Animated Nihilism: Rick and Morty, Bojack Horseman, and the Strange Fate of the Adult Cartoon

I was reminded of this talk last night, which I gave on February 18, 2018, at Marquette University at the invitation of Gerry Canavan, and realized I had never posted it anywhere. Events in both series have overtaken some of my claims, but I present it in its original form, for the record….

Thank you, Gerry, for the generous introduction and the invitation to speak here today on this urgent topic. You already provided me with the opportunity to publish my first peer-reviewed article on Star Trek—establishing me as an official Star Trek scholar, a title I brandish proudly—and here today you have given me a fresh chance to transmute my TV obsessions into academic productivity. It was a great pleasure to rewatch all of BoJack in the last month with the ready excuse that it was for my research, a trick that I have been pulling over and over in the course of my academic career.

Of course, this form of time-laundering is not always equally plausible. My partner and I have been watching old reruns of Frasier, for instance, and there is no possible academic project that would strictly require me to watch every single variation on their relatively narrow bag of tricks. The essence of Frasier, as with most sitcoms, could be distilled into ten episodes or less without really missing anything—other than the comfortable feeling of slipping into the grooves of a well-worn routine.

Things are different with BoJack Horseman and Rick and Morty. These are not shows that are designed to be watched half-attentively. They reward rewatching and reward analysis. In fact, though my talk is obviously going to include spoilers, I don’t feel guilty in this case because half the pleasure, especially with Rick and Morty, comes from returning to the episodes and seeing just how intricately structured everything is. Someone who developed an elaborate theory based on changes in the background art in Frasier Crane’s Seattle apartment would obviously be overthinking—but in BoJack and Rick and Morty, there is no detail left purely up to chance. The great fear that afflicts all first-year literature students—that we will cross the line into the dread “overanalysis” or start “reading into it”—no longer applies here. The shows have been designed from the ground up to be overthought and overanalyzed, and we are unlikely to read anything into it that wasn’t already there.

My guiding question for this lecture is why these shows should be so intricately structured, why they should engage in world-building that is, in its own way, as rigorous and painstaking as the reconstruction of the world of 60s advertising in Mad Men. The effort and attention they devote to world-building seems far out of proportion for what are, in the last analysis, cartoon shows—and quite nihilistic ones at that. This is especially the case with Rick and Morty. Rick is a self-absorbed hedonist who constantly endangers his family, steals and kills without hesitation, and even creates an entire universe full of millions of sentient creatures for the sole purpose of powering his car. Why should a show about a nihilistic mad scientist who somehow can’t be bothered to come up with a cure for acid reflux show such care in the construction of the multiverse where he wreaks his havoc?

We might write this off as an expectation of the sci-fi genre, but that excuse certainly does not apply to BoJack Horseman. Here the premise is openly absurd: the action takes place in a world where members of seemingly every animal species exist alongside humans, and everyone takes this to be a matter of course. We might expect them to play fast and loose with this premise—similar to Archer, which can never decide whether it’s set in the 60s or the present, can never settle on a certain level of technology, and in general engages in an openly incoherent pastiche of spy tropes—but the writers for BoJack take it weirdly literally. This framework initially seems to do little more than set up an endless series of sight-gags—as when BoJack’s rival Mr. Peanutbutter, a dog, perks up his ears whenever someone rings the doorbell—but they go into a surprising level of detail. We know, for instance, that when a child is born to a cross-species couple, the child’s species is just as unpredictable as the sex of a real-world human baby (so that if Mr. Peanutbutter had children with his human wife Diane, she could conceivably give birth to a puppy, or another human). We know that there is an underwater culture that feels just as foreign to surface dwellers as Asian countries do for Westerners. And we know that mouse culture perpetuates some really hurtful stereotypes about cats, as Princess Caroline, a cat, finds out when she visits her mouse boyfriend’s family.

