BoJack Horseman is set in a cartoonish world where hybrid beings satirize familiar behavior and in which backgrounds keep up the visual equivalent of a laugh track. We notice moles exiting their front doors to dig tunnels for their commute to work; Mr. Peanutbutter (a celebrity-Labrador-retriever-person) has oversized prints of tennis balls as artworks hanging in his house; Princess Carolyn, BoJack's on-off agent, has an executive cat toy on her office desk. BoJack himself is a bad, two-dimensional Houyhnhnm, a horse who walks into bar after bar. Even so, he exists at the center of an extensive and complex network of past and present relationships across which his problems of self-absorption, substance dependency, and cruelty to others are played out. The accumulation of events and encounters in his life coalesce into a character-scape that seems . . . realistic?1

To talk of the show's lifelikeness jars with the cartoon medium's visual reduction of scene and objects. BoJack's bottle of scotch is any brown bottle and the glass he drinks from is a tumbler in size and shape only; items are not to be dwelt on for their own sake and we are never overwhelmed by the presence of detail in this world shown in graphic shorthand. The collection of object-types are seen mostly as a flat tableau (like a comic strip or sitcom) and in a simplified style that puts the show at odds with Peter Brooks's definition of realist literature as "attached to the visual, to looking at things, registering their presence in the world through sight."2 Even so, we do look at things carefully in this graphic world, which rewards our attention. The format allows for unusually watchable backgrounds, and likewise distinctive minor characters. There is an egalitarian ethic of visual presence in this flattened world that upends the normal narrative logic of major and minor.

The comic form is particularly well equipped to represent the world of post-celebrity L.A. Like Larry David (in Curb after Seinfeld) and Matt LeBlanc (in Episodes after Friends); BoJack misadventures his way around "Hollywoo" in the aftermath of Horsin' Around, the successful 90s show in which he starred. We could say that the essential form of this micro-genre is the adjustment of the star to ordinary life, the fall from major to minor. As Alex Woloch has shown, majority and minority can indicate more than the function of characters; the relation can be one of realism, reflecting the maldistribution of attention and success. When BoJack pursues and ruins Todd Chavez's projects and relationships, it is a vindictive restoration of the character relation of sidekick to star. The location of character as central or marginal to the story becomes the program's structural theme: what it is about, and what produces narrative. But once relegated to the surreal, Babylonian lottery of fate in BoJack Horseman, Todd accidentally becomes a CEO, politician, a prison inmate, and an estranged son. His adventures are more colorful and enjoyably weird than BoJack's conventionally major problems. This zany, chattering background world of things and people has a life of its own.

The representation of intense feeling as lines and blocks of color can communicate affect more directly than more detailed visual elaboration. This is an argument that Scott McCloud develops in his book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1994). He refers to Art Spiegelman's graphic novel, Maus: A Survivor's Tale (1991), in which the principal characters' facial details as mice become plainer (eyes reduced to single strokes, the mouth and face rendered as a black triangle inside a white one) when they are subject to extreme suffering. The experience of pain or terror becomes detached from the particularities of a character and understood as that which exceeds the limits of the page; his phrase for this opposition of feeling and detail is "amplification through simplification."3 Maus and BoJack could hardly have less similar contexts but even though BoJack's terrors are largely self-induced, they are given in a similar visual shorthand: eyes simplified by fear, a lifted head exposing his grooved chin and throat latch. He becomes more horse-like at moments of elevated feeling and he whinnies in thrill or alarm (while Princess Carolyn hisses in alarm or anger as a cat would). These sudden alternations of human and animal pain in Maus and BoJack, the "masking effect" in Scott McCloud's phrase, are only possible in a visually flattened field of presentation, which reverses the realist equivalence of empathy with detailed delineation.

The visual minimalism also reverses "the reality effect" described by Roland Barthes. The barometer that hangs above the piano in Flaubert's short story speaks of the scene's reality, Barthes explains, because of its not needing to be there. Unlike the piano, which signifies (the social class of the household), the barometer has no function within the story except, through its inertia, to intimate the equivalence of the scene with our world's inventory of people and things that lack narrative or thematic importance; it has the "significance of insignificance."4 Compare this with the liveliness of quotidian detail in BoJack Horseman, whose audience is aware of the comic dynamism of backgrounds and establishing shots, for they are a gallery of visual and linguistic gags that modify familiar daily life. When drying out in Pastiches Malibu Rehabilitation Center, BoJack's room has a version of Van Gogh's self-portrait, but the subject is a goat, so if we're watching alertly, the pay-off is to figure out the modified name of the artist in the Horseman universe. Jokes like these signal the non-equivalence of known and fictional worlds, and do so by flipping the significance of foreground and background. However important a dialogue, for instance between BoJack and Diane, it can only be accompanied by a limited repertoire of expression and gesture, while the non-narrative background attracts our attention unlike the barometer, which we're only meant to register in passing.

