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How the Show About a Cartoon Horse Evolved Into an Astute Observer of the Human Condition

The greatest accomplishment of ‘BoJack Horseman,’ whose final season will be released on Friday, is its reflection of the darker elements of the human experience and our ability to overcome them

Netflix/Ringer illustration

The two-part, extended final season of BoJack Horseman, the second half of which lands on Netflix this Friday, features an adjusted version of the show’s signature opening credits. In lieu of drunkenly stumbling through a party at his Hollywoo(d) Hills mansion, the eponymous antihero drifts in and out of his own memories, a high-and-lowlight reel of a rocky, painful, often intoxicated life.

We start with BoJack as the young lead of Horsin’ Around, a cloying sitcom in the vein of Full House about a bachelor horse raising three human orphans; one of the orphans is played by Sarah Lynn, a child actor who will grow up to be a troubled pop star. Then the sequence flashes forward to the Malibu home of Horsin’ Around creator Herb Kazzaz, dying of cancer decades after BoJack let network executives fire him for his sexuality. Then BoJack is in New Mexico, where he nearly slept with a friend’s underage daughter and bought her classmates alcohol. Then he’s underwater; in his family’s abandoned Michigan lake house; in his bitter, dementia-ridden mother’s nursing home, and at her funeral. Finally, he’s at the Griffith Observatory, where Sarah Lynn died of an overdose after she and BoJack went on a weeks-long bender. BoJack topples backward off the L.A. landmark’s balcony, flashing briefly into darkness before finding himself back in his own pool.

In BoJack’s latest and last batch of episodes, its protagonist has been sober for many months, and the retooled credits reflect the reckoning that occurs without alcohol as anesthetic. After a stint in rehab, BoJack is now forced to grapple with the full weight of his actions; throughout the credits, his face grows increasingly crestfallen, a clear-eyed accounting of his past mostly yielding more well-deserved guilt. BoJack Horseman’s final act as a series—one of the strangest, saddest, silliest, and flat-out best of the decade—is to work through one last moral dilemma. Can BoJack’s hard-won private growth survive a public trial by fire?

Upon its premiere in 2014, BoJack was slow to acquire the enthusiastic fan base it enjoys today. Ironically, the critics who would become the show’s loudest advocates were initially suspicious of its show business solipsism and lovable-asshole premise, not realizing BoJack would soon develop into television’s most self-aware critique of both. “Nobody here, least of all BoJack, needs a redemption story, but they could use an arc that makes their journey together feel less hollow,” sighed The A.V. Club. “Mostly … the show safely canters through familiar terrain,” declared the L.A. Times—an odd accusation to make of a story in which a high-powered agent is also a magenta-pink cat named Princess Carolyn, but an understandable one in light of a TV landscape that then still included the likes of Breaking Bad. (Bad costar Aaron Paul even voiced BoJack’s permanent houseguest, Todd Chavez.)

More than half a decade later, BoJack no longer reads like a lesser version of a trope better executed elsewhere. Instead, it’s an increasingly rare counterpoint to many of television’s prevailing trends. “Comedy about depression” is now nearly as much of a cliché as “bad man sustains our interest,” though BoJack remains unique in portraying depression without reflecting its drab palette or lack of structure. BoJack’s exceptionalism scans on an institutional level, too: Back when the show began, Netflix was just breaking into original series, and a need for content and lack of industry foothold led the streaming service to make a long-term investment in a relative unknown like creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg. Now, Netflix is known as the primary instigator of the all-out saturation that makes it increasingly difficult for more idiosyncratic shows to earn room for growth, as BoJack descendant Tuca & Bertie can attest.

Such meta considerations are very much in the spirit of BoJack, which once lampooned the streaming era with a gritty, self-serious star vehicle funded by WhatTimeIsItRightNow.com. But BoJack feels fortuitous for more than just reasons of business tectonics. Bob-Waksberg and Lisa Hanawalt, BoJack production designer and creator of Tuca & Bertie, have been friends since high school; Bob-Waksberg’s initial concept, BoJack the Depressed Talking Horse, was directly inspired by Hanawalt’s fauna-laden drawings, which she published as a comics artist and illustrator before BoJack’s green light brought her to TV. It’s easy to mythologize BoJack as a predestined meeting of the minds, the culmination of a working relationship forged over decades. But the show is also the product of a delicate symbiosis: Bob-Waksberg’s hyperverbal melancholy needs the dose of vitality Hanawalt’s vivid imagery provides; Hanawalt’s precise background details turn Bob-Waksberg’s heady psychological concepts—narcissism, codependency, depression—into a more concrete, if still animated, world.