This last example is especially interesting to me. On the one hand, the mouse ritual—which involves putting on cat ears and enacting the humiliation and defeat of a cat—is funny and ridiculous, but at the same time, it is sincerely hurtful to Princess Caroline. Her mouse boyfriend initially tries to shrug it off, but ultimately confronts his family and declares that he will not let old mouse taboos stand in the way of having children with Princess Caroline. Big emotions and life decisions are at stake here. And though the overall thrust of this scene is positive, the emotions and decisions the writers mostly want to explore are much more serious—depression, despair, and patterns of self-destruction. BoJack in particular is afflicted with a persistent sense of meaninglessness and hopelessness, which his periodic escapes into hedonism only serve to exacerbate. How does such emotionally wrenching material fit with an absurdist premise—especially with an absurdist premise that is taken so seriously?

I think there are ways to account for this juxtaposition of serious world-building and nihilistic content on a purely aesthetic level, in terms of the unique artistic possibilities it opens up. At the same time, art never operates in a vacuum. On the one hand, it is always responding to the cultural and political circumstances in which it arises. On the other hand, it is always implicitly building on or breaking with the artistic tradition in which it finds itself. None of this is to deny that artists are genuinely creative and surprising, only to say—in a paraphrase of Marx—that artists create original works, but not under circumstances of their own choosing. Neither social setting or art-historical baggage determine what future artists can do, but we can never fully understand their achievements if we don’t pay attention to the background that both constrains and empowers them. In this specific case, I don’t think we can understand what Rick and Morty and BoJack are up to without understanding certain shifts in American cultural and political dynamics and giving some account of the evolution of the sitcom genre and the animated sitcom in specific—along with the world-building genre par excellence, science fiction. These narratives partly overlap, but I will initially take them each in turn.

In my trilogy on pop culture, I relied on a fairly schematic narrative of postwar American political history that I believe will also serve us well here. Broadly speaking, we can say that the years since the end of the Second World War were marked by two distinct political-economic regimes. The first was at its peak during the 1950s and 60s and began to break down in the 70s. This model centered on creating a consumer culture centered on middle-class family units headed by a man who held an essentially permanent job that paid a sufficient wage to support his family and own his own home. This required massive investments in infrastructure, very high levels social spending (including generous support for education), and indirect subsidies such as the mortgage interest tax deduction—all supported by very high levels of taxation that at once provided government revenue and limited the growth of income inequality. I like to refer to this political-economic regime as Fordism. The name captures the centrality of the automobile to the new suburban landscape, the emphasis on mass production, and the commitment to Henry Ford’s principle that a business should pay its workers enough that they can also be its customers—a principle that everyone in my home state of Michigan knows by heart (my mom literally recited it to me the last time I called home), even these many decades after the automakers decisively abandoned it, and them.

The second political-economic regime, which began to take form in the late 1970s but was decisively pushed forward by Ronald Reagan, is known as neoliberalism. The terminology is confusing, especially since Reagan is taken to be the patron saint of political conservatism, but it refers to an attempt to return to the “classical liberalism” of the 19th century, with its emphasis on open markets, stable currencies, and government frugality. In practice, this meant favoring the interests of business over workers and consumers, leading to an explosion of concentrated wealth and extreme poverty. For those in the middle, life became much more precarious, as former company towns like Flint found themselves mired in mass unemployment and the idea of a family relying on a single breadwinner with a life-long career became increasingly inconceivable. A nation of homeowners became a nation of debtors as the formerly shameful “second mortgage” became the savvy and exciting “home equity loan”—a dynamic that ultimately culminated in the Global Financial Crisis.

On a cultural level, the shift was profound. Fordism provided a clear social hierarchy, with the white family man at the pinnacle. Relative equality among white male homeowners was accompanied by clear inequality in terms of race, gender, and sexual practice. For white men, it was a veritable golden age, albeit one marked by ever-greater demands for equality and inclusion from subordinated and excluded groups. Under neoliberalism, by contrast, everything seemed to be up for grabs. Many white men experienced an unaccustomed downward mobility, while women and racial and sexual minorities enjoyed greater opportunity—as individuals, though not as a class. The old social hierarchy continued to have its effects, and in many ways it was even actively reasserted (as in the War on Drugs, which erased many of the gains blacks had made during the Fordist era), but it no longer functioned as self-evidently as it once had. Many populations had reason to celebrate its decline, but nothing really arose to take the old social order’s place, except for individualistic striving.

