Approximately three and a half lifetimes ago (which, in 2020, means late January), Netflix released the final episodes of it’s stellar animated series “BoJack Horseman,” which bewitched viewers with its fantastical anthropomorphized version of Hollywood, while exploring mental illness, addiction, aging, sexual identity, and existential ennui with a nuance rarely matched on television.
But when the series debuted in 2014, it wasn’t immediately clear to some people, including myself, what kind of story the show was telling. The first six episodes — all that were made available to critics beforehand — were locked into the perspective of its eponymous lead, who, yes, was a horse man, but who on the surface appeared to be that same acerbic antihero that TV was finally growing out of.
Which is all a long-winded way of saying that when I watched the first six episodes of “BoJack Horseman,” I really didn’t get it. At least, not until Episode 7, in which the audience finally gets an opportunity to see the world through the eyes of BoJack’s ex-girlfriend and current agent Princess Carolyn. Suddenly, the show snapped into place for me. It wasn’t an apology for BoJack’s jerkdom, it was an examination of toxic masculinity, an evisceration of Hollywood, and there were puns. So many puns.
I hate puns.
It wasn’t the puns that made me fall in love with “BoJack Horseman,” it was the way the series engaged with depression and anxiety. How it depicted women of all ages struggling to reconcile what they wanted with what they had and processing what happened next if they couldn’t make their own dreams come true. It was a colorful, surreal series that lured you in, took your hand, and then opened the door to a swirling abyss. It made you examine the darkest places inside yourself, while never forcing you to do it by yourself. It was always right beside you, bearing witness.
And as hard as I’ve tried to write a fitting in memoriam for a show that devastated and delighted me in equal parts, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, creator and showrunner of the Emmy-nominated series, spoke at length to IndieWire recently about how “BoJack” began, how it grew, and the show’s legacy now that it’s gone. Who better to tell you about BoJack’s journey than the artist himself, in his own words?
Courtesy of Netflix
On how easy it is to be bad
“While ‘BoJack’ was still in development, I’d read as many scripts as I could, and there were not that many because reading is hard. But I would read all these scripts and I would notice certain patterns, right? And I’m not breaking any news here by saying one of the patterns I noticed that really upset me was how often every female character in a pilot was a sex object for somebody or a romantic interest for somebody or, basically, her defining feature is how they are wanted or not wanted by a male character. Not like a couple of female characters, but literally every female character from the leads all the way down to the day players in a pilot script. And so I would make a habit of noting every time it happens, I’m like, ‘I don’t want to meet on that show. That sounds like bad news.'”
“So then it’s time for my show to happen, which is like, ‘Yes, I can finally make the show I want to make. Let’s take a look at this pilot that I wrote two years ago that we’re making now.’ So it’s just like, ‘Oh, we have the agent that he’s sleeping with that he doesn’t care for very much and then we meet his new love interest right away. I’m like, ‘Oh, I did the thing that I said was bad.’ It’s so much easier than I thought to be bad. I thought it would be easy to be good and you have to be carefully taught to be bad, but no, being bad is the default.”
“Then I was like, all right, well, my work for this season is to dimensionalize these female characters and give them life so they don’t just feel like they are a function of BoJack’s personality. And that is, I think, the challenge is that when you have a strong protagonist-focused show as opposed to an ensemble show, which I think, ‘BoJack’ in some ways is ensemble-y, but was still, at the end of the day, the BoJack Horseman show. So when you have a main character, typically, especially in the first episode, every other character is defined by their relationship with the main character and how he sees them and how they are a foil to him, so it was a challenge.”
“We didn’t want to just go, ‘OK, now here’s Diane, she’s going to go to her friend’s house and talk about something completely unrelated to BoJack,’ just so we can say that we did that. So we did try to find ways to give Princess Carolyn and Diane their own stuff and find ways for them to be funny where they were not just the object of the joke, but that they could be funny as well.”
Courtesy of Netflix
On the original critical response to Season 1
“I remember the first season of ‘BoJack,’ it felt like I was putting myself on display. I felt like I was pulling out my naked heart from my chest and putting it on a little plate with some garnish and being like, ‘What do you think, folks?'”
“I guess, the implication that I didn’t care about the show destroyed me. It was like, ‘No, no, it’s OK if you don’t like it, but just please know that I worked really, really hard on this thing that you don’t like.’ That’s important and it really changed the way that I look at other shows, shows that maybe I might’ve dismissed as lazy or a cash grab. I started to think, ‘Well, nobody makes a show just thinking, “Yeah, yeah, this will be easy.”‘ It’s a very hard thing to do. It’s a lot of work and a lot of people coming in every day and trying their hardest to not make a terrible thing. And the fact that so much TV is terrible just underscores how hard it is.
“But I’ve worked on shows and other projects that just did not work at all, and every moment it was me and everybody around me killing ourselves trying to make it work. Sure, maybe there are creatives that don’t care, but I find it impossible to not. If you don’t care it doesn’t make the job easier, it makes it much, much harder. So I don’t know if those shows actually exist, shows made by people who really didn’t care.”
On what the show became
“For me, the most powerful thing about this show is when I meet people and they tell me that the show has helped them in some way. Particularly that it has articulated a feeling that they’ve never been able to put into words before, or it gave them something they can point to and go, ‘Oh, that’s like me.’ That that they were able to really use that to help themselves or to explain themselves to somebody else.”
“That’s not necessarily what I had in mind when I was creating the show at the beginning, but as the show continued and people started telling me that, it felt profoundly important. And that to me is my proudest accomplishment with the show. That it is, I think first and foremost, it is a show that can be enjoyed and it is entertainment, but that it’s also helping people.”
Courtesy of Netflix
On the larger legacy of “BoJack Horseman”
“I hope that it doesn’t lead to we have 15 shows that are exactly like ‘BoJack Horseman.’ That could be very disappointing, both to the larger audience, but also to me to discover that it’s that easy to just make a ‘BoJack Horseman.’ But I would hope that ‘BoJack’ has maybe changed the way people think about the kinds of stories that are allowed to be told in animation. And I think a lot about… I think a lot about this? No, that’s a lie. I’m just thinking about this now for the first time. I remember an interview I read with Joey Soloway that when they saw ‘Girls’ for the first time they were blown away.”
“They were like, ‘I didn’t realize you could make a TV show like this. I didn’t know you could make something so personal and so true to your own fascinations and life experience and call it TV.’ And obviously ‘Transparent’ is nothing like the TV show ‘Girls’ except that it is following the whims of this idiosyncratic creator finally deciding they want to tell their story and do it their way.”
“And so I would hope that ‘BoJack’ inspires people to go, ‘I want to tell my story in animation. I have an idea for an animated show that doesn’t just feel like “The Simpsons” or “South Park” or “Family Guy.” I want to play these other notes in this world.’ But I actually think those people have always been out there, I hope ‘BoJack’ inspires networks and studios to take more chances on those people. Because I think actually the creators are not the ones that need to be inspired, it’s the business people.”