In a recent discussion of Barthes's essay, Paul K. Saint-Amour notices how alternate histories have to "take the realist oath twice."5 They must establish the plausibility of the divergent world through the affirmation of events and persons common to both the setting of the story and our own conventional one. Scenery functions a little like this in BoJack Horseman by including items recognizable to us but which also belong to Hollwoo; consistency with the topsy-turvy program-world is achieved by alteration and difference. We recognize the film posters in Princess Carolyn's office: there is Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (unchanged, except with Elizabeth Taylor's replacement by an actual cat), When Tabby Met Snappy (a cat and a turtle), and even an all-human poster for Junior, the mirror-image of the one we know, in which we have to assume that the pregnant Schwarzenegger will be giving birth to some new, hybrid life-form. The viewer of BoJack Horseman soon starts to watch with equal or more attention to background than foreground. These details, rather than surreptitiously confirming the story's consistency with our world, perform this double function of estrangement: they show their consistency with what we know by departing from it in satirical flourishes. We must recognize our position in one world to get the jokes in the other. In "Our Story is a 'D' Story" (S1E06), BoJack steals the d from the Hollywood Sign landmark and leaves it in his pool. This is only the most direct example the alteration of a name of an alternate reality signaling its affinity with a shared world by diverging from it.

Barthes says more about narrative fiction's co-option of known history in S/Z, where he links this effect of reality in the story to keeping actual historical figures and references on the margins of the narrative. "It is precisely this minor importance which gives the historical character its exact weight of reality: this minor is the measure of authenticity."6 Nothing confirms the historical event more convincingly than our own marginality to it, or rather the major event's minority in our lives: Icarus's splash in the background of W. H. Auden's poem while we "[h]ad somewhere to get to." In Balzac's story of which S/Z is a concentrated deconstruction, Sarrasine is an artist whose fictional life overflows into the world of familiar historical figures who are kept marginal to the tale. His sculpture of Zambinella is copied, then commissioned as a painting (another inert wall-hanging), which prompts the narration and is, we learn in passing at the story's end, the inspiration for a work in our world: Girodet's The Sleep of Endymion (1791). Examples from visual culture come easily to hand when describing this slippage between major and minor, background and foreground, because artworks have a special facility for recursion: they represent a subject that when placed on the wall inside another work, of film or TV, serve as background to narrative action; they become a detail whose passing notice confirms the consistency of the fictional world with our flitting inattention in this one. Except in BoJack Horseman, these background paintings announce themselves, allegorizing at the level of detail a character system where the overlooked and pushed aside return to press upon the singularity of the star.

Barthes compares fiction's citation of the actual world with a specific human-animal interaction, with which the word is cognate. In the "Citar" section of S/Z, which addresses the importance of inconsequential matter, the reader's recognition of a stable world is said to occur when "a galaxy of trifling data" (items such as the barometer) coalesces into a world of meaning through these brief references.7 The citar in bullfighting is the act of summoning the bull (with a stamp of the heel and the arch of the back), which is then studiously avoided. This is how world-reference, to the world of wealth in the story "Sarrasine" for example, is introduced through oblique citations. In notable contrast, period detail is not reticent but exaggeratedly announced in BoJack Horseman. In one of many flashbacks to the 80s and 90s, BoJack drives along a commercial strip, where shops sell inflatable furniture and other period products, while singing along to a "generic 90s grunge song" (S1E08). The reality effect of pointedly referencing industrially produced culture is very different from the citation of background objects that have no narrative purchase, while retaining the mark of singularity. The barometer has the concreteness of an object assembled from real materials aged by time, and establishes the particularity of a setting whose atmospheric pressure it is designed to register. Aimée Lê, in her discussion on this site of the diminished returns of realist detail in contemporary fiction, observes that background in America has been demanding attention for decades on billboards and in advertising rather than being discreetly present.8 Almost all of the principal characters in BoJack Horseman work in the culture industry, BoJack in front of the camera and the others, as in Joni Mitchell's lyric about the music business, "Stoking the star maker machinery / Behind the popular song."9 The pop song, the promotional billboard, the celebrity memoir these all indicate the ambivalent nature of star culture where the marker of greatest success, ubiquity, is the condition of becoming background sound and images. Anxiety and failure attend majority's fate of always becoming minor in the commercial churn of culture, an unwinnable game that BoJack is self-destructively playing.