It was this collapse of a social order without a convincing replacement that provided the background of my pop culture trilogy. Why is awkward comedy increasingly popular? Awkwardness is about not knowing what you should do or what is expected of you, and in an era without a clearly legible social order, it’s easy to feel like you’re messing up no matter what you do. Why do we enjoy watching amoral anti-heroes lie and cheat their way to the top—or in other words, why do we love sociopaths? Because we no longer believe that the social order rewards people who do the right thing—and so we indulge in the fantasy that it is a reverse meritocracy that rewards people who do exactly the wrong thing. And why do TV producers and advertisers (most famously Burger King) seem to feel increasingly comfortable showing us openly creepy characters? Because creepiness is about not knowing where to put your desire, and a weak and illegitimate social order can’t tell us what we should want.

With this historical framework in mind, we can see that the classical sitcom, something like Leave It To Beaver, is a product of the Fordist era, presenting the white suburban nuclear family as a normative ideal that was to be endlessly repeated and renewed. Every week, it proved its worth over and over, providing a framework within which conflicts could be resolved and moral education could take place. The format could be tweaked, as in The Dick Van Dyke Show, where an office comedy is interwoven with the family life of Rob and Laura Petrie (played by the seemingly immortal Dick Van Dyke and the late lamented Mary Tyler Moore), but that simply allows for more complex and satisfying paths toward domestic and workplace tranquility, world without end.

The first animated sitcom literalized the sense that the classical sitcom world was eternal by projecting it into the primeval past. In Hanna-Barbera’s The Flintstones, which debuted in prime time in the 1960s, we meet a group of cavemen who live in a cookie-cutter suburb, complete with housewives, cars, and the latest modern conveniences (supplied by animals rather than technology). It was followed a couple years later by The Jetsons, which projected the Fordist nuclear family into the distant future, where a car fits into a briefcase but teenagers still go through the same rebellions and families still come together by the end of the episode.

The Hanna-Barbera Extended Universe presents us with a combination of a progressive narrative—from dinosaur-based technology to robot maids—and a claim that mid-century Americans had, in principle, discovered the formula for authentic human thriving, which is of course the white suburban nuclear family. Times change and technologies change, but the sitcom endures forever. And that progressive aspiration never really left the sitcom genre, as shows continued to use the same basic template in a bid for greater inclusiveness. In the 80s and 90s, one thinks of The Cosby Show, which portrayed a picture-perfect upper-middle-class black family that hit all the classic sitcom notes, or today, we could point to Modern Family, which juxtaposes a classic white suburban nuclear family with a racially blended family and a gay family—all of which are presented as equally valid variations on the theme.

Other sitcoms reflected a more complex relationship to social change. In her own show, which ran for most of the transitional period of the 1970s, Mary Tyler Moore broke with the norm by portraying a single career woman with no immediate interest in marriage. Yet this radical gesture was softened by a workplace that became a surrogate family, complete with a strong father figure. In the late 80s, there was more interest in specifically lower-class settings, as in the subversive Married… With Children (which I was strictly forbidden to watch—I suspect more for the lionization of lower-class values than for the vulgarity) or later in Roseanne. In between came the most iconic animated sitcom of all time, The Simpsons.

The show has been many things in its near-eternal run, but if you return to the earliest seasons, it’s hard to believe we’re watching the same show. They play it relatively straight, and somehow the literal cartoon characters feel more real and sympathetic than their cartoonish live-action counterparts on Married… With Children. A now-forgotten recurring character (who briefly appeared in the mob scene from the movie) is a one-armed Vietnam veteran whom Bart befriends. In a live-action show of the period, he would have been Very Special Episode material, with the amputation milked for sympathy, but he is somehow just one character among others in the animated milieu. Lisa’s encounter with a black jazz musician is also more matter-of-fact—and more touching—than a live-action show of that era could ever have done. Somehow the animated format allowed for greater authenticity and emotion within the basic sitcom framework, relieving the genre of the vast ideological weight it had come to bear in the neoliberal era.