In its first few seasons, BoJack proved itself unusually unsparing in its assessment of its protagonist’s self-pitying cycle of sabotage. (“You can’t keep doing shitty things and then feel bad about yourself like that makes it OK!” Todd yells in one of the show’s seminal scenes. “You need to be better!”) In its back half, BoJack evolved from a counterpoint to its genre to a genre in and of itself. As always, BoJack refused to indulge either BoJack’s excuses or fans’ instinct to empathize with a character who feels bad, but not bad enough to put in the work necessary to start doing good. It simply added a deeply felt exploration of what it takes for someone to make amends and become better—questions the show was always headed toward answering, and ones that the world has joined it in asking over the years it’s been on the air.

Last season, BoJack’s interest in redemption stories was split between short-lived public ire at other fictional male celebrities and BoJack’s loved ones personally reckoning with things he’s done. The season was BoJack’s first to follow Harvey Weinstein’s dramatic downfall and the ensuing uproar collectively known as #MeToo, though it was a natural outgrowth of seeds planted long before BoJack’s themes became real-world headlines. BoJack’s final half-season follows these separate strands—accountability, both individual and collective—to their inevitable fusion. BoJack’s pattern of misbehavior finally comes to light, just as he’s made enough progress to maybe, possibly withstand the pressure; still, endurance is hardly guaranteed. BoJack maintains this tension through the bitter end, even though its true accomplishment is selling the idea that BoJack has a fighting chance of outliving his demons at all.

In a time when film and television have never been less distinct, great TV shows are still those that use the medium’s specific traits to their advantage. In BoJack’s case, that means experiencing an evolution almost in real time, over years instead of hours or weeks. It took three full seasons for BoJack to hit rock bottom, with the death of Sarah Lynn and the alienation of his friends; it took two more for him to get help in the form of treatment for his addiction. Change is rare, and when it happens, it’s as gradual as it is nonlinear. More than a preoccupation with masculinity in decline, this deliberate pace is what made BoJack a worthy successor to Mad Men. What Matthew Weiner’s drama was to living through the churn of history, Bob-Waksberg’s comedy was to working through one’s baggage, with a small step forward too often followed by a massive slide back.

The home stretch of BoJack Horseman proves a fitting send-off, not least because it touches on so many of the show’s now-established trademarks. There’s a visually inventive episode that breaks form to portray a character’s state of mind, á la “Stupid Piece of Sh*t” or “Time’s Arrow”; a dreamlike interlude to dramatize a downward spiral, á la “That’s Too Much, Man!” or “The Showstopper”; an ambiguous-yet-hopeful finale, á la “Out to Sea” or “That Went Well.” The episodes also practice what they preach: the show’s extended run time isn’t just spent on BoJack, but to illustrate the long-term impact of BoJack’s dysfunction on those it’s affected, primarily women. We learn what’s actually become of that teenage girl in New Mexico, and see BoJack’s latest sincere monologue literally framed by the disappointment of Princess Carolyn and BoJack’s friend Diane, who no longer know whether this messed-up man is worth their efforts. At the end of the day, BoJack’s recovery isn’t for his own sake; it’s for theirs. As long as he fails to improve himself, they suffer the consequences.

It’s strange that BoJack Horseman has grown into such an astute observer of the human condition—because it’s about a cartoon horse, sure, but also because the show has been steadfast in its belief that television is a terrible source of life lessons. “I used to feel like my whole life was an acting job, doing an impression of the people I saw on television, which was just a projection of a bunch of equally screwed-up writers and actors,” BoJack says. “I felt like a Xerox of a Xerox of a person.” More than inside jokes about Los Angeles street names or bits of pop culture ephemera, this structural criticism has always been BoJack’s most brain-bending way of turning in on itself. But BoJack Horseman is not Horsin’ Around, the show-within-a-show that took complex realities and packaged them into pat resolutions. The writers and actors of BoJack Horseman have never pretended to be any less screwed-up than they actually are. Television is in no position to tell you what to do. What it can do is show you that you’re not alone—and that there is a way up, if you can find it for yourself.