He's a man who has suffered no consequences. His is a recklessness born of experience. He's like a malevolent Mr. Magoo. He always knows the I-beam is going to swing down and the building is going to collapse but who cares, because he'll walk out unscathed.

Jon Stewart on Donald Trump, 15 June 20201

BoJack Horseman is preoccupied with exploring the causes and consequences of personal failures of ethics and character, most obviously those of its eponymous antihero. BoJack is self-centered, jealous, irresponsible, sometimes cruel, and often receives opprobrium for his actions from friends and strangers alike. He is the antithesis to his friend-cum-nemesis Mr. Peanutbutter, largely regarded within the show's world as "happy, carefree, and loving," in the words of Diane Nguyen's ex-boyfriend Wayne. In Season 1, Episode 4, Wayne advances a theory, named for characters in Mr. Peanutbutter's '90s sitcom Mr. Peanutbutter's House, that everyone is fundamentally a Zoë (a "smart, cynical introvert") or a Zelda ("a sunny, fun-loving extrovert)." Mr. Peanutbutter, says Wayne, is a textbook Zelda, while BoJack's very claim to be "above" such crude binaries identifies him as a Zoë.

Mike Davis, whose concern with deconstructing Los Angeles's compulsive self-representation is shared by BoJack creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg, coined another name for the Zelda/Zoë dichotomy: "sunshine and noir." For Davis, LA is a city that exists in tension between myths of "sunshine" (Southern California as an Edenic land of leisure and orange groves) and their "noir" antithesis, "a transformational grammar turning each charming ingredient of the boosters' arcadia into a sinister equivalent."2 Representations of LA, for Davis, consist perpetually of light being challenged by a corruptive-but-corrective darkness. BoJack follows something like the Davisian model mirroring in Mr. Peanutbutter and BoJack a Zelda and a Zoë, the sunshine and noir of Hollywoo but suggests the extent to which noir myths of LA have become hegemonic by inverting Davis's axes. A protagonist consumed by shadow is centered, but finds himself continually assailed by a carefree image of golden (Labrador) light. In Bob-Waksberg's Los Angeles, noir is the narrative default, sunshine the subversive intruder. Or so it seems.

In fact, performing a ruthless bait-and-switch upon its viewers, BoJack Horseman discloses the most unsettling darkness of its moral universe within the sunny figure of Mr. Peanutbutter. For all its bleakness, BoJack's character arc does not contain the show's most discomfiting, pessimistic comments on wrongdoing, self-examination, and consequence. Instead they are expressed, counterintuitively, in a figure ostensibly of zany comic relief and madcap escapades, whose seeming narrative purpose is, per the New Statesman's Sarah Manavis, as "a necessary foil to the unrelentingly heavy A-plot of drugs, death, and depression."3 Mr. Peanutbutter's failings are typically more mundane, less shocking than BoJack's high-stakes melodramas of death, drugs, and sexual and psychological abuse, but reveal themselves in their numbing consistency, the blasé impunity with which they are committed, and their implications for the show's philosophy of justice, to be perhaps more monstrous.

Mr. Peanutbutter's license plate, reading GOODBOY, establishes "one of the central premises of his character," as Helen Cushman notes elsewhere in this cluster.4 Simultaneously, though, the plate establishes that Mr. Peanutbutter's goodness is performative, the conspicuous broadcasting of claimed virtue in search of praise. In the first episode of Season 3, Mr. Peanutbutter arrives uninvited at the home of his erstwhile accountant, Oxnard, who is preparing for a rare bonding trip with his son. Mr. Peanutbutter is reviving PB Livin', the corporate umbrella for his many vanity projects and nonsense schemes schemes that previously drove him and Oxnard to the brink of bankruptcy and breakdown respectively. Once again facing conscription into the impossible task of keeping Mr. Peanutbutter's company solvent, Oxnard protests, screaming in terror, clearly traumatized by his previous experience in that role.