More in keeping with the times was the “heroic era” of The Simpsons, when the writers realized that Homer made for a better central character than the relatively uncharismatic Bart. He was always barely functional as a father figure and breadwinner, but at a certain point they cut the cord with the classical sitcom format and made him the problem rather than the solution—an actively destructive figure who sows chaos and destruction, empowered by his status as an adult but unencumbered by adult restraint and responsibility.

Homer’s failures as a father and breadwinner subversively reflected the realities of an era where the Fordist model of the stable job, family wage, and suburban home had become an unattainable fantasy. The consequences of this shift were not only economic, but cultural—an entire generation no longer had any convincing model for what family looked like or what it meant to grow up. We can see this in the hegemonic model of the sitcom for the 90s and early 2000s—the Adult Group of Friends, which reached its pinnacle in Seinfeld but found its most popular form in Friends. We can also see it in the proliferation of sitcoms that explored blended or surrogate families throughout the 80s and 90s. This is the milieu that BoJack Horseman parodies—both “Horsin’ Around,” the show in which BoJack once played “the Horse,” and the derivative “Hangin’ With Mr. Peanut Butter” portray interspecies adoptions of orphans. In the real world, meanwhile, there were at least two sitcoms featuring a wealthy white family adopting black children (Different Strokes and Webster), along with other unlikely adoptions (Punky Brewster), family structures incorporating relationships of servitude (Who’s the Boss, Mr. Belvedere), babysitters becoming de facto parents (Charles in Charge), families who must compensate for lost mothers by multiplying father figures (My Two Dads, Full House), a bar crowd that served as a family unit (Cheers), and adult children who hang around with their father as peers (Frasier).

Where the Hanna Barbera Extended Universe gave us the postwar white suburban nuclear family as an eternal reality, for these shows it is an inescapable and yet unattainable ideal. On the one hand, as long as everyone was clearly heterosexual, everything seemed to be up for grabs—even a live-in house painter could serve as a surrogate father figure, as in Murphy Brown. Yet it always had to come back to the same thing. The Tanner girls can be raised by three unrelated men, but they have to slot into the traditional roles: Danny’s OCD cleanliness marks him as the mom, while Jesse and Joey combine to form a dad, with Jesse as the masculine ideal and Joey as the source of dad jokes. We could repeat this exercise for all the unconventional families of this era.

Meanwhile, in the Adult Group of Friends format, our heroes must endlessly relive childhood insecurities and teenage resentments. This is clearest in Friends, where the core group (Ross, Monica, Rachel, and Chandler) all play out the fates dictated by their thwarted adolescent desires, while the later additions to the group (Joey and Phoebe) have a difficult time finding their way organically into plotlines. They have escaped the suburbs, but waste all the opportunities of the big city by endlessly reliving their teenage years as they hang out in the coffee shop on the bottom floor of their building—just as they presumably once hung out in a friend’s finished basement back in the ‘burbs.

One way to characterize this shift is that where the Fordist sitcom portrayed the suburban nuclear family as a positive destiny, a model that reliably formed the younger generation would one day reproduce it, the neoliberal sitcom portrays it as a suffocating, inescapable fate, a model that everyone is doomed to repeat in derelict forms. The nuclear family is not really working for anyone in the nuclear family, but—as Margaret Thatcher once declared about the neoliberal model of capitalism—There Is No Alternative.

In this regard, science fiction was sometimes ahead of the curve. In The Twilight Zone, which—bizarrely—ran more or less concurrently with The Flintstones, it can often seem that the American Dream has already become a nightmare. Someone on Twitter once quipped that Black Mirror’s premise is “what if phones, but too much,” and the equivalent for The Twilight Zone would be “what if small-town America, but too much.” The record of the original Star Trek is similarly ambivalent. The original episodes, which aired in the late 1960s, envision American ideals spreading across a galaxy where everything is possible (except escaping the gender binary, which Kirk at one point declares to be part of the ontological fabric of the universe). Yet they also portray tense family relationships—most notably between Spock and his father Sarek, whose full back-story you can explore by binging Star Trek: Discovery during the upcoming three-day free trial—and to the extent that Captain Kirk has a plot arc, it centers on the very real conflicts between the demands of a career as an explorer and the urge to settle down and get married.

