A lot happened last month, but for now let’s focus on two significant cultural events: Yom Kippur and the fifth-season debut of Netflix’s exceptional cartoon TV show, BoJack Horseman.
Bear with me. These two are deeply related.
BoJack Horseman centres around a depressed actor-turned-alcoholic horse in a universe where humans and anthropomorphic animals peacefully coexist. BoJack (voiced with perfect indignance by Will Arnett) starred in a Full House kind-of-show back in the ’90s, and has since spiralled into a useless life of hedonistic self-sabotage.
Created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg – a Jewish Californian whose mother ran a local Judaica shop and whose father helped Russian Jews immigrate to the United States – the show oscillates between being the purest form of wit and melancholy that I believe has ever aired on television.
At the show’s core lies one central question: How can a horrible person redeem himself? In this way, the show is a perfect complement to the seasonal reflection of Yom Kippur.
The beauty of BoJack, from a writing perspective, is that he does improve himself incrementally – but it’s not a straight line. From season 1, BoJack’s progression charts as two steps forward, one step back (or one step forward, two steps back, then two very slow steps forward, etc.), defying television norms of neatly wrapping up moral dilemmas in 22 minutes. It might be the most brutally honest portrayal of redemption any show – cartoon or otherwise – has embarked on.
Season 2 features an especially powerful punch to BoJack’s gut. His roommate, Todd (Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad fame), learns that BoJack slept with one of his friends for no particular reason. Todd explodes for the first time in the show’s history, and BoJack uses it as an excuse to feel crappy about himself yet again. But Todd doesn’t let BoJack off the hook.
“You can’t keep doing this!” Todd exclaims. “You can’t keep doing s—ty things, and then feel bad about yourself like that makes it OK! You need to be better…. You are all the things that are wrong with you. It’s not the alcohol, or the drugs, or any of the s—ty things that happened to you in your career, or when you were a kid. It’s you. All right? It’s you.”
It ranks among the more incisive monologues of television history, and carries with it deep implications for what a path to personal redemption looks like. BoJack cannot lamely apologize and squirm out of this, as he has done in the past. Fundamental change requires accepting blame for one’s actions, rather than scapegoating unfortunate circumstances, and furthermore believing that change is actually possible.
At the end of season 2, BoJack commits to getting in shape for a new movie role, so he goes for a jog up the hill next to his house. It instantly defeats him, and he lies down on the grass in self-pity. He’d much rather be on his couch with a bottle of scotch. Suddenly, a baboon appears over him: “Every day it gets a little easier,” the baboon says. “But you gotta do it every day. That’s the hard part. But it does get easier.”
We know, of course, that this pivotal moment does not inspire BoJack to adopt a linearly virtuous path. He continues to make mistakes – arguably more dire mistakes than the ones he already made. He remains selfish, thoughtless and arrogant. But now, at least, the mistakes start to bother him. He develops hints of a conscience. He begins to feel remorse. And if nothing else, that’s the first step toward true redemption.