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Stranger Things, BoJack Horseman, and the weird power of telling, not showing

Why more shows should just end with a heartfelt explanation of the subtext.

Stranger Things
Friends, they say, don’t lie.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Of all of the ways Stranger Things apes the ’80s popcorn movies that inspired it, its willingness to simply come right out and state its moral — the ethical code its characters live by — might be one of the least heralded.

It’s easy to see why this would be the case. After all, one of the most deeply held truisms of writing fiction is that you show, don’t tell. Moral didacticism has been on its way out for ages now, and the idea of ending each story with a neatly wrapped message, complete with a bow on top, is likely to elicit sneers from the more critical set (which, let’s face it, includes me).

Stranger Things communicates what it stands for in ways both direct — its characters repeatedly inveigh that “Friends don’t lie,” and the biggest rupture between telekinetic Eleven and her father figure Chief Hopper comes when she learns that he has lied to her — and in ways that are slightly more veiled.

But still, the way that Stranger Things 2 underlines, over and over again, that new girl Max falls for Lucas, the boy who talks to her and treats her like a human being, instead of Dustin, the boy who stands back and tries to essentially will her into becoming his girlfriend by hoping hard enough that it will happen, suggests that it’s trying to say something very pointed to the younger men in its audience about how to win over a lady friend. Even when the series does show, instead of tell, it shows over and over and over again. (Of course, the show also has Lucas and Dustin creepily follow Max around for a while early in the season, and she responds by dubbing Lucas “Stalker” — so, win some, lose some.)

Likewise, it’s telling that Steve Harrington, the cool guy who advises Dustin to win over Max by ignoring her, also ends up girlfriend-less by season’s end. Stranger Things is not particularly subtle.

And the show is clearly interested in the idea of kindness and community overcoming any obstacle.

When Eleven decides not to pursue a life of telekinetic crime and, instead, returns to help her friends late in season two, her choice is presented as a deeply moral, important moment of character development, even though viewers essentially already know she’s going to be the one to save the day in the end.

This isn’t my favorite element of Stranger Things, but I think it’s fascinating all the same, and it’s made me think more and more about how we use stories to offer moral instruction, and how burying that moral instruction in the subtext can often shoot a well-meaning series in the foot.

But to really dig into this topic, we have to look at another Netflix series: BoJack Horseman.

How to make an alcoholic horse not look cool

BoJack Horseman
BoJack kind of looks like Don Draper, no?

BoJack Horseman is, in many ways, an antihero show. BoJack does terrible things, and he hurts people, and he wrecks his relationships. He’s similar to figures like Don Draper from Mad Men or even Tony Soprano from The Sopranos.

But there’s one major difference between BoJack and those other antiheroes: We don’t ever aspire to be like BoJack — not even a little bit. He might be funny. He might be relatable. He might even be fun to watch. But he’s never cool. That was the plan from the early days of the show.

“To everyone I would talk to about the show, I would say, BoJack is not a role model. He’s not cool. People don’t want to be like BoJack,” series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg recently explained on an episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting. “He can be an object of pity. We can relate to him in some ways. ... But he’s not an aspirational figure. I think a lot of antihero shows forget that or are not interested in that. They want their heroes to be cool.”

Key to BoJack’s characterization, says Bob-Waksberg, is that as an animated show, BoJack Horseman has greater latitude to just say what its characters are feeling. He points to South Park’s characters giving speeches to hammer home the “message” of an episode as an early example of how he realized that animation doesn’t always require as much subtext as other works.

“People talk about [how] writing for teen shows is fun because teens don’t have subtext,” he says. “I think you could say the same thing about talking animals. ... The wackiness of [BoJack Horseman’s] universe allows us to be more sincere. It cuts against it in an interesting way.”

This is one of the reasons that BoJack Horseman, more than most other animated shows, can get away with having its hero do very bad things — like almost sleeping with a teenager or enabling his former co-star’s spiral into addiction, ultimately leading to her death — while also directly calling out how bad they are. There’s some subtext on BoJack, but very little of it. Characters come right out and say they wish they were happy, and at one point, a character tells BoJack, “You are everything that’s wrong with you.” It’s the kind of bracing admission that would be hard to imagine in the tonier confines of the prestige drama.

