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Even when everything is on fire, BoJack Horseman finds a way to keep going.
Even when everything is on fire, BoJack Horseman finds a way to keep going.
Netflix

Why is BoJack Horseman, Netflix's best show, so very good? Let's ask its creator!

In its second season, Netflix's dark Hollywood satire BoJack Horseman didn't just become the streaming service's best show — it became one of the best shows on TV, period.

That journey was slightly unexpected for a series that began with frequent questions (including from me) of whether the world needed another Hollywood satire. But over its 25 episodes (so far), this animated tale of humanoid animals staving off bitter depression and anomie has become a brilliant examination of self-destructive tendencies and the ever-elusive quest for fulfillment, something that's spurred comparisons (from some of us, at least) to Mad Men.

So just where is all of this coming from? The series' creator and chief writer, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, sat down with me recently for a half-hour chat about four of the show's most integral characters and their journeys so far. Along the way, he touched on why sad cartoon characters are interesting, why the so-called "Bill Cosby episode" wasn't meant to be solely about Cosby, and what the perfect series finale for the show would be. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

On BoJack: "He's a sad character, and that's what's interesting to me"

BoJack Horseman is depressed.

BoJack Horseman is the most depressed horse you'll ever meet.

Netflix

Todd VanDerWerff

If there was a consistent criticism of season one, it was, "Do we need another Hollywood satire?" What, to you, about Hollywood is the right milieu for this story?

Raphael Bob-Waksberg

When I was pitching the show to Michael Eisner [whose Tornante Company produces the show], he said there were too many Hollywood shows, that people are sick of seeing them. So I came back with a pitch: "Okay, maybe he's a washed-up racehorse." I pitched out his whole thing is he's tired of running in circles, which ended up being a part of season two. But then I also said, "What's interesting to me about the Hollywood stuff is this and this and this." I don't remember what I said at the time, but his reaction was like, "You seem like a smart guy. You can do what you want."

I've always been interested in Hollywood stories. I guess I'm a little biased because I ended up becoming a television writer, but I've never felt alienated by that as someone who wasn't in the industry. To me, it's not really about the Hollywood stuff. It's about this lonely character who feels very isolated. The big thing I wanted to talk about was here's a guy who's had every opportunity to be happy and still can't find a way. The easiest way to translate that would be Hollywood, because that feels so glamorous and glitzy and wonderful.

When I first moved to LA I lived in a house not unlike BoJack's. I was kind of the Todd [BoJack's 24-year-old housemate] at this very fancy house, and I remember them saying it's the third-highest elevated house in all of Hollywood. Johnny Depp lived here once. I didn't know anybody. I just remember feeling simultaneously on top of the world and so isolated and alone. So that kind of imagery was the beginning of the idea.

Todd VanDerWerff

A lot of critics have armchair diagnosed BoJack with depression. How accurate do you think that is?

Raphael Bob-Waksberg

Some of the things people write are hard to read, because it's like, "Oh, shit, maybe I should be looking at doing some work on myself!"

2015 Summer TCA Tour - Day 1

Raphael Bob-Waksberg.

Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

But part of the pitch was that it's a show about a depressed talking horse. I obviously cannot diagnose him myself. I would have to write a psychiatrist character who could diagnose him. But I think he's a sad character, and that's what's interesting to me about it. Especially in animation, you have this great history of happy idiots, like Homer Simpson or SpongeBob SquarePants. To center a show on a sad character felt really interesting to me. I don't think he has to always be sad or that we're saying he's doomed to be this way forever, but that's certainly a big part of the show.

Nobody's happy all the time, is what I tell myself, and I have to believe that's true. But sometimes you see people like, "That person seems like they're happy all the time." I have to believe they also have darkness inside of them and they're also yearning for things. That's just a more interesting story to tell.

Todd VanDerWerff

This season, BoJack really seemed to make a stab at being somebody better, and then it all fell apart. What arc were you charting there?