His memoir, ghost-written by Diane, was intended to conform to a star system in which everyone has their proper place and sphere of influence. Celebrity anecdotes (which BoJack is constantly feeding Diane) should be offset by heartwarming details of the real person and their friendships away from the limelight. The celebrity ought to be a plausible, humble, well-functioning adult, holding the trajectories of major and minor figures in stable orbits. In this sense, the memoir should maintain the separation of major and minor that E. M. Forster sets out in Aspects of the Novel. But when Forster refers to minor, "flat" characters as "little luminous disks," he recognizes their potential to disrupt a narrative scheme. In a badly managed story they may refuse to remain inert or in place like a painting in the background, but rebound upon the principal characters instead, even "kick the book to pieces."10 Diane's better book (we at least suppose it to be) allows minor characters to do some kicking. BoJack Horseman's tension between major and minor characters puts it into dialogue with Alex Woloch's The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel (2003). Woloch argues for the narrative importance of structurally minor characters who can dramatize subordination to majority as a form of historical realism; minor character are, provocatively, "the proletariat of the novel."11 Characters may be flattened or bundled out of the narrative just as people may be crushed by work or neglect. This certainly describes the way that BoJack, as star, instrumentalizes the needs of others in the pursuit of his own self-interest, a relation that structures the story and is the key to his character as a "One Trick Pony": a sub-adult who keeps inflicting the same pattern of harm upon others.

These are the networks of minority in BoJack Horseman. Even in "A Quick One While He's Away" (S6E08), which is carefully constructed from the separate lives of minor characters, what connects Gina, Kelsey, Hollyhock, and an unnamed young man in this episode is their common fate of having been mistreated by the absent principal. Another minor network is the list of women he "banged" in the 1990s and left with the phone numbers of takeaway restaurants; Hollyhock, who believes herself at this point to be BoJack's daughter from one of these liaisons, gets him to produce a list and visit all of the "women you were shitty to" (S4E04).12 Even when he recognizes his own awful behavior, the awareness does nothing to help him avoid repeating it. Majority is BoJack's character, imprinted on him just as permanently as the disturbances of his childhood, and its culmination even as self-knowledge is inescapable self-regard. The program would be unbearably confining if we weren't given the opportunity to see the other characters Diane, Todd, Carolyn are lifted out of their marginal relation to BoJack and establish better lives for themselves. They, and the carnival of life outside the shadow of BoJack's terrible majority, provide the pleasure watching others and backgrounds, for their ebullient minority.

Ben Carver (@Ben_P_Carver) researches and writes about speculative literature. His published and in-press publications study the hopes and fears of C19 alternate history, invasion and conspiracy fiction, and lost-world narratives. He is a writing instructor at the European University Institute in Florence.


  1. I'm immensely grateful to the community of fans who have created the excellent BoJack Horseman wiki. It has been an essential resource for this paper.[]
  2. Peter Brooks, Realist Vision (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 3.[]
  3. Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (New York: Harper Perennial, 1994), 31.[]
  4. Roland Barthes, "The Reality Effect," in The Rustle of Language (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1989), 143.[]
  5. Paul K. Saint-Amour, "Alternate-Reality Effects," PMLA 134, no. 5 (October 1, 2019): 1138. []
  6. Roland Barthes, S/Z, translated by Richard Miller (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), 101.[]
  7. Barthes, 22.[]
  8. Aimée Lê, "Producing Totality," Post45 Contemporaries, October 11, 2019.[]
  10. Forster, Aspects of the Novel, 74.[]
  11. Woloch, 27.[]
  12. Woloch's chapter on Pride and Prejudice describes the subordination of the minor sisters' fates to the majority of Elizabeth as a reflection of the historical reality of a disproportion of unmarried women to eligible bachelors (Woloch 69). BoJack's sexual adventures in the 1990s depended on an updated version of the same inequality.[]