Bojack Horseman – as the name suggests, a humanoid cartoon horse – is a washed-up sitcom star from the 80s and 90s, spending his immense fame and wealth wallowing in self-loathing. Battling addiction and confronting (or avoiding) uncomfortable truths about himself, Netflix’s Bojack Horseman provides a richly philosophical narrative surrounding the meaning of life and the purpose (is there any?) of our existence.
The show is packed with hilarious one-liners and satirical puns, helped along by the absurd nature of a world where humans and anthropomorphic animals coexist. The parallels don’t stop there – the comic is sandwiched between poignant moments of self-reflection, and over the 6 seasons Netflix provides us with a deeply philosophical and entertaining analysis of human nature.
Arguably the key philosophy of the show, nihilism is the thought that there is no meaning to life. We are born from nothing and there is nowhere to go after life, so nothing we do really matters. It is no accident that the show centres around the life of a celebrity – how can someone who seemingly has it all be so unhappy with their life? For 17th-century philosopher Pascal, when humans are given too much time to think they will eventually contemplate their own insignificance (‘What is a man in the Infinite?’). For Pascal, we are in a near-constant state of distraction from the inherent meaningless of our existence.
Hollywoo (the D was stolen) is a metaphor for existence itself. Just as the façade of Hollywoo masks a hollow, selfish, ugly industry, the trappings of our daily lives distract from the inherent meaningless of life itself. Existential nihilism is crucial to the ideas behind each Bojack episode – how do we deal with the acceptance of no objective purpose? Different characters deal with it differently, all trying to distract themselves in their own ways – work, sex, alcohol, and relationships to name a few. Bojack tackles this lonely thought in a variety of understated moments that make them all the more beautiful. As he says in S2E3 ‘There is no shame in dying for nothing. That’s why most people die.’
The show focuses on the fallout that the realisation of meaningless life can bring. Bojack experiences typical existential angst at this idea of radical freedom; that there is no predetermined purpose underlying his existence, nothing he was intrinsically destined to do. There’s nothing to stop him stealing the D off the Hollywood sign or drink himself into unconsciousness every few days. There’s also nothing forcing him to do that – he has total control over his decisions, and he panics when he realises the weight of his own responsibility. When developing existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre called this inherent anxiety ‘angst’ – that’s why he called the freedom of personal development a ‘condemnation’.
As Diana puts it: “Maybe I don’t believe in ‘deep down’. I kinda think all you are is just the things that you do.” Bojack: “Well that’s depressing.”
There is no ‘good Bojack’ deep down – he is entirely defined by his choices so far. On the other hand, he always has the choice to become someone he prefers – and it is this that saves existential nihilism from the edge of self-defeat and depression. Our lives don’t give us some pre-determined meaning, but we give meaning to our lives by what we choose to do with them, within individual situation. We choose our own paths, without being bound to one ineluctable fate or singular timeline. While Bojack repeatedly makes bad decisions when it comes to romance, morals, and substance abuse, he is shown to have moments of consciousness where he gets the chance to create a character he is truly proud of.
Although a lot of people might not hold the belief that we are all we make of ourselves, there is no denying the razor-sharp writing behind Bojack Horseman and the relevance of its philosophy in 21st-century society. It leaves the audience with a fundamental message both uncomfortable and hopeful: nothing really matters, so we have the power to create the things that do
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