What Are You Doing Here?: A Look at the Existential Themes of BoJack Horseman

BoJack Horseman is a show about an anthropomorphic horse who struggles with many inner demons, self-created or otherwise, that include depression, narcissism, self-loathing and addiction. Among the biggest questions BoJack tries to come to terms with and find satisfying answers to are: Am I a good person? Is it too late for me to change? Will I ever be happy? His desire to be a better person while continuing down a self-destructive path breeds a dichotomous longing to achieve some semblance of happiness, however fleeting. Despite his ongoing feelings of loneliness, failure and negativity, BoJack is determined to find meaning and fulfillment in his life, making him not only a sympathetic character but a strikingly relatable one at that.

At the start of the series, BoJack is at a point in his life where he’s such a joke he’s essentially a punchline. He hasn’t done anything substantial since starring in the hit ’90s sitcom, Horsin’ Around, a spoof of those saccharine, family-friendly shows such as Full House. However, we quickly learn that BoJack is far more than a washed-up actor. He had a terrible childhood. He’s worried his glory days are long behind him. He’s desperate for people to love him despite the tragic fact that what he really needs is to learn how to love himself. In short, he’s broken.

As the series progresses, the audience gets to learn more not only about BoJack but the people in his life. The fun thing about the BoJack Horseman universe is that animals and humans co-exist as people. There are no pets and no hybrids. The central people in BoJack’s life are his agent and former on-again, off-again girlfriend, a pink cat named Princess Carolyn, his free-loading yet well-intentioned human roommate, Todd Chavez, his long-time nemesis, a cheerful and friendly yellow lab named Mr. Peanutbutter and finally, his ghostwriter turned love interest turned close friend, Diane Nguyen, an intellectual woman who’s always felt like an outsider. Although she’s dating Mr. Peanutbutter, Diane has much more in common with BoJack, namely her long-term struggle to find a purpose in life and thus truly be happy.

One of the central themes introduced in the show’s first season is the concept of how well a person knows you and vice versa. A big source of BoJack’s overwhelming feeling of emptiness is his blunt awareness that nobody really knows him. He hides behind the partying, larger-than-life persona derived from his celebrity status. It isn’t until he’s forced to open up to Diane, who’s been hired to ghostwrite his memoir, that he begins to connect with someone on a deeper level. As much as she gets to know him, he gets to know her as well, and this closeness creates an intimacy unlike anything he’s ever experienced before, which leads to BoJack falling hard for Diane.

An important thing to note about BoJack Horseman is the show’s ability to subvert audience expectations in a deliberately profound way. While other shows would plant the seeds of romance between two of its main characters and allow viewers to sit back and watch the relationship bloom, any chances for a potential love story between BoJack and Diane are quick to unravel and come to a crushing yet authentic end. The fact that they’re so similar is precisely why a romantic relationship between them would, in fact, be catastrophic. Because they’re so alike, both hyper-aware of their own faults and possessing similar misanthropic opinions, they can bring out the worst in each other, a grave point Diane herself makes later on in the series.

This self-awareness of one’s flaws raises another question the show pinpoints early on: Can people change? One of BoJack’s biggest fears is that he’s doomed to be the way he is for the rest of his life, cowardly and selfish and inherently pessimistic. He wants more than anything to believe there’s still a chance he can redeem himself, to resonate some sort of goodness and ultimately be a happier person. His journey to exuding a more positive attitude begins in season two, when he is hired to work on his dream movie, Secretariat, starring as the titular character, his childhood hero. Unfortunately, while the intention to change is there, it becomes clear that it isn’t enough. Despite all his efforts, BoJack still feels he is unworthy of love and happiness. As a result, he continuously hurts the people who care about him the most, pushing them further and further away to the point where, by the end of season three, his most meaningful relationships we’ve seen grow throughout the show (namely with Todd, Diane and Princess Carolyn) are left teetering on the precarious perch of nearly beyond repair.

While the show’s hard-hitting moments of truth allude to a sense of futility, the wonderful irony is that you can’t help rooting for the characters in spite of it all. Princess Carolyn, for instance, wants to feel valued and appreciated, making it all the more heartbreakingly endearing to see her go to such great lengths of putting out fires for people and doing whatever it takes to succeed in her career, even if that means putting her own needs on the back burner. Todd, meanwhile, is a person who’s drifting through life without any sense of clear direction in a series of amusing yet seemingly meaningless adventures. Diane’s tenacious desire to make her voice heard about important subjects that matter to her is admirable yet at the same time troubling, as she comes to discover that perhaps she doesn’t have what it takes to make it in the cutthroat world of journalism. That said, we also see that, like BoJack, she’s capable of hurting the people closest to her, even if it is unintentional, all to earn validation from the superficial masses. Her cynicism is in direct contrast to Mr. Peanutbutter’s optimism, adding more weight to the thickening cracks in their marriage. While Mr. Peanutbutter’s effortless charisma is just one of the many traits BoJack envies about him, even he possesses his own underlying sadness that surfaces every now and then, allowing us to see more depth beneath his perpetually sunny exterior.

Thus, each of the characters’ struggles is a direct reflection of our own. As difficult as it can be to face the bleakness we all experience in our own lives to varying degrees, the show makes a point to highlight the importance of introspection. What are any of us doing here? This idea circles back to one of BoJack’s biggest moral dilemmas, that is, is he doomed to a life of unhappiness? As depressingly real as BoJack Horseman gets, it also offers glimmers of hope, providing those much-needed moments of clarity that allow us to take a step back, analyze and breathe. If there’s one uplifting message the show delivers above all the rest, it’s the reminder that it gets easier. The hard part is that you’ve got to work at it every day, whatever it is that you wish to achieve, but it does get easier. It’s not too late. It’s never too late. We’re responsible for shaping our own happiness. It’s all about taking that first step.


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