Raphael Bob-Waksberg

A big part of figuring out season two was, all right, where did we leave things in season one? It felt like we had to move forward. I don't know if that's built into the Netflix model or that's just my understanding of the Netflix model. It feels like if people want to watch season one episodes again, they can watch season one. We're not necessarily aiming for syndication. We're not trying to do a thing where people can plug in anytime. The joy of the show for me is that it constantly evolves and changes. And so it felt like season one was really about this guy realizing that he has to make some changes in his life, that he's not happy.

Todd VanDerWerff

We saw him in love this season.

Raphael Bob-Waksberg

Or his approximation of it. We didn't see that in season one. We have him with Princess Carolyn, which is clearly not anywhere near healthy, and then he pines after Diane. We thought it would be a change of pace to see him with a woman who loves him. In season one, he wouldn't want to keep seeing Wanda after any amount of time. He would sleep with her once and then forget about her, which he almost does in the second episode [of season two]. But he pushes past that and tries to make a real go of it.

One of the fun things to me about that story is that it doesn't end because of some big blowup. Like, it's not because [Wanda's] jealous because Diane is living with them or because she pushes him to do some network thing he doesn't want to do. It's just the accumulation of all these little things, and they kind of run out of steam. They both realize that this is not a good relationship for either of them anymore, which felt interesting to me.

Todd VanDerWerff

You talked with Vulture about episode 11, where BoJack almost sleeps with his friend's teenage daughter. Do you have in your head an idea of how far is too far?

Raphael Bob-Waksberg

I don't. I think it is a constant conversation. As I said in that interview, there really were a lot of conversations of what do we want to show and what do we want to say about this relationship and how does it happen and where does it come from?

A big thing we talked about, too, was the idea that this will have consequences emotionally, maybe that we haven't seen yet. Going into season three, this is that thing that happened. We can't brush it away and say, "Oh, that was a crazy thing that happened in New Mexico. Now back to Hollywood hijinks." A big part of the show is this accumulation of stuff that happens. The D in the Hollywood sign is gone, and now it's gone forever. Sarah Lynn burns BoJack's ottoman, and now the ottoman is burnt. That all cues the audience in that the emotional stuff carries over, too. The real thing we talk about in the room is, "If we go here, we have to see where it goes and not play it like it's not a big deal, because it is a big deal."

Todd VanDerWerff

To what degree could you get away with some of this stuff because you have animals as so many of your characters?

Raphael Bob-Waksberg

I think a lot. I saw [screenwriter and director] Shane Black give a talk. He talked about how all his movies are set during Christmas, even though they have nothing to do with Christmas. The reason he does that is because if you have lights in the air and snow and people in Santa suits, everything feels more fun and joyous, and you can get away with more fucked-up shit. People's fingers can get cut off. It doesn't seem gross or horrid. It seems like it's a fun movie.

That was, to me, a big part of this show too. We're going to have these fun cartoon animals and then we're going to go to darker places than you ever could in live-action. A lot of the things we write, if it was a live-action show, I think would feel very indulgent or feel very saccharine, or it would feel very cynical for the sake of being cynical, but because you have these cartoon characters saying them, it opens up your heart a little bit.

Scott McCloud talks about this in his Understanding Comics book. The more iconic your character is, the more the audience can connect with them. So the fact that BoJack is a horse and not a human with identifiable properties makes everybody else more able to see themselves in him and project themselves onto him.

On Diane: "She's not capable of being as good as she wants to be"

Diane and BoJack Horseman.

Diane embarks on a quest of self-discovery in season two of BoJack Horseman.

Netflix

Todd VanDerWerff

Diane's big showcase is in "Hank After Dark," when she goes after a beloved celebrity who's also abused his power with women. How did you approach that story?

Raphael Bob-Waksberg

Very early on we decided we didn't really want to be about one person or one event, especially because of our lead time [how long it takes to make an episode]. It's hard to do an episode about "Why is nobody talking about this?" and the episode comes out and everybody's been talking about it for the last six months.

One thing we landed on was it's really about Diane, and it's about how people treat women in our society and how people treat men in our society, especially famous men. It's about Diane's emotional journey. We set up during the first half of the season that she is looking for purpose, and she's looking to do something more.