Ignoring this, Mr. Peanutbutter hoists Oxnard over his shoulder and kidnaps him, blithely offering as he does so a remark of characteristic solipsism: "It's gonna be great, as it always is from my perspective." Oxnard's anguished face appears at the rear window of Mr. Peanutbutter's departing car, hands pressed desperately against glass, his fate the inevitable result of Mr. Peanutbutter's unwillingness ever to subordinate the immediate fulfilment of his own whims to anyone or anything else. Beneath Oxnard's face and the bewildered reflection of his abandoned son we read, with leaden irony, GOODBOY. Callous treatment of economic inferiors and those in positions of service (all while pretending a relatable dog-of-the-people image) is typical Mr. Peanutbutter behavior. It is present in his attitude toward Todd, a supposed friend never permitted to forget that he is also a PB Livin' employee, or to the sound engineer whose wife Mr. Peanutbutter declares to be "bullshit" compared to his own, laughingly remarking that "he had to agree with me, because I am his boss" (Season 2, Episode 10).

Key here is the tonal difference between moments when Mr. Peanutbutter satisfies his fancies with disregard for his fellow creatures and when BoJack acts similarly. When BoJack commits a grievous hurt both he and the viewer are compelled to reckon with it, or we are exposed to the consequences. Compare Mr. Peanutbutter's kidnapping of Oxnard to BoJack's sole encounter with the accountant, later in the same season, when BoJack and Sarah Lynn destroy the playhouse the accountant has built for his son, crushing it with their car. This too would be a throwaway piece of comic callousness were it not for the fact that it occurs during the drug spree that will result in Sarah Lynn's death. BoJack's laugh at Oxnard's expense is shown to be bound up in something larger and grimmer, an excruciating chain of catastrophically consequential failures in judgment and action. When Mr. Peanutbutter kidnaps Oxnard, by contrast, there is no such enforced reflection; it's a cheap laugh to prime the plot. Momentarily, the show's complex, mature narrative consciousness atrophies itself to the flat, consequence-free shape of Mr. Peanutbutter's own mind: it becomes cartoonish.

Mr. Peanutbutter's wrongdoings are often treated as lacking permanence; they fail to accrue an aggregate moral weight. They may generate a tangible mess, but this is itself often cartoonish, a visual gag (as with the spaghetti strainers that fill Mr. Peanutbutter's house after a scheme gone wrong). Even when the consequences of Mr. Peanutbutter's actions acquire substance, it is frequently of a kind that does not undermine but rather compounds the comic sustenance by which the unstinting bleakness of BoJack's storylines is rendered bearable.5 The show thereby makes us co-beneficiaries of Mr. Peanutbutter's selfish destruction, inviting us into complicity with his evasion of consequence.

Not all Mr. Peanutbutter's wrongdoings are played for laughs. Consider his attitude toward Diane throughout their marriage: condescending, patronizing, taking credit for her ideas, doubting and belittling her, proving unwilling to listen to her needs because (as Diane herself notes) he cannot conceive that anyone's desires could run counter to his own.6 In Season 2, Episode 4, Mr. Peanutbutter throws his wife a surprise birthday party; she is dismayed, having told him repeatedly that she loathes such events. Instead of admitting wrongdoing, Mr. Peanutbutter peevishly asks why he doesn't get "credit" for his efforts, revealing that, as the GOODBOY plate hints, he performs kindness to seek reward. For Mr. Peanutbutter, grandiose gestures like the party are easily-purchased substitutes for the tougher work of consistent care and thoughtfulness: committed on a scale impervious to dispute, they indebt others to him, insulating him from criticism of his thoughtlessness and thus from any need to amend his behavior. When it comes time to match gestures with true care, amid Diane's attempts to expose TV legend Hank Hippopopalous as a sexual abuser, Mr. Peanutbutter is found chillingly lacking. He angrily instructs his wife to desist, to uphold the Cosbyesque omerta around Hippopopalous in order to safeguard his own career. When Diane declares on television that "because he's so nice, people don't want to think he's capable of awful things so they let him off the hook," she is referring ostensibly to Hippopopalous, but she also describes her husband.