Where the original Star Trek was a cult classic, its most successful spin-off, Star Trek: The Next Generation, was a true pop culture phenomenon that in many ways followed the script of the aspirational-progressive sitcom of the 80s and 90s. The new Enterprise was workplace and home at once, complete with families on board—though none of the misfits and orphans on the command crew had a full nuclear family, preferring instead to form their own surrogate family under the firm patriarch Captain Picard.

This formula proved to have diminishing returns as subsequent spin-offs experienced sharply lower ratings. Meanwhile, the most critically acclaimed and ambitious science fiction of the neoliberal era tended toward cyberpunk dystopia. Where Star Trek envisioned a future free of want, Blade Runner—released in 1982, just after the definitive shift toward neoliberalism under Reagan—showed us a world where capitalism remained dominant and technological advances were dedicated to developing new forms of slavery. Broadly speaking, the vision of Philip K. Dick prevailed over that of Gene Roddenberry throughout the 90s and early 2000s, as science fiction became increasingly dark and claustrophobic. This trend arguably culminates in the Battlestar Galactica remake, which is literally post-apocalyptic and follows the adventures of the small remaining human population as they continue to indulge in petty power struggles even after the Cylons have committed genocide against the human race on an inconceivable scale. The other great space opera franchise, Star Wars, also went dark during this period, portraying the decline and fall of the Republic in the prequel films—which also indirectly illustrated the inescapability of neoliberal capitalism by making hundreds of millions of dollars despite being three of the worst films I have ever seen in my life.

I would suggest that this is where we need to contextualize Rick and Morty: at the intersection of cyberpunk dystopia and the Homer-centric Simpsons vision of the adult sitcom. The character of Rick ramps up the contradictions of Homer to an almost unbearable degree—a mega-genius, he uses his advanced technology for nothing but self-indulgence and petty grudges. He is a failed father twice over, having abandoned his daughter once and now taken over as anti-patriarch in her household. Where Homer neglects and misleads his children, Rick actively endangers and corrupts his grandson Morty (and to a lesser extent, his sister Summer).

And Rick does all this within the framework of a dystopian science fiction universe. On the one hand, the writers have access to all the science fiction tropes familiar to a generation of viewers raised on Star Trek: The Next Generation and the many popular SF franchises that followed, and so they are able to do almost literally anything and provide an explanation that sounds halfway plausible. And perhaps all of these technologies can coexist so easily because Rick and Morty very explicitly live in a multiverse. Though we are apparently following the “same” Rick and Morty throughout the series, they at one point have to shift universes—after murdering their counterparts and burying them in the back yard. Over time, it becomes clear that there are an infinite number of Ricks and Morties in infinite universes, and more than that, they have formed a multiverse-wide governmental structure. What could have been an expansive trope becomes a claustrophobic one: in all possible worlds, Morty is doomed to be Rick’s slave.

Of course, they do wind up complicating this trope, just as they do with everything else. The seemingly throwaway gesture of switching universes and killing their counterparts—which seems like a mockery of the “reset button” typical of episodic television—turns into a useable plot point when Morty and Summer have to exhume the remains to gain access to the dead Rick’s teleportation gun. And they spend a whole episode—while “our” Rick and Morty are, according to the episode summary, exploring the lost city of Atlantis off-screen—in a world populated by nothing but infinite Ricks and Morties, where one particular Morty turns out to be a Machiavellian politician.

