How Bojack Horseman is revolutionizing the Unlikeable Tortured Protagonist

You may have heard me talk of a weird little Netflix show about anthropomorphic animals that’s been getting a bit of press lately by the name of “Bojack Horseman.” More than once I’ve heard people express bewilderment at the appeal of an odd little work like this cartoon, and I confess I was there myself when I first heard of it. But after sticking it out to the end, (and several more times through after that) I am not only a convert, I am here to evangelize on its behalf. “Bojack Horseman” is my vote for most compelling show currently on television, and that’s because of how it portrays the “unlikeable tortured protagonist” in a way that no previous example has ever managed.

Created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the show is on the surface a cartoon critique of the celebrity world and culture using anthropomorphic animals, centering around a washed-up Bob Saget-style sitcom actor who happens to be a horse. From that description it hardly seems a fresh setup, but its true magic is within the story that setting is used to tell. The show juxtaposes extreme cartoon absurdity for the sake of humor with dark, character-driven storytelling that studies a fascinating anti-heroic character that you both judge and sympathize with, to a level you wouldn’t have believed possible.

On the surface, particularly in the first few episodes before the plot arc kicks in, Bojack appears to be not much different from your typical Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist. He seems characterized by qualities that at this point have been played out as comedic flaws— crass, drunk, and morbidly self-absorbed. On top of that, he is massively privileged, a mega-rich Hollywood actor who, despite being a horse, is of a background that implies being White and Upperclass. And, as we did with fellows like Don Draper, we soon find out that Bojack hates himself.

The TV landscape recently has been saturated with these kinds of protagonists— privileged white men whose pain adds fascinating dimension to their otherwise fairly exciting lives. Don Draper was a miserable unwanted child trying to hide his true self, but damn if he didn’t look sexy kicking down doors in impeccable suits while women threw themselves at him. Walter White was a bitterly disappointed man cruelly used by fate, but his adventures in the meth game sure gave him a lot of adventure and control back. I think as a culture we’ve become a little bored with this, as we’ve burned out on feeling sorry for sad dudes who can’t get it together when so many of us have fewer advantages and significantly less sexy lives.

The difference, however, is in how the facts of Bojack’s condition are presented to us. Bojack’s behavior whips across the punish-lavish axis in a sick cycle, from self-flagellating when he hates himself to self-indulging from when he feels sorry for himself. While one of the most accurate depictions of a certain kind of depression ever committed to TV, it also comes off as more than a little gross. But this very quality is what saves the show from being just a portrait of an unlikeable, over-privileged sad sack unable to appreciate what he has. Rather than trying to depict this as sympathetic in any way, on the contrary, the narrative never stops judging him.

There’s an old chestnut that says a writer should never judge their characters, but this story is richer for the creators ignoring that. When Bojack screws up, when he makes a truly destructive or even deplorable choice, the writing never asks you to see those actions as anything other than what they are. The results is it gives the viewer the breathing room to both castigate Bojack and find some understanding for him. He is obsessed with the notion that he’s broken somehow, that his inherent badness can never be changed or overcome, so why not do bad things if he’s bad anyway? But even as this provides a reason we are able to understand for why Bojack makes terrible choices again and again, it never asks us to find that an acceptable excuse.

What this gives us is a notion of accountability for Bojack. Despite the brilliance of both their shows, Don Draper and Walter White were not allowed a lot of room for any real growth or change. That’s partially the nature of the serial storytelling form, where you cannot drift too far from your premise without losing your audience. But it gets tiresome after a while watching these guys make the same mistakes over and over again. On top of that, Don and Walter very rarely ever saw real, true consequences for their actions. The important people in their lives put up with their antics, eventually forgave and came back to them, or at least came to a place of peace with them.

Bojack, however, is subjected to the consequences of being a massive self-centered dick. He is not granted forgiveness every time he asks for it, his bridges do get burned, and he has to live with the repercussions of the stupid choices he makes. Not only does this feel more real, it also has an effect on his character, driving him to try new things if he ever wants to change his life. Though he fails and regresses, through it all, there’s a sense of two steps forward, one step back, that makes him a little less contemptible. Bojack is not strong, so he breaks in the face of great adversity. But the fact that he pits himself against that adversity despite his weakness makes him more interesting to watch.

Finally, the show strikes the right balance between keeping his life interesting without excessively glamorizing it. When we watch Don and Walter, there is always a sense of envy at how cool Don is, or the excitement of Walter’s life, which undermines the message that these men are truly suffering. But you never for a moment wish you were Bojack, not for all the Secretariat movies, houses in the hills, or impulse-buy restaurants in the world. From his abusive childhood, to the hollowness of his accomplishments, to the way he’s so widely regarded as a joke even at the height of his career, there’s a genuineness to his misery that makes the notion of his self-loathing believable. It’s made even more poignant when we see flashes of the character in his youth, before the real grossness set in.

This is perhaps the great tragedy, and the great brilliance, of the show—once, Bojack was a genuinely nice guy, trying to do his best, who cared about other people and was working VERY hard to escape being the kind of bad person he felt like he was doomed to be. It makes seeing him lose that battle actually rather heartbreaking, and you find yourself actually holding out hope that he will find some way to get better. Because you know he did once put in that effort, you are driven to pity this man, even as you never want to absolve him. And if there’s not one moment a season— usually in the end of the eleventh episode —where you find yourself yelling at the screen, begging Bojack to not to shipwreck himself on the rocks of his own self-loathing, well, I don’t know what kind of person you are.

That’s a hell of a lot more than you ever expected from a thirty-minute cartoon about a horse.

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