The end of ‘BoJack Horseman’ is a new beginning for adult cartoons

Sunday, March 15, 2020 - 7:11pm

NOSELL

Netflix

I have a complicated relationship with the world of animation. I was raised in the caring arms of Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. As a kid I would come home from school, crash on the couch and watch episodes of “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” “Regular Show,” “Adventure Time” … the list goes on and on. When I got older, I started wading my way into the more mature side of animation. I found myself strangely attracted to staples of American “adult animation,” i.e. “Family Guy,” “The Simpsons,” etc. 

But even as I matured further, it seemed like these shows had not. With “The Simpsons” now airing its 31st season, my point becomes increasingly clear. While real people learn a lesson once, Homer (Dan Castellenata, “Family Guy”) has to relearn a new job, and how to be a good father episode after episode. Too much of a good thing isn’t just a bad thing — it’s a boring thing. It’s an unimaginative thing. American media moguls have a mantra: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If something is making money, why end it? Even if it’s exhausted everything it’s needed to say and more. What worked in the ’90s ought to work in the ’20s, right? 

Needless to say, I became disillusioned and disappointed with the art of adult cartoons. I became sick of shows that were decent at first, but overstayed their welcome. It’s hard to enjoy a show when you know the events of the episode have little to no impact on the overarching plot of the show. It becomes terrifying to imagine that these characters, trapped in their tiny worlds, will live forever in cycles of eternal recurrence. Their desires, actions and choices will be exploited for a solid 19 to 25 minutes, then flushed down the memory hole. Watching an old episode or two of these shows could be fun, but large doses of the newer episodes could be lethal. I lost my faith in adult animation, that is, until I met a one unhinged horse and his anthropomorphic pals.

At first, “BoJack Horseman” didn’t feel all too different from other adult cartoon staples. The animation style is broadly similar. The world and the people who inhabit it are sometimes whimsical and vacuous. But where “BoJack Horseman” deviates from the norm is its obsession with consequence. The brilliance of “BoJack” is its depiction of characters dealing with the fallout of their actions or desires, particularly when these consequences are not just contained to one episode, but follow the characters for the remainder of the season. This makes for substantially more entertaining and more meaningful television. 

I am shocked at how well “BoJack Horseman” was able to illustrate consequence while remaining true to its episodic format. For example, in the season one episode, “Our A-Story is A ‘D’ Story,” BoJack (Will Arnett, “Arrested Development”) steals the “D” from the famous Hollywood sign for his crush, Diane (Alison Brie, “GLOW”). For the rest of the series, Hollywood is referred to as “Hollywoo” to reflect this change. That’s a smaller and more charming detail, but it sets the tone of realistic repercussions for the rest of the show. Other more serious consequences still plague BoJack as well as other characters. However, when something is not resolved, these choices are purposeful in supporting the central themes of  “BoJack Horseman.”  

In addition to consequence, another way “BoJack Horseman” sets itself apart from its genre is its sense of maturity.  Around season four, I was worried the show would turn into the next “Spongebob Squarepants”: A never-ending series of antics with no progress or remaining novelty. To my surprise (and relief), the show recently ended with season six. Not only was the show’s final season emotional and realistic, it felt deserved. It felt like the journey we embarked on for six whole seasons was coming to a definite end. The thread is cut, the curtains close. The final episode ends in a simple scene where BoJack and Diane look up at the stars, and yet I felt no desire to see more. In fact, I wanted to go back and rewatch old episodes. I couldn’t imagine a moment where I felt like this watching “The Simpsons” or “Family Guy.” “BoJack Horseman” is a prime example of what adult cartoons should strive to be like.

Needless to say, “BoJack Horseman” is the exception, not the norm. Luckily for us though, it seems like other shows within the genre are taking more and more cues from our addled horse friend. The latest season of Adult Swim’s “Rick and Morty” was surprisingly consequential compared to its previous ones. In all, the end of “BoJack Horseman” is a new beginning for the world of adult cartoons. It’s a world with consequence, finality and most of all, meaning.