A Review of BoJack Horseman (TV Series)
Netflix (August 22, 2014 to January 31, 2020)
Created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg
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In the 6th century BC, Aesop’s fables told enduring morality tales through the fictional depiction of talking animals, while the six-season animated Netflix show BoJack Horseman tries to do the same, but in its own peculiar style. Nominated for three Emmy awards, including twice for Outstanding Animated Program, the show is largely about the titular antihero, BoJack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett) — an anthropomorphic horse and has-been television sitcom star from the 1980s and ‘90s who now lives a directionless life, wallowing in biting sarcasm and ongoing substance abuse problems.
Although BoJack Horseman is intended for mature audiences and does include adult and profane language and sexual crudity, its efforts to grapple with deep questions of life, albeit with often comic elements, provides rich grounds for discussion and analysis, especially from the perspectives of philosophy and theology.
BoJack’s Troubled World
Along these lines, BoJack Horseman addresses a number of themes, as well as lampooning myriad pop culture elements, such as absurd aspects of television news, vapid morning shows, pointless celebrity-focused game shows, and the all-too-common “style over substance” focus of contemporary American politics. Three key areas, however, are relevant to a well-rounded assessment of the show:
- Celebrity culture.
- Social media.
- Loneliness and the meaning of life.
Celebrity Culture: “Do You Know Who I Am?”
The world is full of celebrities, whether it’s on television, film, online, or other venues. Movie stars, athletes, musicians, even social media celebrities abound. In the world of BoJack Horseman, fame often leads to a sense of entitlement, thinking a famous person is somehow better than others. We often grant attention to celebrity insights on topics they really have no expertise on, thus granting them a platform despite their lack of knowledge. When a celebrity dies, sometimes by suicide, the public is often dumbfounded, since they believe a celebrity has achieved ultimate human success — fame, fortune, attention, and so forth.1
BoJack often touts his fame as a reason he should be treated better than others. At an airport he declares, “Do you know who I am?” strongly implying that he is entitled to better treatment.2 This is far from an isolated incident for BoJack, as other comments indicate: “I’m a celebrity, you have to listen to me”;3 “I’m a famous celebrity”; 4 “I own this restaurant and I’m a celebrity”;5 “I am a famous actor.”6
BoJack Horseman also depicts the disturbing destruction that can be associated with fame. The former child actor Sarah Lynn (voiced by Kristen Schaal) used to star on BoJack’s show Horsin’ Around, then became a pop music star. Now, at 30 years old or so, she remains famous and wealthy but struggles with severe substance abuse. Her life, in short, is a mess, resulting in tragedy.
In real life we don’t necessarily see the downfall of celebrities coming, but behind the scenes there are those who are struggling and on a dangerous downward trajectory. There are expectations placed on celebrities — from fans and from society — but often celebrities are unequipped to handle the lifestyle that fame offers them, especially when they are thrown into the spotlight at a young age. We need to see celebrities as people who face daily struggles and obstacles just like anyone else, not superhuman entities that are somehow beyond the struggles we all face.
Social Media: Our Lives Online
Along with its fascination with celebrity culture, BoJack Horseman also addresses many of the absurdities, as well as negative effects, of social media. When the human character Diane takes a job posting on Twitter for a celebrity, she accidentally posts a photo taken when she dropped her phone; but simply because of the fact that the photo was posted presumably by a celebrity, the post begins to trend (season 3, episode 1: “Start Spreading the News”).
The odd nature of social media and its implications on life are depicted in the story arch of Pickles, a young anthropomorphic dog character who finds out her fiancé cheated on her. She does what she is accustomed to doing — videoblogging the event to the world. In short, she is crowdsourcing significant life decisions online, looking for direction from strangers (season 6, episode 4: “Surprise!”).