One of the things that was really attractive to me about the story was that, like in real life, it's messy. She's doing something that in some ways is very noble and important, but also something that all the characters kind of know is pointless or isn't going to help anybody. And there is question into why she's doing it: Is it more for herself, or is it more for this cause? There aren't really clean answers to that, which really attracted me to the story. Two people can watch the episode and come to wildly different conclusions about what it's saying and what it means.

I know what it means for me, but one of my favorite — question mark? — things I read in reaction was I found a men's rights activist forum talking about the episode and how great it was because it shows a woman talking out of turn and getting what's coming to her. I shouldn't like that, but I am fascinated by it. I do kind of like that that can be someone's takeaway if that's what they're bringing to the episode, even though that was not the intended takeaway at all. I question what those people think about the rest of the season or the characters. [Laughs.]

We wanted to show all the reasons the other people in her life would be telling her not to do this, and how some of those reasons are really misguided and unfortunate and how some of those reasons are actually coming from a real place. That was a real tightrope to walk.

Todd VanDerWerff

As the Cosby allegations made more and more headlines, did that make you nervous that people would think of it as just "the Cosby episode"?

Raphael Bob-Waksberg

A little bit. It's funny to me how people turn on things. Cosby is now okay to talk about because he's the bad guy. It took a while, but now we've agreed to that. And it's interesting to hear people talk about "Hank After Dark" as the Cosby episode, when we also mention five other male celebrities by name in the episode and that's not the takeaway. The takeaway is, "Oh, they're doing a Cosby riff," because that's who we've agreed is the bad guy. It's no longer challenging to think of Cosby as the bad guy.

It is crazy to me that now everyone's talking about it, but it's also kind of sad how the episode is still relevant anyway. Cosby is one example of a thing that went this way, but there's so many other examples that just don't matter.

Todd VanDerWerff

Narrative almost always leads us to wanting to have a pat moral answer. You avoid that often. How do you keep from having someone say, "It's all going to be okay"?

Raphael Bob-Waksberg

On our show, I think the temptation is the opposite. Sometimes we have to check ourselves. It can't just be cynical all the time.

I felt pretty good in season one that we proved this show can go to some very dark places. It can worm its way inside you and really make you feel bad about yourself. A big question for season two is can we also have moments of real warmth and connection? I think we did that to varying degrees in many episodes. But it's still a very dark show. The big thing that I keep thinking about is that there's no ending. They talk about that a lot in the first season. If Diane says, "I got married and that was my happy ever after," but then there's the day after the happy ever after and the day after that.

Even though you can have these really happy moments or these really sad moments, there's always going to be a day after. I kind of think the most appropriate ending for the show would be to have an amazing, unambiguous series finale and then do another season that's not as good. You know, if it was like, "They finished it, and then they did the Scrubs thing."

Todd VanDerWerff

What do you think is driving Diane at this point?

Raphael Bob-Waksberg

BoJack Horseman

The strangely evocative poster for season two of BoJack Horseman. (Netflix)

She turns 35 in this season. A big part of the conversation, too, is here's a woman who got married very quickly in season one. What does the first year of marriage look like for this couple? She's looking around and realizing that she's this Beverly Hills housewife, which I think is something she never thought she would be. A lot of the season is her trying to rebel against that or figure out what she's supposed to do.

She has these large ideals, and she believes that she is capable of doing good in the world. A big part of the season was her getting just beat down over and over and realizing that she cannot live up to her ideals and she's not the person that she thought she was. She's not capable of being as good as she wants to be or in the ways that she thought she could.

We're just beginning the conversations about season three for Diane, and now the question is, "Okay, so does the pendulum swing all the way in the other direction? She's going to forget everything and live a life of comfort, or is she going to try to find some happy medium?"

Todd VanDerWerff

You mentioning 35 reminds me you use milestone ages throughout the show. Like BoJack is in his 50s, and Princess Carolyn turns 40 in season one.

Raphael Bob-Waksberg

Part of mentioning ages is I think we need to because it's a cartoon. I want to constantly remind our audience that time is moving forward and things are changing. Ages help you do that. Like, [Diane is] 34 in season one; now she's 35. BoJack was 50. We don't mention he's 51 in season two, but that's just another kind of marker to help on that, that time is moving forward. Princess Carolyn is not just a cat that's a cat's age, she is 40 years old. That's why we do that.