These misdeeds and others like them are not presented as throwaway gags a la Oxnard. The audience is invited here to consider the notion that Mr. Peanutbutter is not all sunshine. There remains, however, a distinction in how the show reckons with the respective wrongdoings of Mr. Peanutbutter and BoJack. Even when the show lingers on negative ramifications of Mr. Peanutbutter's actions, there are seldom significant consequences for Mr. Peanutbutter himself. He is ultimately not required to reckon with his misdeeds, never becoming a social pariah or object of public hatred as BoJack does; he certainly feels unhappy when, say, he grows distant from Pickles or Diane, but this never prompts the kind of lasting and acute inner turmoil that besets BoJack. Whatever Mr. Peanutbutter does, he is permitted by the narrative and by Hollywoo to return to being the happy-go-lucky good boy, likewise freeing the viewer to reassume guiltless reliance upon his comedic value. His force-field of cartoon consciousness still obtains.

The basis on which Mr. Peanutbutter is routinely absolved from reckoning with his behavior is the impression he creates of being unwittingly destructive, hurting others only because he is constitutionally incapable of self-awareness. Mr. Peanutbutter's failure to reckon with his wrongdoing is more easily forgivable if it reflects a man truly unable to recognize his own failings "so stupid he doesn't realize how miserable he should be," as BoJack describes him in the show's first episode. We too might feel less guilt at our complicity in Mr. Peanutbutter's actions if we are laughing at Mr. Peanutbutter's obliviousness to the harm he causes rather than at the harm itself. Such an exculpation, however, proves unsustainable.

As Mr. Peanutbutter falters in his attempt to enter politics at the start of Season 4, his ex-wife turned campaign manager Katrina tells him: "All your life, people have been throwing you bones because they like you, but everyone has a ceiling to their likeability." The governorship of California, she explains, represents "a bone you can't have," a concept alien to Mr. Peanutbutter. Katrina, though, is wrong. Mr. Peanutbutter ultimately does gain an implausible opportunity to challenge longtime incumbent Wouldchuck Couldchuck Berkowitz at the ballot box, and seems set for victory after he ruthlessly seizes an unexpected chance to humiliate his seasoned opponent with an extemporized display of fiery populist rhetoric. Mr. Peanutbutter never actually becomes governor, but only because he drops out of the race on a whim, bored by politics not because he hits his likeability ceiling. There is no bone that cannot be thrown his way by the universe. Moreover, here we find proof that Mr. Peanutbutter is no naïf, a figure simply gifted with literal dumb luck and one whose greatest flaw is that of mere obliviousness. Mr. Peanutbutter proves capable of the most cynical, rabble-rousing politicking imaginable, taking calculated advantage of an adversary who wrongly thought him a fool.

The series is littered with similar suggestions that Mr. Peanutbutter's success comes neither despite nor because of naïveté, that he in fact succeeds by being ruthlessly self-seeking while creating an impression of obliviousness to shield himself from consequence. In Season 1, Episode 6, after drunkenly stealing the "D" from the Hollywood sign in an attempt to impress Diane, BoJack appeals to Mr. Peanutbutter for help in returning the letter; Mr. Peanutbutter assents, only to avenge himself upon BoJack by claiming credit for stealing the "D" as a romantic gesture. When a film is made about Mr. Peanutbutter's concocted version of events, with BoJack playing the lead, Mr. Peanutbutter simply refuses to acknowledge BoJack's complaints that he is an "idea thief" and the story inaccurate. Mr. Peanutbutter pretends ignorance while manipulating events to his advantage, as he does again when he confronts BoJack on live television with his knowledge that BoJack had kissed Diane, having concealed that knowledge for months. In incidents like this, other characters express surprise at Mr. Peanutbutter's rare displays of perspicacity; in response, his usual tone of airheaded wonder drops, replaced by an angry snarl. Nicole Froio writes elsewhere in this cluster that "within the depth of characters you did not expect to have depth" lies BoJack Horseman's "magic."7 Its magic, yes, but also its horror. Studied stupidity and affected ignorance provide plausible deniability for the moments where Peanutbutter betrays malice and calculation: a smart dog plays dumb.