In a world of instant access to social media and potential feedback from so many sources, the long-term consequences and effects on us are far from known. Along with detrimental effects of social media, we also see the loss of privacy. People begin to think that everything must be posted on social media, and for some, “likes” (affirmation) and “dislikes” (rejection) can have a profound effect on human psychology, for better and for worse. In Christianity, our meaning and identity are not determined by others, much less others on social media, but instead our value is rooted in our relationship with the loving God of creation, who cares about each one of us.
Loneliness: “The Hole Doesn’t Get Filled”
Loneliness is another recurring theme in BoJack Horseman. In “Love And/Or Marriage,” BoJack attempts to talk another character out of pulling out of a wedding: “You’re going to do everything you can to fill that hole…but the hole doesn’t get filled. And one day you’re gonna look around and you’re gonna realize that everybody loves me but nobody likes you and that is the loneliest feeling in the world.”7 At his core, BoJack attempts to find fulfillment in his life through fame, friends, career, sex, and drug abuse, but in the end he continues to feel alone and empty. In “BoJack Hates the Troops,” he remarks, “I’m alone…so, so alone,” underscoring the theme of loneliness not only in BoJack, but in other characters in the show. At one point another character comments, “We’re just two lonely people trying to hate ourselves a little less.”8
In “The Old Sugarman Place,” BoJack drives alone through the desert while the 1971 America song, “A Horse With No Name,” sets a theme of loneliness and despair (season 4, episode 2). The recurring theme of loneliness in BoJack Horseman stems from its permeating worldview of nihilism — the view that life is meaningless. This emphasis also leads the show to explore the reality and challenges of depression. Season 6, for instance, addresses depression via the human character, Diane, a writer who often serves as the voice of philosophical viewpoints in the show. In “Good Damage,” Diane has noticeably gained weight, presumably as a result of her taking antidepressants (season 6, episode 10). To its credit, the show doesn’t ridicule her for this or for seeking to stabilize her life, but it does demonstrate very real struggles faced by those struggling with depression.
As for the depression itself, BoJack Horseman’s nihilism naturally leads to loneliness and depression. If the world is meaningless and there is no God, then what’s the point of life? Nihilism’s answer is that there isn’t a point. Life keeps going and we can simply try to make the best of it. Philosophers such as Augustine, Pascal, and C. S. Lewis have addressed this situation to one degree or another. Augustine said that only God could fill the void in life, while Pascal agreed. C. S. Lewis noted that those who reject God or attempt to find fulfilment without Him will do anything to try and fill the emptiness. People innately know something is not right with the human condition as it is, but fallen human nature often seeks answers anywhere but in God.
Nihilism and Christianity
Christianity is not a worldview without challenges, at least from our limited human perspectives; but in contrast to the alternatives, it offers the best explanation of reality with the least number of significant problems. It provides a robust explanation of creation, humanity, our predicament, evil and suffering, and the solutions. In addition, biblical Christianity does not embrace blind faith, but instead encourages the application of reason to reality. Within its philosophically grounded structure, Christianity provides true meaning to life, underscores the validity of objective moral laws, understands justice, and, rooted in “the God who is there,” is able to intellectually and existentially support its claims.
In contrast, BoJack Horseman’s nihilism is the sad-but-reasonable consequence of an atheistic universe. Without God there is no real purpose to life and, moreover, moral laws are essentially relative. Ultimately, in a nihilistic worldview, nothing matters and all human efforts, no matter how “noble,” will ultimately vanish. This is indeed a bleak worldview, but it should not be rejected on the basis of its depressing conclusions. Instead, nihilism is to be rejected because God does exist, as reason and evidence show.9 Moreover, Christ is established in history, in reliable documents (the New Testament),10 and in the religious experiences of Christians for more than 2,000 years.11 In short, nihilism does not correspond to reality, while Christianity does. All of these evidences and more converge to support the existence of God and the claims of Christ. Rather than being insignificant accidents of an impersonal cosmic roulette wheel, human beings are the products of a personal, loving God who is transcendent from His creation but also active in it, caring about each one of us.
Despair or Hope?