On Mr. Peanutbutter: "He's not as dumb as people necessarily assume he is"

Mr. Peanutbutter and BoJack Horseman.

Mr. Peanutbutter (it's one word) becomes a game show host, even as his marriage struggles.

Netflix

Todd VanDerWerff

Mr. Peanutbutter is a foil for essentially every other character, and that's really apparent in the game show episode. That's an emotional crystallization for a lot of characters. Where did the impetus for that episode come from?

Raphael Bob-Waksberg

The game show thing came early on. It felt like a very natural thing for Mr. Peanutbutter to do. Part of the fun of making a show is thinking about what are different formats we can tell stories in. And so, let's do an episode of the game show. We did our Horsin' Around episode already, we have our Princess Carolyn POV episode in season one. That's something I really enjoy doing. How can we tell our stories a different way?

The idea actually came from one of our writers who had a spec Curb Your Enthusiasm he'd written years ago about Larry going on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and getting in a feud with Ron Howard and then pretending not to know who he was. So it's this old joke that he put in the script that no one ever used, so, "Great, we'll cannibalize that." That was the beginning. We know he's going to meet a celebrity [in this case Daniel Radcliffe] and not know his name. That's the punchline we're driving to for the entire episode.

We're always thinking, "What's the story underneath the story here? What is this actually about?" It felt like a good time to have BoJack and Mr. Peanutbutter get real, in a way. We'd seen flashes of Mr. Peanutbutter being self-aware in season one, and you forget about it because he's such a lovable, dumb puppy dog. He's not as dumb as people necessarily assume he is.

Todd VanDerWerff

He really does behave like a dog.

Raphael Bob-Waksberg

He's the most animal-like of our animals.

Todd VanDerWerff

You do a lot of jokes about how he's a dog or Princess Carolyn is a cat. What makes those characters easier to do animal-centric jokes about?

Raphael Bob-Waksberg

There are more clichés about dogs than there are about horses. We've got BoJack eats apples and carrots. And he's got a long face. I'm very proud we've not made a "horse dick" joke the entire time, and I think I can say with pretty certainty we probably never will. But yeah, everyone recognizes behaviors in dogs and cats. It feels like it's a well of endless mirth for us.

On Princess Carolyn: "The show is saying that some things are permanent"

Princess Carolyn of BoJack Horseman.

Princess Carolyn went to the back burner a bit this season, not that she didn't still have interesting things to do.

Netflix

Todd VanDerWerff

There wasn't as much for Princess Carolyn to do this season. How do you decide which characters to feature and which to let recede?

Raphael Bob-Waksberg

We do have to take the long view a little bit and think, "What is our story for the season for these characters?" With Princess Carolyn, especially because she had her own spotlight in season one, it felt like, okay, we have a lot of momentum behind this character that we can actually tell a lot [of story] with not a lot of moves.

In season one, we have this episode where it ends with this great professional victory for her and her personal life is in shambles, and she's really down about that, and the phone says, "Happy Birthday. You are 40." And that's our first big downer ending of the show. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that was maybe not the most interesting story to tell about this character. Could you do a version of it where, again, her personal life is in shambles, but her career is going really well and, in fact, she's excited about that? That's not the end of the world. The whole season for her was about building to that moment.

Todd VanDerWerff

And part of her storyline intersects with Mr. Witherspoon having a stroke. You have a lot of disease and death and horrible things happening off screen in this show. What makes that fit into the world of the series?

Raphael Bob-Waksberg

We do. It's true. It's a great way to raise the stakes. You talk about Mad Men, and that's a show that had a lot of death. If you actually tally all the people who died on that show, it's like, wow, people were always dying in that 10-year span. Death is terrifying, and so I want to write about it. I'm interested in it, and I think a part of what we're doing with the show is saying that some things are permanent. Death is permanent.

In the first episode, there's a joke about Penguin Publishing falling apart and you see a penguin falling by the window, killing himself. It's played for slapstick comedy. And in the finale of season one we have Secretariat jumping off a bridge, and it works as drama. That's the journey of the show in one season.

The complete run of BoJack Horseman is available on Netflix.

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