So far, the writers’ skillful use of self-referentiality has meant that each season of Rick and Morty is better and funnier than the last—though I can envision a future where the law of diminishing returns sets in and we eventually get a whole season that is literally incomprehensible unless you have memorized all previous episodes. As an initial answer to my question of why nihilistic content is accompanied by detailed world-building, I would suggest that the self-referentiality of the show is a thematic echo of Rick’s self-absorption. On the cultural level, though, the near-complete self-enclosure of the Rick and Morty universe—which even includes occasional self-awareness on the part of characters that they are part of a TV show—echoes the “there is no alternative” ethos of neoliberalism. Rick and Morty gives us a world where endless technological advances will be put at the service of bottomless self-indulgence, in all possible worlds, for all time. If you want a vision of the future, picture being Morty, forever.

There are a couple moments when this total self-enclosure breaks down. One centers on the enigmatic figure known as Mr. Poopy-Butthole, a cheerful, vaguely Twinkie-like character who suddenly appears as a familiar family friend in the episode “Total Rickall.” Over time, more and more new characters appear and are accepted equally unquestioningly, until Rick figures out that they are being afflicted by a parasite that gives the host false memories to make them accept the new additions. The key, he discovers, is that the parasites only implant happy memories—so the only way to know who is a real family member is to focus on negative emotions. In the end, they wind up shooting Mr. Poopy-Butthole as well, only to find out that he was real. The episode concludes as the doctor reports that Mr. Poopy-Butthole is in recovery and that he is sorry they don’t have any bad memories of him. It is one of the most hilarious and yet emotionally poignant moments of television I have ever witnessed.

The second moment is a seeming continuity error. At the end of the second season, Rick gives himself up to the galactic authorities and, as Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” plays in the background, he submits to his imprisonment with an apparently authentic display of guilt and shame at all the horrible things he has done. The next season starts with an unrepentant Rick breaking out of prison, having ostensibly planned the whole thing as a way to destroy the government from the inside. Rick’s remorse has no apparent practical function—it is simply an unassimilated moment of emotion, similar to the inexplicable reality of Mr. Poopy-Butthole. And in fact, the emotion of the season finale is interrupted when Mr. Poopy-Butthole appears on screen, declaring it to be a big cliffhanger and gesturing at a lengthy wait until the next season, a role he reprised at the end of the most recent season.

We might say, then, that if there is anything outside of Rick and Morty’s self-enclosure, it is authentic emotion of the kind that might actually lead to personal growth and change. Grappling with what they did to Mr. Poopy-Butthole might lead the family to reflect on how toxic and destructive their relationships are, so it falls outside the frame. Similarly, Rick’s guilt should obviously prompt repentance and recompense to his many victims—and hence it cannot be incorporated into the elaborate mechanism of the show’s universe. In Rick and Morty, every detail counts, except for moments that might actually make a difference on a human level.

Something similar is at work in BoJack Horseman, which practices a looser form of world-building. There are some pure visual gags, but I would be willing to wager that even they tend to lay the groundwork for later meaningful developments. The image of a bird dressed in a full business suit who can fly to work is initially just a throw-away joke, for instance, but it establishes that winged characters really can fly—and sets up a poignant plot about an insect friend of BoJack’s who refuses to fly after the death of his wife.

Yet there’s no way to predict what will have an impact or what won’t. For instance, in the first season, BoJack and Mister Peanutbutter steal the D from the Hollywood sign, and from then on, everyone calls it Hollywoo, without exception. In the same season, BoJack has an affair with Sarah Lynn, the actress who played his youngest daughter on “Horsin’ Around,” and two blackmailers take compromising photos. This could be a huge plot development, utterly destroying what remains of BoJack’s reputation—but the blackmailers are continually thwarted by BoJack’s refusal to answer their phone calls because he does not recognize the number they’re calling from. When they ultimately confront him in person, they turn out to demand $300 (total) in hush money. Later, when he and Sarah Lynn go on a drug binge that results in her death, it never seems to occur to anyone that anything untoward was happening between them, even though it is widely known that he was with her when she died. In other words, a stupid prank has permanent ramifications, while BoJack’s quasi-incestuous affair with a woman he knew as a very young child has no public impact whatsoever.

