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Animated Storytelling: The Power of Netflix’s BoJack Horseman

After being discovered in the late 19th century, animation, also known as sequential pictures in motion, entered its Golden Age in early 20th-century America. Colourful images, humanoid animals and objects, massive exaggerations, superhuman abilities, and more, contribute to the common perception that cartoons are aimed primarily at children. Yet, the breadth and depth of animation’s appeal have expanded significantly over the years (Behrani, 2021, p. 1). During the last decade, prominent streaming services like Netflix have emerged and grown substantially, opening the door for various cultural entertainment options. All six seasons of BoJack Horseman have been critically acclaimed, and the show has been honoured with several accolades and honours. They include four Critics’ Choice Television Awards for Best Animated Series, three Annie Awards, and two Writers’ Guild of America Awards. The famous film and TV reviewing website IndieWire proclaimed the show as “the Best Animated Series of All Time” in September 2020, praising the program for its ability to connect and impact its viewers. The animated series BoJack Horseman was one of the most influential pieces that rapidly became a huge success, leaving a massive mark on the industry of animation (Le Pioufle, 2021, pp. 1-2).

BoJack Horseman was created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg and illustrated by Lisa Hanawalt. The show aired on Netflix in 2014 and took place in the fictional world of Holywoo, which mixes the elements of sadness and happiness (Nussbaum, 2016). BoJack, the show’s main protagonist, is a hybrid between a horse and a human. The narrative takes place in a made-up setting in Los Angeles. Bojack is a famous comedian and a wealthy ex-star from the 1990s; however, he is still unhappy with his life. We watch as he tries to revive his career in show business despite his inner struggles and the baggage of his troubled past. In addition, BoJack finds it hard to keep relationships with other characters in the show (Harris, 2021). The show’s genre has comedy, drama, and a tribute to the Hollywood industry. The coexisting nature of humans and animals could only work effectively in an animated series, and Bojack Horseman’s story is as unique as it gets.

Figure 1: Still from BoJack Horseman (2017), S4E6, 18:49.

The bright idea and animation are more than just the means to an end in making a fictional world, they are a cover to drag viewers into one of the darkest animated series in modern cinema. The plot of the show centres on BoJack’s increasingly poor choices. Addiction, childhood trauma, and the effects of BoJack’s poisonous habits on his loved ones are not glamorised. The protagonist’s perspective on the world grows more twisted as the series progresses. Despite the gloominess of the narrative, it nonetheless manages to evoke a lot of laughter. It is a perfect blend of genres; viewers may be presented with some of the darkest moments ever put on film one minute, only to be laughing heartily the next (Falter, 2022). Like The Simpsons and other popular series, BoJack Horseman uses animation to construct an imaginative and bizarre world different from our own (Nussbaum, 2016).

BoJack is an alcoholic horse, and the show has a variety of other animal characters, including but not limited to deer, owls, cats, dogs, sheep, seals, and so on. One of the most creative dramedies of all time, BoJack relies heavily on its animated components, which include a vibrant atmosphere, silly comedy, and funny characters. While most viewers will not be able to identify with BoJack’s awful choices, they will be able to relate to the universal issues explored by the show. Although most viewers probably haven’t intentionally tried to ruin their friend’s rock opera career, many have likely struggled with feelings of inadequacy in friendships and other relationships. Nonetheless, many viewers may relate to drug abuse or reliance struggles, even if they haven’t convinced a naive friend to join them on a bender that ends in her overdose (Bartleet, 2017).

Figure 2: Still from BoJack Horseman (2016), S3E1, 16:06.

Lisa Hanawalt, the show’s illustrator, has an artistic style that often combines scientific curiosity and a comedian’s lighthearted logic. Through her illustrations, Hanawalt prompts us to recognise the possible absurdity of everyday life. Why do only we, human beings, drink vitamin water, wear shirts, and write memoirs? We are reminded that, in the grand scheme of things, we are merely large monkeys in trousers by seeing her animals play out our flawed human dramas. Humans, she remarked, are “an abomination of evolution“ (Gittlen, 2018). BoJack Horseman may be about a horse-headed TV star on a downward spiral in his middle life, but it does not shy away from the darker side of the universal issues of alcohol and drug abuse, traumatic loss, and ageing. In her article about Hanawalt, Ariela Gittlen (2018) writes, “the first time she read the script, she told Bob-Waksberg that the show was too dark”. While the series has a bright colour scheme, good humour, and characters with names like Mr. Peanutbutter and Sextina Aquafina, it appears designed to blend your emotions into a creamy and thick melancholy smoothie.

Figure 3: Still from BoJack Horseman (2014), S1E12, 02:56.

The popularity of animated shows like BoJack Horseman on Netflix demonstrates how far the medium has progressed from its Golden Period in the early 20th century. The animated program does a fantastic job of depicting the serious subject matter, both comically and emotionally. It is impressive how it manages to combine humour and drama in the context of a world where people and animals coexist. The show’s popularity demonstrates that animation is becoming more widely appreciated by audiences of all ages. The show’s portrayal of addiction, trauma, and ageing is innovative and unique, enabling viewers to make personal relationships with the characters. Ultimately, BoJack Horseman illustrates animation’s potential as a powerful narrative medium that can break the borders of age and genre.

Bibliographical References

Bartleet, L. (2017, September 27). How Bojack Horseman became the best animation on TV. NME.

Behrani, P., & Kumari, V. (2021). The Influence of Visual Narrative in Generating Humour in Tragedy: A Study of the American Sitcom BoJack Horseman. Oxford.

Bob-Waksberg, R. (Director). (2014). BoJack Horseman. Netflix.

Falter, A. (2022). Why “Bojack Horseman” is the most creative piece of storytelling in the streaming era. The Spectrum.

Gittlen, A. (2018, August 15). How “BoJack Horseman” Illustrator Lisa Hanawalt Is Shaking up Animation. Artsy.

Harris, A. (2021, April 20). Why “BoJack Horseman” is the best representation of life on TV. The Michigan Daily.

Le Pioufle, C. (2021). How BoJack Horseman Got Too Real: Audience Engagement and a Critique of Capitalism. University of New Mexico.

Nussbaum, E. (2019). The Bleakness and Joy of “BoJack Horseman”. The New Yorker.

Visual Sources

1 Comment

Apr 09, 2023

I think BoJack Horseman is one of my favourite TV series. I always wondered how it was possible to empathise and identify with the everyday life of a talking horse, yet the TV series succeeds perfectly. The mix of vivid colours, animations and often very sad and deep speeches is able to keep the audience glued to the screen. I think it is a small masterpiece of the entertainment industry, I hope to see more such TV series in the future! Excellent article.

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Lasha Sikharulidze

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