There’s a great line in Season 5, Episode 6 of BoJack Horseman that sums up the ethos of the show:
Anyway, we did this one season finale, where Olivia’s birth mother comes to town. And she was a junkie, but she’s gotten herself cleaned up, and she wants to be in Olivia’s life again. And of course, she’s like a perfect grown-up version of Olivia, and they go to the mall together and get her ears pierced like she’s always wanted and—sorry, spoiler alert for the season six finale of Horsin’ Around, if you’re still working your way through it. Anyway, the horse tries to warn her, “Be careful, moms have a way of letting you down.” But Olivia just thinks the horse is jealous, and when the mom says she’s moving to California, Olivia decides to go with her. And the network really juiced the cliffhanger: “Is Olivia gone for good?” But of course, because it’s a TV show, she was not gone for good. Of course, because it’s a TV show, Olivia’s mother had a relapse and had to go back to rehab, so Olivia had to hitchhike all the way home, getting rides from Mr. T, Alf, and the cast of Stomp. Of course, that’s what happened. Because, what are you gonna do, just not have Olivia on the show? You can’t have happy endings in sitcoms, not really, because, if everyone’s happy, the show would be over, and above all else, the show… has to keep going. There’s always more show. And you can call Horsin’ Around dumb, or bad, or unrealistic, but there is nothing more realistic than that. You never get a happy ending, ‘cause there’s always more show.
I guess until there isn’t.
It reminded me of an article I tried to write a while back, called “Bojack Horseman is Mad Men,” because the line perfectly encapsulates what the shows have most in common. At first glance it might be their protagonists, who don’t quite fit the anti-hero mold because of their deeply sincere desire to change, even if they can’t quite manage it (for the record a real anti-hero, in my mind, is when a protagonist turns unabashedly evil, aka Walter White). While there are nearly endless correlations between Don Draper and BoJack Horseman, there is something that runs more deeply in both shows that unites them even better: their approach to time.
I’ve already written about Mad Men’s approach to time, and BoJack’s speech in “Free Churro” hits a lot of similar points. The thing is that the shows fall between two traditional structures: dramas, and episodic television, and because of their attempt to bridge this gap they’re left with something unconventional. Dramas are built off of a series of causes and effects – actions are taken and that action has a consequence which leads to the next action, etc. Much like as in life. The difference with dramas, of course, is that they’re somehow “packaged” – they have a clear beginning, middle, and end and all these action and consequences are implicitly promised to be bringing us to something, some conclusion, whatever it may be. This promise of conclusion, of an apotheosis of all the former consequences, is markedly not like life, but it is what makes drama enticing.
Episodic television is the inverse. Like life it just keeps on chugging, with all of its actions not implicitly leading to some conclusion. Each episode has stories that draw to a close, but the next episode essentially more or less reverts to the status quo. There is, that is to say, no implicit promise of finality, and again this both is and isn’t like life. In the lack of formal overarching narrative episodic television looks like our lives. In the way that consequences are essentially erased week to week, not so much.
In wedding the two forms together BoJack and Mad Men have created two fictional universes that treat time the same way we do in our real lives. Neither show seems to be racing towards any conclusion, but at the same time the consequences of the previous week are never forgotten. They have stripped themselves both of the static appeal of episodic television and the narrative arch appeal of dramas, and as such end up with what is at first glance the detriment of both genres. They are a deluge of consequences leading nowhere in particular, which is exactly what our real lives are like, which is exactly why we prefer to watch dramas and episodic television. We need to feel like actions are somehow bundled in service of things (it’s why we invented narrative in the first place) or we want the escapism of a goofy world where nothing we do matters. Both shows offer us neither of these things. They’re just like life.
But does life make for good TV? I don’t know. Truly, I don’t. Mad Men ends on a note of new beginnings, because it’s the only way it could possibly end, because these people’s narratives will only end when they die. It’s an ethos echoed, nay, championed, by BoJack as well. “Every day it gets a little easier. But you have to do it every day. That’s the hard part. But it does get easier.” It sounds like good advice, and is certainly something that BoJack (the show) believes in, but life (and BoJack) are more complicated than that. Time is more complicated than that. It doesn’t necessarily get easier every day. And sometimes, as Season 5 of BoJack particularly highlighted, the deluge of consequences are just too much and trying to be a bit better every day can still feel like you’re sinking. Said differently to a different unlikable protagonist (though, as I’ve said in the past, I think Rick and Morty validates Rick much more than BoJack validates BoJack or Mad Men validates Don Draper):
I have no doubt that you would be bored senseless by therapy, the same way I’m bored when I brush my teeth and wipe my ass. Because the thing about repairing, maintaining, and cleaning is it’s not an adventure. There’s no way to do it so wrong you might die. It’s just work. And the bottom line is, some people are okay going to work, and some people … well, some people would rather die. Each of us gets to choose.
Growing, maintaining, trying to sink a little less is work. Work is tough. It’s why we build narratives. We want to know if we do something everyday it will get easier. That if we make the right choices things can get better. But BoJack and Mad Men use their commitment to consequences to make sure that isn’t true. In life the consequence of a terrible action isn’t a stepping stone to something better. Look at the central relationships of both shows: Peggy and Don, BoJack and Diane. Both relationships are, at some point in the run, seriously blown up and no matter how badly BoJack or Don want to rewind, and no matter how hard they work, the damage is permanent. It’s not in service of anything. It’s just a wedge they’ve built and have to learn to live with. They have done something, and because life isn’t episodic it’s cost them, and because life isn’t really a narrative arch they haven’t gained anything from it.
Which returns us to the question “is life good television?” I still don’t know. Near the end of this season of BoJack I felt myself wishing both “dear god let this end” and “dear god let this never end”. BoJack in particular has done things that are worse than Don Draper ever did, and his rehabilitation is a longer and harder road. I really want him to get there, but I know that even that won’t really be enough, and while I want to see BoJack get better I know that there isn’t some “final form” he will take that will allow the show or my view of him as a character to reach some finality. Life, like sitcoms, doesn’t really have some final iteration. The show just keeps going.