On Bojack and the challenge of personal development

Since we locked down in March I’ve watched a huge amount of TV. I’ve watched things in all genres and in a multitude of language. Out of all of this the shows that have left the biggest mark on me have been Will Arnett’s Flaked and Bojack Horseman. Both dramatise Arnett’s battle with alcoholism and his wider mental health problems and personality issues. For me both were also deeply engaged with the fading of career aspirations during middle-age and it is this theme that has impacted on me most (for reasons that neither I nor any of my readers will ever be able to fathom).

In Flaked Arnett plays Chip who has one of the most sitcom jobs ever. He is a formerly promising stool designer and craftsman who now barely scrapes a living from selling the occasional stool. There is more to Chip’s income, but I’ll try not to give away any spoilers. Chip lives in a beautiful place, rides around on a beautiful bike and sleeps with beautiful women. He is respected by his community and by the alcoholics who he helps at AA meetings. But, his life is also empty with all of his dreams for the future heaped either on obviously failing relationships or on hopes for a personal breakthrough that will somehow transform him into someone else. Well into his forties and with longstanding patterns of behaviour, these changes seem unlikely to every come about.

In Bojack Horseman the themes of Flaked get examined more deeply. Bojack, like Chip, is a charismatic, aging alcoholic with a host of mental health and personality issues and disfunctional relationships. The fact that Bojack is a fading actor locates the show’s discussion of mental health in the rhetoric of Californian individualistic self-help. But, the show continually undermines the idea of self-help and personal redemption, firstly by acknowledging the strongly contextual factors that lead Bojack and other characters like Diane into their crises, secondly by refusing to allow the show become Bojack’s psycho-drama and always pulling back to show his impact on everyone else around him, and thirdly by reminding us again and again that real change is very difficult and that it gets more difficult as you get older.

In some ways season two of Bojack Horseman uses the ‘one last chance’ trope. This trope is central to the way in which Hollywood usually deals with aging characters. Maybe Bojack can make a comeback, rediscover his talent and get his life back on track. The ultimate emptiness of his experience of doing this and becoming a movie star (or at least being seen as one) reminds us that our lives and careers are not narratives, because they never get neatly tied up into chapters and we are never offered resolution or absolution. No one ever stands around and claps while the hero realises that he has finally made it. Some days are good, some days are bad, but there are always more days. Bojack always has to go on being Bojack and neither triumph nor astonishingly self-destructive fuck-up can stop that.

Bojack Horseman lasted for six seasons and six years (although I binged it in about six weeks). The theme of aging, for Bojack at least, is never really confronted head on. But, we do see other characters growing and developing around him. Todd, Princess Caroline and Diane all move on in their own ways throughout the series. But, Bojack (as well as his upbeat reflection Mr Peanutbutter) don’t really. They are preserved as men-children perpetually stuck in their own unsatisfying forms of success. In many ways Bojack finishes season six where he started season one. But, we know, and we suspect that he knows, that his options are continuing to narrow. As we get older the possibility of personal or career transformation becomes less and less likely. This is not to say that we can’t renew ourselves and our lives as we get older, but just to recognise that it is going to get more difficult rather than easier. Every day we are a little more us and a little less likely to behave fundamentally differently, and every day we are a little more embedded in our context and escaping it become a little more difficult.

Bojack Horseman, and to a lesser extent Flaked, remind us that good intentions are not enough, career decision making is not enough and ‘taking control of our narrative’ is certainly not enough. Achieving real change in our life requires more than this. Sadly, neither show manages to figure out what it is. Bojack and Chip have both learnt how to perform a simulacra of personal growth and development. In the moment both can commit to this and find hope that it will take them somewhere and change their lives. But, in the long run both always return to the mean. The real tragedy of the shows, is that deep in their hearts both of the titular characters know that this is always going to be the way that it goes.

So, should I make some new years resolutions for 2021?

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