More broadly, BoJack’s world seems to have been designed to prevent any permanent damage to his reputation. A seemingly damaging book about him by his friend and former ghostwriter Diane only boosts his public profile. When he scores the role of a lifetime playing his lifelong hero Secretariat—a racehorse in the BoJack universe as in ours—and abruptly skips town, it has no effect, because the producers had taken a 3D image of him and simply completed the movie with a CGI double (hopefully this does not turn out to be a grim prophecy of Princess Leia’s role in Star Wars Episode IX). He suffers considerable personal disappointment, humiliation, and shame, but on the public level he is always somehow carried along by the fame and fortune he gained by starring in a decades-old sitcom that everyone agrees to have been worthless.

Everyone, that is, except BoJack himself, who compulsively rewatches his DVD sets of the old episodes. With the exception of the Christmas special, which is presented as a full episode of “Horsin’ Around,” the only snippets we see from the show come from BoJack’s binge-watching—and as someone who grew up on the kind of crappy sitcom they have in mind, I have to say it’s absolutely spot-on, from the dumb catchphrases to the unmotivated celebrity guest stars such as “O.J. Simpson lawyer and DNA expert Barry Scheck!?” (I leave it as an exercise for the reader to run a Google search on this reference and learn how this apparent throwaway line was actually deeply intertwined with the themes of the season in which it occurred.) There is clearly something pathetic about a grown man watching such dreck, and early on it is easy to agree with the verdict of the song from the closing credits that he is trying to recapture his past as a celebrity.

When we learn about BoJack’s horrifying family life in later seasons, it is clear that he is not trying to relive his past so much as rewrite it through this binge-watching—that for him, living in the world of the sitcom for so long was an escape from his own particular postwar household, which was on one level by the numbers (a distant father with an office job, able to support his mother as a housewife) but in practice an abusive and toxic environment. To this extent, BoJack Horseman serves as a kind of prequel to the aspirational progressive sitcom of the 90s, showing that the reality of the suburban nuclear family, even in the most privileged circles, was often far removed from the ideal presented on television. Yet in the present tense of the show, what his escapism into the world of the sitcom covers up is the fact that he has effectively already escaped into the world of the sitcom. His world, too, has a reset button. His world, too, is populated—outside of a few core characters—with broad archetypal characters, represented by the different animal species.

Even his existential despair is inflected by the rhythms of a sitcom. For the seasoned viewer of the genre, there is a familiar moment toward the end of any given episode where things get serious for a minute. The laugh track and music fall silent. If there is a live studio audience, they may cough occasionally to emphasize that the silence is intentional. In this moment of stasis, our characters confront the fact that they have really hurt each other’s feelings, that their relationship really has been put at risk. It is an arresting moment, all the more effective against the background of the one-liners and manic activity that have characterized the rest of the episode up to this point. And invariably, it is punctuated by a joke that allows the laugh track to come back to life as the episode hurtles toward the inevitable reconciliation and reset.

This is the moment that South Park skewers with its obligatory, “You see, I learned something today” monologues, and it is that moment that BoJack is reenacting every time he declares that he is permanently broken and can never love, or be loved by, anyone. And his curse is that he keeps getting reset. His friends don’t abandon him, at least not permanently. His public profile, though trapped at a 2nd or 3rd-tier level, never collapses, and his finances remain solvent. And more often than not, the moment transitions toward a joke. An instance that stands out to me is when someone breaks the tension by referring to the amount of honeydew in a typical fruit cup. It seems to set up a Seinfeld-esque “what’s the deal with honeydew” moment, but for BoJack, it is an occasion of genuine outrage. Here again, he believes in the sitcom more than the sitcom itself does—and this allows the show to push the format to an extreme that allows for unexpected emotional resonance.

Please indulge me for a moment as I elaborately cite my sources before coming to my point—an academic vice, but perhaps a good behavior to model even at the risk of trying your patience. In my day job, I am a scholar of religion, and while I was pondering this talk, I was also preparing for a first year seminar course on the Faust legend, called “Deals With the Devil.” This process caused me some significant stress, because the most famous literary version of the legend, the one that I would be criminally negligent if I did not assign—Goethe’s Faust—turns out to be an unwieldy mess. Every time the plot seems to be gaining some momentum, Goethe inserts some bizarre sequence of surrealistic imagery that completely interrupts the flow of the action without having any apparent impact on the story.

