The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

How the women of ‘Bojack Horseman’ lift the show’s narrative

Written by: Adriana Gomez-Weston, CC2K Staff Writer

With its recent fifth season premiere, Bojack Horseman continues to bring audiences not only laughter, but also an existential crisis… often at the same time. One of the most brilliant and progressive shows on television, Bojack Horseman manages to savagely criticize the inner workings of Hollywood and painstakingly depicts the depths of the human condition. With its animated format, Bojack Horseman goes where most live-action television simply can’t. Unlike most showbiz-oriented shows, creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg has been candid in his attempts to create a show which is as inclusive and progressive as possible in its subsequent seasons.

In its latest season, Bojack Horseman continues to depict hot button issues, including the heavy subjects of sexual misconduct, drug addiction, and the show’s crowning achievement, mental illness. This season, it tackles the #MeToo movement head on in an eerily-timed number of episodes (even though its animated format means the shows were written well prior to the start of the movement). The show unabashedly criticizes how often the industry is willing to redeem its problematic men and questions society’s continuing obsession with rooting for flawed male characters. As Bojack stars in a show reflecting on his own horrible behavior, he becomes more self aware and seeks to clear his name. Not surprisingly, his new show “Philbert” is critically acclaimed and becomes a smash hit with audiences.

Ironically, as the show’s writers satirize the sympathy towards flawed male leads, it benefits from this trope at the same time. Bojack is not a bad person per say, but as the seasons progress it becomes harder for him to seek redemption as he constantly straddles the line between right and wrong. Over the course of five seasons, Bojack found himself in a plethora of toxic relationships, and has selfishly derailed the lives of others because of his inability to do better. Despite his behavior, some shining moments have proven Bojack can be caring and thoughtful. However, at what point in time should we realize maybe we shouldn’t be rooting for him at all? Bojack recently earned some comparisons to other equally tragic male figures like Don Draper (Mad Men) and Hank Moody (Californication). All characters constantly find themselves on a teeter totter of moral highs and lows, leaving a path of destruction wherever they go.

In each show, Don, Hank, and Bojack all have something in common which helps anchor them to their respective series’. What is it they have in common? It’s the women who bare the cross of the their actions. What is with the phenomenon of broken men surrounding themselves with extraordinary women (who are often more compelling than the they are)? Each broken man has women faithfully standing at his side as he is allowed to fail (and occasionally succeed) in life. In every narrative, each protagonist also enjoys a revolving door of love interests whose purpose is often to bring them enlightenment or cater to their fragile egos. In these shows, beautiful women appear to be magical creatures appearing out of nowhere, usually showing up momentarily to teach our flawed “hero” a lesson or as a quick means to advance plot.

Don Draper’s narrative was supported by his wife Betty and daughter Sally, his protégé Peggy Olson, and his friend and coworker Joan Holloway. Hank’s story found its heart in his daughter Becca and on-again-off-again partner Karen. Bojack Horseman (Will Arnett), while an interesting character on his own wouldn’t be able to succeed without the existence of Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), or the stream of women coming in and out of his life.

As the seasons unravel, the show reveals Bojack’s troubled upbringing with the majority of his self-hatred due to his mother Beatrice’s (Wendy Malick) abuse. While Bojack’s dysfunctional family bred problems in him as an adult, can he still use it to excuse his bad behavior? Even in his earliest stages, the actions of a woman drives most of Bojack’s narrative. As indicated in season four’s “Times Arrow”, Beatrice Horseman was also the victim of a cruel childhood, fueling her coldness towards Bojack for decades. While the episode manages to earn Beatrice some sympathy, what it really does is show how the seeds of Bojack’s tortured existence were planted.

Bojack’s checkered past saw a number of interesting women enhance his story. The most notable is Sarah Lynn (Kristen Schaal), Bojack’s child co-star turned drug-addicted party girl. A major part of his life, their relationship crosses the lines between maternal and sexual. There’s also Wanda Pierce (Lisa Kudrow), one of Bojack’s love interests. An owl awakened from a 30 year coma, Bojack finds himself charmed by her obliviousness to the world. Like many of his other failed romances, Wanda tires of Bojack’s self-destructive behavior. There’s also the introduction of Hollyhock (Apurna Nancherla) in season four who awakens a paternal love and affection in Bojack. Season five introduces audiences to Gina Cazador (Stephanie Beatriz), who becomes a part of another strained relationship. A co-star on “Philbert,” Gina is looking to work and put her head down, but she becomes embroiled in Bojack’s shenanigans.

Since the show’s debut, Diane has been shaping Bojack’s story, literally. Season one opens with Bojack’s failed attempts to write a memoir. Unable to complete the project in time for the publisher, Princess Carolyn recommends he contact a ghost writer. An avid fan of Bojack and the show “Horsin’ Around,” Diane is eager to tell Bojack’s story in the best way she can, and becomes a permanent addition in the wild roller coaster that is Bojack’s life. Due to the success of the book, Bojack’s career faces a resurgence. This renewed interest leads to Bojack being cast as his childhood hero Secretariat, which in turns leads to the dog and pony show of awards season. In season five, Diane takes the reigns on “Philbert” as the writing proves to be sexist and insensitive. Infusing some of Bojack’s life into the script, she is unwillingly responsible for the success of the show.

Princess Carolyn, on the other hand has been on Bojack’s team since the earliest days of his career. Once romantically involved, Princess Carolyn continues to bat for Bojack despite his mistreatment of her both personally and professionally. Playing double duty as his agent, then manager, Princess Carolyn wants better for Bojack (and herself). No matter what, she manages to get him out of trouble. She’s the one who remained at his side during his career ebbs and flows, and has tried many times to help him pick his career off the ground. A relentless career woman, Princess Carolyn is still maternal and aims to take care of others before she takes care of herself.

Both women have sidestepped their personal lives to tend to Bojack. It’s a wonder that Princess Carolyn still represents Bojack considering all the trouble he caused her. In the latest season, she desperately tries to adopt a child. However, she almost misses her chance while she’s once again struggling to get Bojack out of trouble. At her therapist’s recommendation, Diane opts to distance herself from Bojack. However, he barges his way back in. Despite Diane’s criticism of enabling toxic men, she still comes to Bojack’s aid.

Diane and Princess Carolyn deserve more. Most similar to Mad Men, the writers of Bojack Horseman have invited viewers into the lives of its supporting women. Each season, audiences are taken on a journey through career and personal highs and lows. At one point in the latest season, Bojack mentions (in reference to his show “Horsin’ Around”) if everyone was happy, the show wouldn’t be able to continue. So if Bojack decides to completely get his life together, would the show still be able to exist? Actually, a better question would be, if Diane and Princess Carolyn were to get their lives together and finally distance themselves from Bojack, would the show still thrive without them? Would Bojack survive without them? While Bojack Horseman is still an amazingly enjoyable series, like Mad Men and Californication, it is exasperating to see the lead character constantly pick up the pieces of his life, only to trip and fall again, again, and again. The show’s supporting roles aren’t perfect either, but at what point do we begin rooting for them instead?