Media Parodies Media: The Bojack Horseman Story

Bojack Horseman is a Netflix Original that premiered in 2014. It’s a dark humor animation with anthropomorphic animal people navigating the shallow world of Hollywood. Somehow, I didn’t get around to this show for four years. Then I binged four seasons in an embarrassingly short time.

I was surprised by how emotionally invested I became with Bojack‘s cast of characters. Real human drama and timeless themes exist within the animated packaging featuring a talking horse.

At first, Bojack Horseman is a very nihilistic look at a ex-sitcom star’s messed up life. Booze, drugs, one night stands, many questionable decisions… it’s a fun ride to watch Bojack spiral out of control. But from the beginning the writers subtly tug at your heartstrings by fleshing out his character as well as those of the ones around him.

Bojack acts out and gets himself into trouble because, plain and simple, he’s not happy. There are the glimpses into his truly awful childhood and parents who never really wanted him, all of which ended up with Bojack becoming a washed up ex-sitcom star.

Portrayal of Media and Hollywoo(-d)

What the show does especially well is parodying the media and entertainment industries. From “A Ryan Seacrest Type”– a vapid Hollywood reporter who comments on whatever inane news has surfaced, to media-fueled squabbles over apple muffins and the insane things stars do for attention.

Amid the laughs are some really poignant digs at Hollywood in general (re-named Hollywoo after Bojack stole the D in a booze-addled stupor).

In the episode where Mr. Peanutbutter and Todd come up with the Oscar nominees, reading the whiteboard behind them was insightful and relevant. Last year’s #OscarsSoWhite scandal was put in sharp relief as they had written down “black people” and then crossed it out.

If you notice, the board also includes only female names in “Best Director” — a stark contrast to the reality. In 2018, Greta Gerwig became only the fifth female director to even be nominated for the Best Director Oscar for Lady Bird. So far the only female director to win has been Kathryn Bigelow in 2009 for The Hurt Locker.

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Bojack also parodies what happens to some child stars. With Sarah Lynn, you see the stark contrast between the innocent girl on the 90’s sitcom to the coked out mess she becomes later in life.

The Human Element

Part of the reason we care so much about these characters is because of their very real struggles:

Princess Carolyn — Cutthroat in the world of being an agent/manager, but almost always at the brink of failure. She also feels unfulfilled and wishes for a family, but is possibly past the point of no return.

Todd — discovering his sexuality. I think so far this is the only time I’ve seen a character in a show discover they are “Ace.”

Diane — Just…everything about Diane. Her issues with her family and her career struggles make her a relateable, anxiety-ridden character.

Season Five

Bojack Season 5 premiered recently. There were a couple of episodes that really stood out, like the one that centered around Diane’s exploration of her ancestral routes (for a Buzzfeed-like story she was writing) and an episode that centers around Bojack giving a speech at a funeral that doesn’t cut away and is simultaneously hilarious, dark and uncomfortable.

Season 5 wasn’t my favorite, but it still represents part of a quality piece of entertainment. If you haven’t tried this series yet, it’s about time.

Binge Culture and How it Changed TV

TV just isn’t the same as it used to be.

The days of only catching a new episode as it aired are mostly gone, replaced by technology like DVRs, networks uploading new episodes online and streaming services.

It was Netflix that really brought the idea of binge-culture to the forefront with its original programming, dropping entire seasons all at once instead of spacing episodes out. This has lead to original content that defies traditional television in ease of choice, structure and content while also changing the speed at which we watch a series.

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Original Content Becomes Popular

When Netflix made the switch from mail order to mostly streaming, things really changed. Entire seasons of shows were now available to watch. Better yet, anyone who wanted to try something new didn’t have to spend the money on a DVD boxset.

In 2013, Netflix started offering original content. That was the year that House of Cards, Orange is the New Black and Hemlock Grove premiered.

After the blockbuster success of shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, Netflix poured more energy into original content. Although Netflix doesn’t release viewership numbers, it’s estimated that 6.5% of Netflix subscribers have seen at least one episode of House of Cards’ third season. That puts the viewership around 5 million.

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Structure

Besides the fact that Netflix found some great content to put out, we also see different stories and structure than normal traditional television.

Your typical 1 hour show is actually around 42 minutes without commercials. It has clear act breaks and wraps up a storyline within that 42 minutes. In anything other than comedies, you will typically find a season arc, with a big end goal in sight for the finale.

The content geared for internet viewership tells a different story.

Now you’ve got anywhere from 29 to 60 minute shows, no commercials and a season that is meant to be watched in a frenzied rush. Episodes of dramas are not stand-alone. The content is meant to be enjoyed in sequential order.

Although there are typically less episodes in a season, streamable content is able to serialize a larger story, while taking opportunities to take an occasional detour to add more to the mix. When not constrained to the typical TV formula, problems no longer have to be tidily wrapped up in each episode. The form of the show is now more fluid, open to interpretation and full of irresistible cliffhangers to keep you watching.

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Culture

Beside the form of our television, we also see a major shift culturally.

Social media has made it nearly impossible to avoid spoilers of our favorite shows.  Statuses, memes, Tweets, internet comments…no where is safe from spoilers.

Even worse than that is the pressure you feel if you haven’t tapped into the latest Internet show. “What do you mean you haven’t seen Stranger Things!?” If you have Netflix, there’s no excuse. You need to be in on the craze.

Plus you have to binge these series because you know someone else will.

About 70% of Netflix users will binge watch at least one show a month.

Besides the original content, users tend to binge established older shows like Family Guy, The Office and Futurama… the ease of just hitting play and having the season play out is too good to resist.

The Takeaway

When millions of people are binging the same shows, analyzing them, recommending them — the networks pay attention. They will give you more of what you want.

I’ve just binged Stranger Things Season 2 in two days, and now I’m deep into the after show Beyond Stranger Things. Maybe I’ll have to tap into some more Netflix shows during a potential year of waiting for more. Netflix and its shareholders would certainly like that.

Netflix may have made us binger-watchers, but it’s our binging that determines what content is produced. The only question remaining: can traditional TV keep up?

Sources:

How Network TV Figured Out Binge-Watching

Here’s How “House of Cards” Viewership Stacks Up Against the Offline Competition (Maybe)

An Analysis of Netflix Power Binge Watchers