While grappling with how to approach this text in an undergrad classroom, I came across an essay by Benjamin Bennett called “Interrupted Tragedy as a Structural Principle in Faust.” In it, he argues that Goethe is intentionally subverting the traditional genre of the tragedy by denying the audience the decisive moment of catharsis. When the hero feels the full force of destiny, when the villain gets his decisive comeuppance, when the plot reaches its satisfying climax, then the audience experiences some release of the tension that has built up over the course of the play. This allows the audience to leave the emotions they have been through behind when they leave the theater. But if an audience—especially a very highly educated audience who knows exactly what they have a right to expect from drama—is systematically denied that release, then they are forced to carry their emotional tension with them when they go home, opening up the possibility that they will reflect on what the drama may have to say about their daily lives.

I would argue that this is what BoJack Horseman is doing with its audience. Two decades of watching serialized cable dramas have taught us what to expect from the story of a self-destructive anti-hero who is past his prime—even an anti-hero who happens to be a cartoon horse. When what we get instead is a weird kind of intensified sitcom, it opens up the possibility of more intense emotional effects than anyone would have any right to expect. In part, it’s because of the animated format, which creates the kind of distancing effect I’ve already discussed in connection with the early seasons of The Simpsons. In the case of BoJack, the writers put that effect to good use, as the nightmarish back-story of BoJack’s grandmother, who is lobotomized after grieving her brother’s death for what her demonic husband considered too long, would come across as almost farcically over the top in a live action format. We somehow need a story of cartoon horses to give us the space to consider the very real cruelties of America’s postwar patriarchal order.

Once we see this full back-story, we understand, but do not forgive, the abuse and resentment that BoJack’s mother metes out on her son, just as we understand, but do not forgive, BoJack’s deeply ingrained habits of escapism. Neither character can experience a decisive transformation that changes their lives forever—this is a sitcom, after all. I fully expect that any degree of self-realization BoJack has attained by the end of season 4 will be squandered immediately when he learns that Diane is divorcing Mister Peanutbutter and makes this painful situation all about him. He will come dangerously close to destroying the relationship he values most in the world, and he will come to some pretty dark realizations as a result—but life will go on, and life will be okay in its never-okayness.

The question that remains, though, is why animals? Why not just stylized, animated humans? Though it is a unique premise in the context of contemporary TV, it is nonetheless the case that many cultures have imagined a past era when humans and animals interacted as equals. For the Greeks, this was the age of fable. For the Hebrews, it was the age of innocence—because surely it was not only the serpent who could talk. This latter example shows how dangerous and ambivalent that primal moment can be, how it can stand in for a loss that will stop haunting us.

I would propose that for Americans, that primal scene is precisely the sitcom, and by portraying it in the format of a fable, BoJack Horseman is providing us with space to process the loss of that postwar ideal, that nostalgia or “pain from an old wound” that is all the more intense for those—like me, and I suspect like you—who never really experienced that ideal in the first place, for whom those images on TV were at once fascinating and mocking. It invites us to take up a certain distance from that cultural formation, to allow ourselves to feel the emotions and hurts at stake in it in a new and candid way, to admit to ourselves how deeply we have been formed by this embarrassing dreck—and to begin taking inventory of what is promising and what is defeating, of what we can work with and what we might need to leave aside. It invites us to reflect on how we have been broken by the cultural expectations that shaped us—but without indulging the fantasies of either a clean break or a final attainment of the illusory “happiness” that ultimately amounts only to conformity.

BoJack Horseman obviously does not offer us an alternative to our contemporary predicament—that would be too much to expect from an absurdist fable about cartoon animals—but it may model something like the first steps toward becoming the kind of people who could imagine such a thing. At the very least, that’s going to be my excuse for the next rewatch.

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