I’ve been feeling like a terrible person lately. Probably from a potent cocktail of self-loathing, regret and, um, cocktails. But it could also be a sign of aging. “Growing up” as they call it, is one of those things we can’t seem to get a handle on. We think it means getting a job, investing in a 401k, and driving a Toyota. It’s actually a bit more complex than that. What it really boils down to is whether or not we can look at ourselves in the mirror and say, “hey, buddy, you aren’t such a bad guy”.
Two shows that premiered this Summer tackled that subject: FX’s “You’re the Worst” and Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman”. Both feature male protagonists that are struggling with identity. Their morality, their success, and their general outlook on life are all examined through the lens of the people around them. Of course, one involves an anthropomorphic horse/man, but that’s beside the point.
They’re each a study in character development that you don’t see much of in the sitcom realm. Characters rarely change or “grow” in sitcoms, unless it involves changing their hair, or growing larger breasts. That’s about all you get. Sitcoms are about jokes after all! They’re supposed to make you laugh! Life’s a giant bundle of shit, why can’t we just turn off our brains and laugh for awhile?
Because laughing is healing. It is in response to pain. And sometimes you need that pain in order to find the humor in things.
I won’t expound upon the arcs of these shows. This is more of a recommendation, not a review, but suffice to say that I think both shows tackle the serious side of adulthood in a way that doesn’t dumb things down, but also knows how to make fun of it, without cheapening the major things that happen in our lives.
“You’re the Worst” is a phrase that should be used to describe the advertising for the show because it’s just goddamn awful. It makes it look like a show about two narcissistic assholes that end up hooking up, and…well, okay, that’s how it starts. Jimmy, our hero, and Gretchen, our foil, hook up at a wedding of a mutual friend (Gretchen’s best friend’s sister who just so happens to be Jimmy’s ex-girlfriend, tension abound) and begin a “relationship”. Of course, what entails in a relationship is at the core of the story, too. Neither character likes the prospect of mutually-exclusive dating, but not for reasons that are shallow. This isn’t a “guy likes to sleep around and girl is afraid of getting hurt” situation. It goes deeper than that. There’s pain behind them eyes, and we get access to that pain.
The leads are fantastic dramatic and comedic actors. Jimmy, a Brit who’s struggling to make a writing career in the States, is sardonic, witty, sarcastic, but also charming. It’s gotta be the accent. Gretchen, a PR rep for a burgeoning rap group, is vulgar, overly-sexual, blunt, and aloof. But she’s also insanely adorable and vulnerable. This depth to the characters really elevates the show past “two assholes find love”. It’s more like “two tragically flawed people try to help each other overcome their problems”, but not in a family-drama-of-the-week way.
The supporting cast is great, too. Lindsay, Gretchen’s BFF, goes through her own issues in her boring marriage to a dweeb named Paul. Edgar, an Iraq war vet bumming on Jimmy’s couch, struggles with adapting to life out of combat. Jimmy’s ex Becca and her bro-tastic new husband Vernon are constantly plagued by Gretchen and Jimmy’s bad behavior. But the characters all have their flaws, their strengths, and an appeal to them. You end up rooting for everyone, even the ones that in lesser hands would be used as punching bags or plot devices. They feel like real people, in a real world, with real issues, and that’s the real success of the show.
Which brings us to BoJack Horseman, a…horse? Man? It’s hard to really describe this show without sitting down and watching it but here goes: animals the size of people act as people in a world where there is also people and everyone accepts that animals are people. Does that make sense? Our titular hero BoJack (voiced by the outstanding Will Arnett) was the star of an 80’s cheeseball sitcom Horsin’ Around. