Back in the 90s, BoJack Horseman was on a very famous TV show. It wasn't a very good show, but the characters, BoJack tells us, were good people.1

BH: I think the show's actually pretty solid for what it is. It's not Ibsen, sure, but, look, for a lot of people, life's just one long hard kick in the urethra. Sometimes when you get home from a long day of getting kicked in the urethra, you just wanna watch a show about good, likable people who love each other.2

Here, in the first episode, BoJack introduces two of the series' related preoccupations, moral goodness and aesthetic goodness, even while he signals that the two may not be fully compatible with one another. Indeed, critics panned Horsin' Around, as we learn in the very same interview, because it was too fixated upon ethical goodness and not focused enough upon aesthetic quality: it was, they say, "broad, and saccharine, and [pause] not good."

As this scene anticipates, much of the series chronicles BoJack's attempts to navigate these two seemingly incompatible goods the moral good and the aesthetic good and also tracks his hesitation or inability to commit to either one of them.


Goodness has long been one of Hollywood's and American television's bestselling products. Despite its excesses and corruption, many of Hollywood's stories about itself depict it as a place for the innocent, or, put another way, for people who want to be good, even if what that means isn't always clear. The star-crossed lovers of La La Land are obvious recent examples, but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood's angelic Sharon Tate might take the cake. Hollywood, all of these stories tell us, is full of bad guys phony partygoers, murderous hippies, mean dogs, people who don't have sufficient reverence for jazz but it's also a place where these fabled good people go to be cheered on and admired as their goodness either triumphs in the face of bad guys, or is memorialized after a martyr's defeat.

It's only natural that BoJack should be preoccupied with Hollywood's myths of goodness, since it is, supposedly, embodied by several of the individuals around him. For example, Todd Chavez, the series' holy fool, represents a goodness that is so chaotic, energetic, and youthful that it often threatens to burst the levies that contain the "B" and "C" stories in which Todd typically appears.3  I love Todd, but I'm usually relieved to leave him in the middle of things. The way he runs from hijink to hijink, limp arms flapping carelessly behind him, he reminds me of an unwinding hank of yarn. You always get the sense that your attention has been turned back to another character's story just in the nick of time; a second more of Todd, and the very fabric of reality would unravel.

Mr. Peanutbutter's hold on goodness is more suspect. It's one of the central premises of his character, and his vanity plate: "GOOD BOY".4 He shares a good deal of cartoon DNA with the friendly but repellent Ned Flanders. His is the goodness of the thoughtlessly well-meaning, of the oppressively upbeat; it requires no compromise and no commitment to anything other than his own manic exuberance. There's a heartbreaking side to one of the show's best running jokes about the character, which is his enthusiasm for terrible business ideas, such as a Halloween store that's only open in January, or moods you can drink. As he says to Diane late in the first season with a giant canine grin on his face his approach to life is to keep himself busy with "unimportant nonsense" until, eventually, he's dead.5 Hosting game shows is right in his wheelhouse, but the role he was born to play is the hero of Birthday Dad, a feel-good TV show that tells the story of a good dog who can be found wherever birthdays need dadding. The series is based on an optioned greeting card.

BoJack wants to be a good guy, but he knows too much to be a Todd, and cares too much to be a Mr. Peanutbutter.6 Still, it's his frustrated desire for this elusive goodness that becomes the central theme of the first season. When we meet BoJack, he's already done some truly bad shit, most notably, having sold out and abandoned his long-time friend and collaborator, Herb Kazzaz. Late in the season, and after years of not speaking to Herb, BoJack tries to apologize to his now terminally ill former friend. Herb refuses to forgive BoJack, and instead offers him this diagnosis:

HK: You know what your problem is? You wanna think about yourself as the good guy . . . In fact, you'd probably sleep a lot better at night if you just admitted to yourself that you're a selfish goddamn coward who takes whatever he wants and doesn't give a shit about who he hurts. That's you. That's BoJack Horseman.7

Herb is right about BoJack: being the good guy is one of BJ Horseman's most urgent concerns, even if you might not know it from watching how he moves through the world most of the time. Take the example of the day he spends with the doomed former child star Sarah Lynn at the beach. As the sun sets, the two former co-stars sit on a park bench. BoJack ceremoniously imparts his TV Guide Award to a mostly indifferent Sarah Lynn. Meanwhile, a euphoric BoJack loses himself completely in a fantasy invisible to the viewer but represented by BoJack's hand gestures and humming of the credits rolling over the ocean, encapsulating and eternalizing what he thinks to be a perfectly staged, feel-good, TV moment. As BoJack realizes later in the series, "everything I know about being good I learned from TV."8 This is not just a Hollywood in-joke, for in episode after episode, BoJack makes it clear with both his words and his actions that goodness is at once a kind of mystical, inherent quality something analogous to or even synonymous with talent but also a quality that must be correctly performed, staged, and packaged for consumption. One often has the impression that BoJack is constantly auditioning for virtue, as if, when he finally nails his lines, the casting director will see that he's got that special something that mythic goodness.

As the first season draws to close, BoJack becomes increasingly desperate. He begins to wonder if goodness might be a depleting resource something like youth or health, which, in the absence of extraordinary effort, is in increasingly short supply as one moves through life. He says as much at Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter's wedding. At the bar, in a deep depression, BoJack chats with a stack of children in a trench coat posing as Vincent Adultman, a made-up overworked employee at the Business Factory and the current love interest of Princess Carolyn. Vincent doesn't talk much, and this makes him, at least for BoJack's purposes, a good listener. After a few moments of one-sided conversation, BoJack confides that he believes "any goodness I started with just slowly spilled out of me . . . Life is a series of closing doors, isn't it." Vincent, moved by this confession and eager to help, reaches out his hand, which also happens to be the straw-end of a broom, to stroke BoJack's muzzle: "Don't be sad. Good horsey."9 BoJack admits the gesture feels nice.

One hope remains. In the climax of the first season, Diane, his closest friend, the ghostwriter of his memoir, and the moral authority of the series, is speaking on a panel of authors. During the Q&A, BoJack comes to the microphone:

It's not too late for me, is it? . . . Diane, I need you to tell me that it's not too late . . . I need you to tell me that I'm a good person . . . deep down I'm a good person and I need you to tell me that I'm good.10

BoJack leaves the panel without a response from Diane, who sits in somber silence. He does eventually get an answer, but we'll get back to that.


Closely connected to Hollywood's commitment to the stories of its own goodness is its anxiety that it doesn't make serious stuff that its idea of goodness is mawkish, and saccharine, and not good. In "See Mr. Peanutbutter Run," a fictionalized version of Vincent D'Onofrio indirectly describes Mr. Peanutbutter as embodying this idea and these ideals, dismissing them as incompatible with fine art:

VD: They don't teach you likeability at the American Stanislavski Theater . . . You don't want an actor, you want a blank canvas upon which to project your own mawkish notions of goodness . . . cheerful, optimistic, indomitable.11

The anxiety, in other words, is that Hollywood's commitment to this idea of goodness forecloses, or at least severely inhibits, the possibility of making great or even good art. That it can't really measure up to more honest, more lasting, more daring, less commercial, "highbrow" kinds of art.12 That what it makes, really, is a urethral salve.

Think of Gene Kelly's character, a former vaudevillian turned silent film star, in Singing in the Rain. Early in the film Kelly has a dispiriting encounter with a serious actor (Debbie Reynolds), who disparages 1920s cinema in comparison to real (theatrical) acting: "Great parts! Wonderful lines! Speaking those glorious words! Shakespeare! Ibsen!"13 Unlike high-brow theater, this serious actor suggests, the silent films of the silver screen rely on exaggerated gestures and ham-fisted performances. As she puts it, "You're nothing but a shadow on film. You're not flesh and blood." It's all really a bit . . . cartoonish. Later, at a studio party, the shaken screen actor presses his long-time performance partner and friend, played by Donald O'Connor. "Am I a good actor?" Kelly's character pleads. The answer to this question (and this seems to be part of the joke) is, no, not really. But his friend can't quite bring himself to say it. Luckily, the serious actor, who turns out to be a showgirl hired to perform at this very party, soothes all of Kelly's anxieties when she bursts out of a human-sized cake. "Well," he exclaims, "if it isn't Ethel Barrymore!"

As we learn in "Brand New Couch," BoJack's defensive line, "it's not Ibsen," parrots his mother's icy dismissal of Horsin' Around from back when it was still on the air back when BoJack was still happy.14 She's not wrong, but she is cruel. The exchange with Beatrice prompts BoJack to wonder for the first time, and, like Gene Kelly, to ask his best friend Herb Kazzaz, "I am a good actor, right?" Herb also evades the question, but assures BoJack, "You bring joy to millions of people." Herb seems to think this should be enough, but BoJack is crushed.

He recalls these painful exchanges during his disastrous first days on the set of Secretariat. Despite his recent strategic adoption of a "Brand New Attitude" and a brand new affect which makes him seem a bit like a blank-canvas Mr. Peanutbutter he bombs in his first scene, delivering his lines in the style of the hammy sit-com goodness he knows. It's terrible a major breech of decorum and holds up the whole production for days. It's only after yet another discouraging conversation with Beatrice she informs him that he inherited the "ugliness inside [him]" from his dysfunctional parents and will never be rid of it that BoJack can deliver his lines with gravitas. It turns out BoJack can be a good actor, but only when he's miserable.

The mild success of Secretariat opens some doors for BoJack, and in season three, he has the opportunity to pivot to theatrical acting. BoJack seems genuinely flattered, and even a little intimidated: "Theater? That's what real actors do."15 But at the same time, when he takes his first meeting with the strange and hilarious avant-garde director, Jill Pill, he expresses some acid skepticism, not only about her and her proposed project for him something about BoJack being reborn and baptized with milk but also about the whole theater scene generally. Sensing his hesitation, she gives him the hard sell, gesturing wildly with all of her arachnid legs:

JP: [My last play is] a thing that happened that happens no longer, like a whimper in the wind . . . Theater is by its very nature ephemeral. We shout into the void, "Hey you!" and the void says, "Stop shouting at me, please!" And we grab the void, and spit in its face, "Sir. I. will. NOT!"  

BH: Boy, did New York do a number on you.16

More than he's overwhelmed by the intensity of Jill Pill, however, BoJack is uncertain about the prospect of working on a project that is, as she says, ephemeral. BoJack needs to think about his legacy. He wants to work on projects that have some permanence, and for him, that means film and TV: it means DVDs, reruns, maybe even an Oscar. How will he know he's good unless the market says so? He explains, "I want to do things that connect with people, things that last." "But that's the whole point," she urges him. "Nothing lasts." The red hourglass-shaped mark on Jill's thorax suddenly comes into focus.


It shouldn't be surprising, given this framework and build-up, that BoJack Horseman begins to fold together these ideas about aesthetic goodness, moral goodness, and death in the penultimate episode of the series, "The View from Halfway Down," wherein BoJack has overdosed on drugs after breaking into his old house; in the drug-addled dream or hallucination that follows, he witnesses a series of dramatic performances in an eerie purple theater, each one by a character from the show who has already passed away. As each one finishes their performance, they dive through an empty doorframe into utter darkness, the last in the series of closing doors.

The performances are preceded, however, by a dinner party with BoJack's deceased family and friends.17 Over the course of the meal, BoJack and the other guests discuss the best and worst parts of their lives. Their accounts of the "good" and "bad" parts of their lives reveal various understandings of what gives life meaning, what makes a life good, and what makes a person living it good. His deceased friends and family Sarah Lynn, Beatrice, Herb, and others come to represent these competing perspectives, as the dying BoJack works to sort them out before the final curtain call. Superstar Sarah Lynn champions the idea that the pursuit of fame and the commitment to life as an entertainer are acts of self-sacrifice. This, she insists, made her good:

SL: Sacrifice is good. It has to be because I sacrificed a ton and I was freaking awesome . . . I gave everything. My whole life . . . I was not a bad person . . . Did any of you have a song of yours played in outer space? Anyone? No? Just me? That's what I thought. My hit single, "No No No Parentheses No Means Yes" is making its way to Mars. That means something. I will be remembered.18

Needless to say, the case is less than convincing, however big a place I might have in my heart for Sarah Lynn. This perspective largely repulses the other dinner guests, including moral purist Corduroy Jackson-Jackson, who comes to represent the perspective that making art and entertainment is, quite literally, masturbatory, since it gratifies the artist with praise, a rush, pleasure of some kind. Unless an act is completely selfless and doesn't make the actor feel good, he insists, it cannot be good. Herb, on the other hand, claims to have found meaning in philanthropy in feeling good while doing good though outside of the context of the entertainment business. BoJack, much to his mother's embarrassment, seems to settle on something closest to Herb's perspective, but not quite: his best moments were after he became an acting teacher, when he helped his students improve their performances it made him feel good to help someone get better at something and the time he spent working on his act with Herb, before Horsin' Around. We know from having seen BoJack's students' showcase and from flashbacks to BoJack's early stand-up days that none of the results were good, exactly. BoJack's students are unpolished and awkward, and BoJack's routines are hammy and raw. There was no marketable product in sight. But during these times in his life, it seems that there was hope for BoJack that goodness might be possible that something broad, and saccharine, and not good, that someone lazy, drunk, and reckless, with sufficient effort and patience, might get better.

When Diane does finally give her delayed response to BoJack pleading to be told he's good, it's days later. The two friends find themselves on a roof alone together: "I don't think I believe in deep down . . . all you are is the things that you do."19 She repeats this thought more forcefully much later in the series: "There's no such thing as bad guys. Or good guys. We're all just guys . . . All we can do is try to do more good stuff and less bad stuff . . . You're never going to be good because you're not bad!"20

I don't think BoJack Horseman is working in a middlebrow register exactly. But the series does seem to be about middlebrow art (listicles, YA fiction, sitcoms) and the people who make it their aspirations, humiliations, and anxieties. The show's two central characters are perfect examples of this. Think of Diane's qualms about the flashy gossip she writes at Girl Croosh, her spiral as she tries to write her meaningful memoir, and the painful recognition that what she really wants and is able to write is a YA detective novel. Think of BoJack, unable to finish his book in the first episode, or, in the second-to-last, seated in the macabre theater, head in hands, as Herb recites his resumé: "star of Horsin' Around, The BoJack Horseman Show . . . the upcoming Horny Unicorn . . . crippling alcoholic, and stupid piece of shit, BOJACK HORSEMAN!"21 Diane and BoJack, I think, face similar dilemmas; they face the often conflicting pressures to be good and to produce good (finished, marketable) work. The result is that they usually land somewhere in the middle. The difference between Diane and BoJack, on the one hand, and Mr. Peanutbutter and Princess Carolyn,22 is that Diane and BoJack find this reality unacceptable and deeply distressing.

BoJack makes it out alive from his encounter with death. In the final episode, on a one-day furlough from prison where he's directing his fellow inmates in a production of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler he finds himself, once again, on a rooftop with Diane. It becomes clear it will probably be the last time they talk. It's a tense interaction. The countless bad things he's done weigh heavily on both of them. "But it's a nice night," Diane offers. "Yea. This is nice,"23 BoJack agrees. Nice, not good, is all they can manage for now. And it's not Ibsen, but it's not nothing. They sit in difficult silence. The final credits roll.

H.M. Cushman (@hm_cushman) is an assistant professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She specializes in medieval literature and drama. Last night, she went to see A Doll's House with a couple girlfriends, and now she has ideas.


  1. Thanks to the editors and to Taylor Cowdery for their helpful comments and suggestions.[]
  2. BoJack Horseman. "BoJack Horseman: The BoJack Horseman Story, Chapter One." Directed by Joel Moser. Written by Raphael Bob-Waksberg. Netflix, August 22, 2014.[]
  3. "Hooray! Todd Episode" transgresses this unwritten rule; BoJack Horseman. "Hooray! Todd Episode." Directed by Aaron Long. Written by Elijah Aron, Raphael Bob-Waksberg. Netflix, September 8, 2017.[]
  4. See Docherty "Good Boy Gone Bad: The Rot in Mr. Peanutbutter's House" on how the show juxtaposes Peanutbutter's vanity plate with some of his more chilling hijinks, e.g. cheerfully kidnapping and abusing his employees. []
  5. BoJack Horseman. "Later." Directed by Martin Cendreda. Written by Raphael Bob-Waksberg. Netflix, August 22, 2014.[]
  6. See Docherty.[]
  7. BoJack Horseman. "Telescope." Directed by Amy Winfrey. Written by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Mehar Sethi. Netflix, August 22, 2014.[]
  8. BoJack Horseman. "Free Churro." Directed by Amy Winfrey. Written by Raphael Bob-Waksberg. Netflix, September 14, 2018.[]
  9. BoJack Horseman. "Horse Majeure." Directed by Joel Moser. Written by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Peter A. Knight. Netflix, August 22, 2014.[]
  10. BoJack Horseman. "Downer Ending." Directed by Amy Winfrey. Written by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Kate Purdy. Netflix, August 22, 2014.[]
  11. BoJack Horseman. "See Mr. Peanutbutter Run." Directed by Amy Winfrey. Written by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Peter A. Knight. Netflix, September 8, 2017.[]
  12. I'll use these designations highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow throughout the essay with the understanding that these are socially and historically determined modes rather than fixed, or universal categories. Put differently, they matter because BoJack, Diane, et al. believe in them.[]
  13. Singin' in the Rain. Directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen. Los Angeles: MGM, 1952.[]
  14. See Derrick Brak, "BoJack and Horseman and Ibsen: Prestige Television's Greatest Trick," Bright Wall/Dark Room. []
  15. BoJack Horseman. "Yes And." Directed by JC Gonzalez. Written by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Mehar Sethi. Netflix, July 17, 2015.[]
  16. Bojack Horseman, "Start Spreading the News"; Jill's speech borrows from/parodies ideas about the relationship theater's ephemerality and its political potential. See, for instance, Peggy Phelan's Unmarked, especially "The Ontology of Performance," 146-166.[]
  17. In an interview with Vulture, Alison Tafel explains that before she wrote "The View from Halfway Down," Bob-Waksberg asked her to read Caryl Churchill's wonderful and acid Top Girls, which begins with a dinner party attended by historical and legendary women, such as Pope Joan, Lady Nijo, and Patient Griselda, who have gathered to celebrate the promotion of Marlene, a successful Thatcherite woman in early 1980s Britain and rising star in the "Top Girls Employment Agency." Like BoJack, the play is interested in the uneasy relationship between professional goodness and ethical goodness. See Jen Chaney, "An Oral History of how BoJack Horseman almost killed BoJack Horseman." Vulture, February 14, 2020.[]
  18. BoJack Horseman. "The View from Halfway Down." Directed by Amy Winfrey. Written by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Alison Tafel. Netflix, January 31, 2020.[]
  19. BoJack Horseman. "Later." Directed by Martin Cendreda. Written by Raphael Bob-Waksberg. Netflix, August 22, 2014.[]
  20. BoJack Horseman. "The Stopped Show." Directed by Anne Walker Farrell. Written by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Joanna Calo. Netflix, September 14, 2018.[]
  21. BoJack Horseman. "The View from Halfway Down"; Princess Carolyn, whose class background and aspirations are markedly different, is an interesting contrast with these two.[]
  22. Todd's case is more complicated, perhaps, since he seems to exist, for the most part, free from market forces and, for most of the series, parental pressure or expectation.[]
  23. BoJack Horseman. "Nice While it Lasted." Directed by Aaron Long. Written by Raphael Bob-Waksberg. Netflix, January 31, 2020.[]