Amid the series of increasingly alarming dumpster fires that define our contemporary moment, BoJack Horseman might seem not quite relevant.1 Sure it's a hilarious, moving, and original tour-de-force of animation, a deep dive into absurdity and screwball tragedy, a brilliant "traumic" (to use Lauren Berlant's useful term). Set in a Hollywoo (the "d" has fallen) made up of jittery insecure humans and similarly neurotic, talking, tongue-twisting animals, BoJack revels in and dismantles the privileged damage of Hollywoo stardom. It hits every target at which it takes aim: narcissism, greed, isolation, addiction, co-dependency, lies, betrayals, writer's block, unconscionable amounts of honeydew in on-set fruit salads, the psychic stuff that haunts the upper echelons of the culture industry, and, let's face it, humanity.

But it's also true that August 2014 to January 2020 when the show originally aired those were different times. BoJack unfolded at a moment when the notoriously politically liberal film industry was hit by the shock waves of MeToo and increasing attention on its systemic racism. We are now living in another future, one that builds on the crappiness of that moment but feels even more precarious and sucky. In our future, COVID has halted Hollywood production; in our future, this future, California is (literally) on fire. Reading these thoughtful essays made us wonder whether they are part of a long process of saying goodbye to Hollywoo's hold over our collective past. Is BoJack's endless nostalgia for the sitcom that made him a star in the 1990s,  Horsin' Around, even as he knows he destroyed all the relationships that came out of it (Herb, Sarah Lynn, Princess Carolyn), comparable to our nostalgia, for, well, everything? As several of these essays ask: what happens when you don't get the closure, the screen kiss, the fade-out, the Hollywood ending? What happens when genre leaves you hanging or flailing or longing for the wrong stars?2

At the end of Season 3 and the beginning of Season 4, after Sarah Lynn's death, BoJack runs away from Hollywoo (S4E2, "The Old Sugarman Place"). He drives across the desert to "A Horse with No Name," which begins, "On the first part of the journey, I was looking at all the light." A few moments later we see BoJack reclining in his convertible looking up at the stars. Looking at stars is a running motif for Boj, whether in the ubiquitous Griffiths Observatory Planetarium, associated with Rebel without a Cause as Herb and BoJack riff: "I hate that title"; "He had several causes!" (S1 E8, "The Telescope") which is the site of Sarah Lynn's tragic death, or with Nina Simone's amazing song "Stars" that ends Season 3, or with the numerous scenes of stargazing of the Hollywoo and celestial variety that haunt the show. The stars are always there. Like Charlotte, BoJack's tragic might-have-been, the celestial stars appear regularly, perhaps to remind BoJack that there are places like Maine and New Mexico, where you can see them in the sky, not just on Hollywoo Boulevard. Do the stars transcend genre? Do they take us out of ourselves and make us realize the world is bigger than our damaged egos? Are they there to remind us we can still have nice nights, despite everything?

And yet, BoJack finds himself sitting in that planetarium with a dead friend not because either of them wanted to see the stars, but because she, a frustrated architect, liked the shape of the building. Sarah Lynn's fondness for the building invites us to consider the sites, the institutions, the practices of looking. Sure, the BoJack universe, with its madcap B-plots and tongue-twisters and sightgags, satisfies the part of the brain, saturated by the culture industry, that craves endless distraction (and the thrill of being needlessly, fannishly attentive to trivial things). But it might also draw its audiences into something else: the rewards of being attentive to how all this distraction is mediated. We are not meant to look to the stars, but to how they're looked at: from a rooftop, or projected onto a planetarium ceiling (as photographic images rather than hand-drawn animations), or hallucinated in a contraband vodka bottle. As its characters try and fail to live without damage in the collapsing dream factory, and fail each other as they do so, we're left flailing before another question: how do we actually watch this show?

Part of the reason we wanted to gather critical writing about BoJack Horseman is to reckon with the distinctive ways that its formal innovations have crept up on us as we've stayed with it for the long haul. And to reckon with how it implicated us in its characters' neuroses: their obsessive retrospection, their delays in coming to terms with things, their frustrated desires to shape their own lives are sensations that we start to share as they accrue over time the time of the characters' story arcs, but also our time as we watch, and the time of the show's production. There's something of that belated reckoning in how the essays collected here turn backward glances to previous sitcoms, novels, performances all of which BoJack inherits and pushes away in order to make sense of the show.

The series revealed how the apparent freedom over the viewing experience granted by on-demand streaming services can end up making demands on us. It burrowed into how, with the ongoing collapse of public rhythms of working days and weeks and seasons under contemporary capitalism, work and leisure time are now governed alike by the need to keep making decisions about how our time is used and structured or, more precisely, by the need to enjoy the sensation of ourselves making decisions, even when what is actually happening remains out of our hands. BoJack is a series full of characters with no need to work, but who nevertheless feel compelled to pretend to: putting in hours at "the business factory," or becoming a nanny who thinks of children as his colleagues. Characters' anxieties over bingeing and bottling things up could spill out: manifesting themselves compulsively in our own rhythm of keeping watching or switching off for a bit, of savoring self-contained bottle episodes or just letting the running jokes roll into each other 3 Consider the split of Diane's "Motherf/ucker!" across the cliffhanger of "Love And/Or Marriage" (S3E5) and "Brrap Brrap Pew Pew" (S3E6): an invitation to break off watching that is only framed as a choice once the choice has already been made, to introduce an episode that exposes the limits of "choice" rhetoric within debates about reproductive rights.

Once you recognize the analogy between our (non-)choices and the characters', you can recognize where it starts to break down. For most of us, our compulsive viewing habits have no real stakes, whereas BoJack's compulsions symbolized by, and including, his own repeated watching of Horsin' Around are portrayed as a dangerous addiction to a past that never really existed. We might pleasurably hover in the space between feeling free and feeling compelled, but BoJack had to learn to stop oscillating between one and the other: between either imagining himself as the "so well adjusted" good-guy protagonist of the continuing sitcom of his life, or else claiming himself to be "poison" and his choices to be already forced. Only by coming to terms with how these tendencies interacted in himself could he become morally accountable.

And this pressure to sharpen ethical responses to apparently creative decisions spilled out to the show's makers too. The show itself seemed to begin offering them the terms on which to hold a moral account of their decision-making during production. In particular, Raphael Bob-Waksberg's description of the act of hiring an all-white principal cast (including Alison Brie to voice the Asian-American Diane) as an "original sin" speaks to a similar kind of anxiety about whether any moral action could really take place in response, as such.4 Sometimes acquiring a vocabulary is not enough. Sometimes the most appropriate reflection on how we find ourselves representing the world is to start closing it down, to gradually exhaust the terms on which it has the grounds to exist. This is the cadence through which the show seemed to move in its latter half, as it found ways to temper some of its formal cleverness and redirect its fans' attention. Maybe, by Season 4, we should stop framing young female characters as the victims of BoJack's violence. By Season 5, there was something inevitably limiting about having framed the show around a male protagonist that the show's very premise would only ever allow it to hedge. Maybe, by Season 6 (and perhaps regardless of the studio circumstances which may or not have forced hands) it was best to find a way to stop, for viewers to join the protagonists in no longer giving BoJack the attention he demanded.5

We hope that putting these pieces alongside each other makes good on Lily Scherlis's argument, and Doug Stark and Teresa O'Rourke's discovery, that the show associates friendship with the experience of overcoming narcissism by watching things and working them out together an investment that might help us overcome the way that Netflix leaves us watching it apart, at our own chosen times and speeds. It's hard to write about a show which is so smart about distractions, self-rationalization, narcissistic delusion, without making a kind of piety out of paying attention. Simply believing that one can describe what it's doing without irony or circumspection like the deadening ritual of spelling-out-what-they-say that Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter find themselves trapped in by their therapist might just be another distraction. To write criticism about a show that's already thinking might mean finding forms of address which are equally new and tentative.

Watching and thinking like this won't put out the trashfire. As one of our essays concludes, there is no "utopia of successful form," whether for a television program or for a common life. One of the interlocutors we never expected to turn up so prominently was the late Mark Fisher, his Ghosts of My Life brought to bear on a show that it's hard to imagine him enjoying. BoJack Horseman is definitely not a missive from an emancipated future culture, but maybe it offers new ways to endure Fisher's diagnosis of the contemporary. If all that's left is nostalgia for lost futures, there are strategies for survival in works that invite us to think critically about the shapes that nostalgia invites us merely to enjoy. This is not enough but, yeah, this is nice.

Jack Belloli's (@giacbelloli) research on skill and deskilling in contemporary British performance has appeared in Performance Research and Platform. He's written more broadly about contemporary poetry and culture for Religion and Literature, Poetry LondonReview 31 and 3:AM Magazine. 

Pam Thurschwell (@pamthur) is a Reader in English at the University of Sussex and the author of Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking, 1880-1920 and the Routledge Critical Thinkers volume Sigmund Freud. She writes frequently on popular music and is currently working on a book on time in modern adolescence called Destructive Characters.


  1. Pam would like to thank her son Max Endersby for making her watch the show even though it was a cartoon with talking animals. It was such a good idea. Jack would like to thank Emma Mason, elsewhere in this issue, whose praise for the show on Twitter some time during Season Two convinced him it was worth a look, when it had looked to him like another Family Guy. It wasn't.[]
  2. Lauren Berlant discusses "genre flailing" as endemic to the Trump years. "Genre flailing is a mode of crisis management that arises after an object, or object world, becomes disturbed in a way that intrudes on one's confidence about how to move in it. We genre flail so that we don't fall through the cracks of heightened affective noise into despair, suicide, or psychosis. We improvise like crazy, where 'like crazy' is a little too non-metaphorical." Bojack is so assured in its wild use of genre even as it simultaneously depicts its protagonist's desperation for half-hour sit-com stability in a world in which genres and time itself seems radically unstable (Consider for instance, the instability of time and TV genre in J. D. Salinger hosting Hollywoo Stars and Celebrities: What do they know? Do they know things?? Let's find out! as explored in Klimt's essay, or the innovative use of time jumps throughout the whole series). []
  3. For further reflections on the relationship between bottle metaphors and bottle episodes in Season Three, see Jane Hu, "Bad Seriality and the Horseman Universe," Los Angeles Review of Books, August 23, 2016.[]
  4. Inkoo Kang, "BoJack Horseman's Raphael Bob-Waksberg Talks About Coming to Terms With the 'Original Sin' of the Show's All-White Cast," Slate, September 12, 2018. 'If I was making a short or even a movie, then that project would be done and I could learn from it': it remains to be seen, looking back after the events of summer 2020, how Bob-Waksberg's and Brie's after-the-fact apologies will stand in comparison with ongoing shows where voice casts have now changed.[]
  5. By this point, Lisa Hanawalt's new project Tuca and Bertie had emerged as something of an alternative: ultimately, the best answer to questions about how to tell stories about the anxiety of male loneliness might be to give up and tell stories about equally anxious female friendships instead. The hopeful mood of this introduction is partly inspired by hearing, as these essays were being written, that the second series had found a new home on [adult swim] after its cancellation by Netflix.[]