojack Hates the Troops”, is a perfect example of this balance. When Bojack accidentally steals a muffin from a sailor, the media finds out and blows the story out of proportion. As the ridiculousness and hypocrisy of the 24-hour news cycle are lampooned, the news anchor deadpans the line, “There is nothing the least bit funny about stealing a meal from Neal McBeal the Navy Seal.” Bojack was able to lean into this silliness even as it delved into the depths of the human psyche.
The show became more than a satire of Hollywood. The characters we were laughing at began to grapple with their problems, bringing the audience to uncomfortable places. Bojack struggled with addiction and depression, never sure what was wrong with him or how he could get better. He got conflicting messages from those around him. His mother—a cruel woman who had a traumatizing childhood herself—told Bojack, “You were born broken,” defining his problems as innate and unshakable. Later, after his friend Todd gets fed up, he tells Bojack, “You are all the things that are wrong with you. It's not the alcohol or the drugs or any of the shitty things that happened to you in your career or when you were a kid, it's you!”
A strength of the show was its ability to eschew traditional narratives. One episode, for instance, found the characters underwater and unable to speak. Lost in a strange world without any means of communicating, Bojack had to find new ways to connect with those around him. Another episode had Bojack delivering a eulogy for 26 minutes straight. His rambling speech gave him time to process the grief of his mother’s death. These episodes are fun and daring, but they also help the audience relate to the characters in dynamic ways.
What’s more, making these bold choices allows for subversive, compelling ideas to be explored. A season six episode, “A Quick One, While He’s Away,” directs attention away from the five main characters and instead follows people who have been affected by Bojack’s actions. An actress who he assaulted on-set now struggles to find work because she’s seen as “difficult.” Even worse, a teenager who he traumatized with alcohol now struggles with anxiety attacks. By focusing on these people, instead of the titular character, Bob-Waksberg illustrates how easily-liked people can be forgiven, but their actions still have consequences.
In the final episode, there are few neat endings. Bojack is sober but unsure of how long it will last. Unlike a sitcom in which characters always end up happy, Bojack recognizes that real life is not so perfect. There are always ups and downs, endings that morph into beginnings. Managing to find meaning in all that chaos is the hardest, but the most worthwhile part of life’s instability. While we long for a happy ending to this horse’s dark narrative, Bojack succeeds because it illuminates the beauty of uncertainty.