Despite its flawed worldview, to its credit Bojack Horseman took risks. Far too many television programs fail to address the seriousness of loneliness, depression, and the long-term consequences and devastation of addictive substance abuse. Nevertheless, in a universe without God, as posited by BoJack Horseman, there are no ultimately fulfilling answers to deep questions of meaning and purpose. The best the show can offer is finding limited internal meaning in one’s self or in relationships. In a godless universe, such proposed solutions are merely bandages covering the fatal wounds of human brokenness, offering not the true healing found in Christ, but instead the tragic misery of the logical conclusions of nihilism.12
Robert Velarde, MA, is author of several books including A Visual Defense (Kregel, 2013), Conversations with C. S. Lewis (InterVarsity Press, 2008), The Wisdom of Pixar (InterVarsity Press, 2010), and coauthor of Examining Alternative Medicine (InterVarsity Press, 2001).
- See Robert Velarde, “Celebrity Death and the Meaning of Life,” Christian Research Journal, vol. 38, no. 01 (2015), CRI, https://www.equip.org/article/celebrity-death-and-the-meaning-of-life/.
- Bojack Horseman, “Live Fast, Diane Nguyen,” season 1, episode 5, written by Caroline Williams, Netflix, aired August 22, 2014. All episodes accessible via https://www.netflix.com/title/70300800.
- Bojack Horseman, “One Trick Pony,” season 1, episode 10, written by Laura Gutin Peterson, Netflix, aired August 22, 2014.
- Bojack Horseman, “Chickens,” season 2, episode 5, written by Joanna Calo, Netflix, aired July 17, 2015.
- Bojack Horseman, “Planned Obsolescence,” season 5, episode 3, written Elijah Aron, Netflix, aired September 14, 2018.
- Bojack Horseman, “INT. SUB,” season 5, episode 7, written by Alison Tafel, Netflix, aired September 14, 2018.
- Bojack Horseman, “Love and/or Marriage,” season 3, episode 5, written by Peter A. Knight, Netflix, Aired July 22, 2016.
- Bojack Horseman, “Say Anything,” season 1, episode 7, written by Joe Lawson, Netflix, August 22, 2014.
- Editor’s Note: See, for example, James N. Anderson, “The Inescapability of God,” Christian Research Journal, vol. 40, no. 5 (2014), CRI, https://www.equip.org/article/the-inescapability-of-god/; Trent Horn, “Thomas Aquinas’s Five Proofs for God Revisited,” Christian Research Journal, vol. 41, no. 02 (2018), CRI, https://www.equip.org/article/thomas-aquinass-five-proofs-for-god-revisited/.
- Editor’s Note: See, for example, Lee Strobel, “Defending the New Testament Jesus,” Christian Research Journal, vol 30, no. 5 (2007), CRI, https://www.equip.org/article/defending-the-new-testament-jesus/; Hank Hanegraaff, “The Remarkable Reliability of Oral History,” Christian Research Journal, vol 41, no. 03 (2018), CRI, https://www.equip.org/article/the-remarkable-reliability-of-oral-history/.
- Editor’s Note: See, for example, James N. Anderson, “The Internal Testimony of the Holy Spirit: How Do You Know That the Bible Is God’s Word?,” Christian Research Journal, vol 39, no. 05 (2016), CRI, https://www.equip.org/article/internal-testimony-holy-spirit-know-bible-gods-word/; Angus Menuge, “God on the Brain,” Christian Research Journal, vol 33, no. 02 (2010), CRI, https://www.equip.org/article/god-on-the-brain/; Paul Copan, “Does Religion Originate in the Brain?,” Christian Research Journal, vol. 31, no. 02 (2008), CRI, https://www.equip.org/article/does-religion-originate-in-the-brain/.
- Editor’s Note: For further study, see Bob and Gretchen Passantino, “Imagine There’s No Heaven,” Christian Research Journal, vol. 22, no. 03, CRI, https://www.equip.org/article/imagine-theres-no-heaven/.