Although the later seasons of the show suggest genuine if stuttering personal growth on BoJack's part, the most egregious wrongdoings of previous seasons (involving Sarah Lynn and Penny Carson) still loom unaccounted for until BoJack is jailed ostensibly for breaking and entering but in his words "kind of for everything." The show's final scenes find him uncertain as to where his future life will lead. There is no closure here, but there does seem to be justice. BoJack is not denied the hope of future contentment, but it is insufficient for him merely to "do better." A tangible punishment for wrongs committed must be exacted beyond psychological turmoil and fractured relationships. You don't get away with it, ever, says the conclusion to BoJack's story, and penance does not guarantee but is required for redemption.

Mr. Peanutbutter's storyline, though, says the opposite. Don't try to stop being a selfish asshole, it says; instead, embrace being a selfish asshole. Lie. Manipulate. Abuse power. Deny self-knowledge. Don't grow; don't plumb the abyss to retrieve your better self. Not only will you be spared consequence, but the universe will reward you. In this context, BoJack's fate revises itself into a nihilistic admission that there is, in fact, no justice.8 In the show's final episode, Mr. Peanutbutter, seemingly friendly as ever, collects BoJack from prison to attend Princess Carolyn's wedding. Mr. Peanutbutter claims to have had some "breakthroughs" in analyzing his own behavior, but they are suspiciously neat and pat, literally phrased as movie references. He confirms the superficiality of his claimed development by stopping en route to the wedding and forcing BoJack to attend a press conference at Griffith Observatory. Not only is this the scene of Sarah Lynn's death, the single most shameful and traumatic event in BoJack's past, but the event is Mr. Peanutbutter's announcement that, as promotion for his bafflingly successful new TV show, he has restored the missing letter of the Hollywood sign: years on, he still claims credit for something BoJack did, and publicly goads BoJack about it at the most insensitive location imaginable. BoJack is nervous about attending the wedding but Mr. Peanutbutter promises he will support him throughout. Naturally, he does not. On arrival he quickly abandons BoJack, for whom he has professed such concern and whose friendship he claims to crave so deeply, for the ever-unseen "Erica." He did precisely the same thing in the show's very first episode: nothing has changed. In BoJack, those who are tormented by and seek to amend their failings find hardship while those who scarcely acknowledge their misdeeds find success.

When All in the Family premiered in 1971, some viewers found the bigoted Archie Bunker a figure to lionize rather than, as series creator Norman Lear intended, an object of derision. Emily Nussbaum calls this the "bad fan" phenomenon. Bad fandom, writes Nussbaum, has been fueled in recent years by "dark dramas" like Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, "whose protagonists shimmer between the repulsive and the magnetic," inviting for some viewers "a less ambivalent way of regarding an antihero: as a hero."9 BoJack Horseman feels directly attuned to this "bad fan crisis," its presentation of BoJack's misdeeds an active challenge to the viewer who watches a certain kind of violent, abusive, tormented male antihero and identifies positively and uncomplicatedly with him. For all his material success and hedonism, there is nothing aspirational about BoJack. It's not merely the case that the show lingers on the consequences of his actions or that he is punished for them (the same could be said of Walter White or Tony Soprano); it's that BoJack almost never has fun being a bad person. Persistently, the show illustrates that his lifestyle cannot offer true respite from his crushing self-hatred. Even his sex-and-drugs-and-drink binges are pathetic rather than glamorous, offering only brief oblivion before a sudden awakening to the pizza boxes, empty bottles, and sordid consequences of the night before.

Viewers don't avoid complicity with BoJack's misdeeds so much as the show avoids becoming complicit with "bad fans" by making it next-to-impossible for a reasonable viewer to become one. It does thereby, however, allow those viewers a certain kind of moral superiority. To watch BoJack in all its intractable moral complexity is to feel oneself elevated above, say Rick and Morty viewers who parrot catchphrases ("Pickle Rick!") while ignoring that Rick Sanchez is a psychopath who destroys his family. (Catchphrases in BoJack are only ever grimly ironic: "that's too much, man.") Persistent confrontation with the bleak awfulness of BoJack's deeds may traumatize viewers but also offers them a kind of political protection, the assurance that by grappling reflectively and sophisticatedly with such trauma, empathizing with BoJack's struggles but never glorifying his wrongs, they surely cannot be bad fans.

Mr. Peanutbutter destroys that paradigm, a vision of the grinding everyday injustice of a man who can behave awfully with impunity and seldom has anything but a great time doing it. To watch Mr. Peanutbutter is to watch a bad man succeed, to fail upwards, time and again, to be rewarded for his selfishness and stupidity, for his refusal to recognize consequence and responsibility and to be complicit therein. If Mr. Peanutbutter presents the banality of evil as a kind of aspirational lifestyle, he earns that lifestyle through the dramatic labor that provides us with laughs to make BoJack's miseries watchable. We let Mr. Peanutbutter live a world of cartoon consequentiality so we can bear the fact that BoJack does not. The bad fan trap in the BoJack universe is not its titular character but his seemingly sunny twin, luring us to compliment ourselves on our nuanced responses to a morally compromised character but making us hypocrites in doing so. Mr. Peanutbutter's con is complete. Zelda was a Zoë. There is no justice, and it is our fault.

A scholar of 20th- and 21st-century American fiction and pop culture, Dr. Michael Docherty is Lecturer in American Literature at the University of Kent. His two primary areas of research are in cultural representations of California and the fictive construction of American masculinities. Unfortunately, he cannot log off: @maybeavalon.


  1. David Marchese, "Jon Stewart Is Back to Weigh In," New York Times Magazine, June 15, 2020.[]
  2. Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, 2nd ed. (London: Verso, 2006), 38. On the cultural construction of Los Angeles as a restorative sun-kissed paradise, see Lawrence Culver, The Frontier of Leisure: Southern California and the Shaping of Modern America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).[]
  3. Sarah Manavis, "The Ending to BoJack Horseman Isn't Perfect, But Isn't That What It's About?," New Statesman, January 31, 2020.[]
  4. Helen Cushman, "It's Not Ibsen," Post45, November 23, 2020.[]
  5. In a later episode, moreover, the strainers enable Mr. Peanutbutter to perform an act of self-serving heroism, further inflating his "good boy" reputation: he is not punished but rewarded for a prior error.[]
  6. There are notionally more attempts to "learn" and "listen" in Mr. Peanutbutter's later relationship with Pickles. They only reveal, however (most transparently in his farcical attempts to offer redress for his infidelity with Diane), how little Mr. Peanutbutter understands those very tasks, and how transparently he is motivated not by altruistic care but by the insecure vanity of a man desperate not to be humiliated by a partner 25 years his junior.[]
  7. Nicole Froio, "BoJack and #MeToo," Post45, November 23, 2020.[]
  8. The only real negative consequence Mr. Peanutbutter suffers for his actions are in the breakdowns of his relationships with Diane and Pickles, yet those relationships fail because he doesn't want the kinds of commitments they require, so their failure can hardly be said to be any kind of punishment. In the show's final episode, he is apparently entirely unperturbed about being single.[]
  9. Emily Nussbaum, I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution (New York, NY: Random House, 2019), 38.[]