Obviously, there are times when ambiguity about a character’s motivations, or how the audience should feel about the morality of those motivations, is welcome. But BoJack Horseman is about a character who has everything he could ever want, yet suffers crippling inner rage that he takes out on everything and everyone around him. He is not meant to be a role model, and by directly stating this, the show keeps its viewers from confusing him as such.

It’s a lesson that plenty of other TV shows that similarly target an audience of young people (and young men especially) could learn. As everything from Breaking Bad to Rick and Morty has shown, audiences will too often interpret even the slightest tinge of gray in a character’s actions as a sign that those actions are worth emulating. That’s obviously not the fault of the shows themselves — they’re not responsible for their fans — but it’s still disquieting how some viewers seem to struggle with the idea that depiction isn’t endorsement.

The BoJack Horseman approach wouldn’t work for every show, but it very much achieves the goal of its creator. Nobody looks at BoJack and says, “I want to be like that guy.” And that allows BoJack to dig deeper into knotty questions of what it means to become a better person.

The show of moral instruction

Leave It to Beaver
The cast of Leave It to Beaver learns some important moral lessons.
Disney-ABC Television Group/Getty Images

Broadly stated, then, BoJack Horseman is a show of moral instruction, where characters who struggle to know the right thing to do come to learn it through a series of object lessons and lectures from assorted authority figures.

Perhaps the most famous example of the show of moral instruction is something like Leave It to Beaver or The Andy Griffith Show, where kids have gentle adventures meant to teach them the right way to behave, accompanied by good-hearted pedagogic speeches from their parental figures.

Stranger Things achieves much the same thing, both through displays of the characters never giving up on each other and from direct instruction from the various parents (and parental figures) scattered throughout the show. The show lets its parental figures be wrong here and there — like when new character Bob Newby tells young Will to stand up to his problems, advice that ends disastrously — but for the most part, the message of Stranger Things could be the same as that of Leave It to Beaver: Listen to your elders.

Obviously, this approach wouldn’t work for every show on television. Stranger Things main characters are all kids, who are still learning the moral lessons they need to know to grow up. And BoJack Horseman gains a lot of latitude from its animated presentation. But there are a lot of shows that simply wouldn’t work if they didn’t present more complicated moral problems for their characters to wrestle with on a deeper level. We wouldn’t want to see Elliot on Mr. Robot suddenly realize that his hacking is wrong, because his hacking exists in a world where it’s never clear which monolithic institutions, private or public, are to be trusted, which is to say it’s a world very like our own.

And if I’m being honest, Stranger Things’ lack of subtext is one of the things that prevents the show from achieving true greatness, in my mind. BoJack Horseman is the better series because it understands, at all times, how to utilize its non-subtextual moments, and because its characters remain deluded and self-deceptive. The characters on Stranger Things often seem to learn important lessons solely because that’s what characters in stories like Stranger Things do.

But I can also appreciate that Stranger Things’ tendency to spell everything out might not be aimed at me. One of fiction’s most powerful functions is the way it allows us to tell stories about what we do and don’t value, the kinds of people we want to be and the kinds of people we want to see in the world. I don’t need to someone to explain to me that the best way to win somebody’s heart is to treat them like a human being, because I’m past that phase of my life. But many of those who watch Stranger Things do need to hear that, and I’m glad there’s a show willing to talk to them, too.

The world we live in might be complicated and full of bad choices, but some things remain easy to understand: Treat other people the way you would like to be treated. Remind yourself that other people are the authors of their own stories as surely as you are the author of your own. Don’t ever treat anybody as if they exist solely to help you get what you want.

Too many stories of the past several years have flirted with the idea that any or all of the above values might not be sound. Even if Stranger Things isn’t 100 percent to my taste, I like knowing that one of the most popular series of our time doesn’t just embrace said values, but shouts them from the rooftops.