Did you ever want to see Will Arnett voice a washed-up celebrity cartoon horse partying in Los Angeles whilst going through near-constant existential crises? Well you're in luck. Because that is BoJack Horseman, a #Netflix original show that is unique and moving — watch this show and there's a pretty good chance you'll feel more feelings than a cartoon has made you feel in a long time. Next to Rick and Morty, BoJack Horseman is considered the best of current adult cartoons. Whilst Rick and Morty is reaching intellectual heights not before seen in cartoons (with a healthy dose of philosophy), BoJack is bringing more emotion and reflection on the current state of the human condition than anything else, pretty much ever.
BoJack tackles the 21st century human condition, from the internet and celeb culture to the idea that God is dead and has been for a very long time. BoJack is never afraid to look at political or ethical problems of the 21st century as well: abortion with Sextina Aquafina, feminism in the modern media with Diane, addiction and mental health with pretty much all the characters. This unique mix of ethics, philosophy, and emotional depth is what makes BoJack exceptional and helps drive its insistent pessimism home.
Existentialism And Existential Nihilism
Almost all the characters in the seemingly light-hearted cartoon are actually, on further examination, horrendously depressed. BoJack is of course the most obvious culprit. He drinks and takes drugs constantly, and is always looking for a way to obtain a greater meaning from his life, but is always ultimately, unequivocally, depressed. Characters like Princess Caroline, who is a workaholic and appears to deny herself a break of any kind, and Todd, who is happy as long as he is distracted by anything, are also symptomatic of the malaise of the showE
This is where existentialism comes in. Existentialism is, put simply, the idea that there is no meaning in life except what is defined by each individual through their freedom of will: every person creates their own meaning because they have free will to do whatever they want at any time (radical freedom). At one point BoJack calls out to Jean-Paul Sartre, the godfather of existentialism, critiquing that "his philosophical arguments helped many tyrannical regimes justify overt cruelty — and the French smell." BoJack often questions his own responsibility for his actions. As much as the show purports much Sartrean existentialism, often saying how the characters can change their lives if they choose and that they are responsible for their actions, BoJack is critical of this — not condoning it.
Existential nihilism is BoJack's personal reaction a lot of the time through his near constant hedonistic indulgence, even though he has moments where he tries to etch some kind of meaning into his life. Existential nihilism is simply that there is no meaning to be found in life and nothing you, or anyone else, does matters. There can be a certain uplifting quality to this — a freedom from responsibility which BoJack takes full advantage of by always acting in his own self-interest.
Existentialism features heavily in BoJack, but where the real crux of the show is is in the character's battle between existentialism, nihilism, and the embracing the absurd truth. The characters spend their time exploring different answers to the lack of meaning within life: constant distraction, benevolence, drugs and alcohol, belief systems. Sometimes they give in to there simply being no meaning
Albert Camus' theory of the absurd features heavily in BoJack Horseman. Camus suggested that there were three possible reactions to the realization that life is meaningless:
- An attempt to create meaning — people try this with belief systems, family, etc (similar to existentialism).
- Committing suicide.
- Embracing the fact that life is meaningless and enjoy life in spite of this.
Unlike Rick and Morty, which very decidedly chooses the third option almost all of the time, BoJack is much more exploratory of the options, sometimes seeming to settle on embracing that life is meaningless (Mr Peanutbutter: "I realised something today — none of this matters!"), sometimes searching for other meanings (namely booze & drugs), even perhaps toying with the idea of the second option (at the end of Season 3 when BoJack let his steering wheel drift).
There are many strands of philosophy explored in BoJack, as BoJack and the other characters try and sort their shit out. But they never do, they always end up making the same mistakes, not changing, and being swallowed by their vices time and time again. The philosophy in BoJack isn't just as simple as existentialism, nihilism, or absurdism: the characters in the show are in a constant flux and basically have no idea what they're doing or how to think. Sound familiar?
What philosophical concepts have you spotted in BoJack? How many uncomfortable feelings has the show made you feel?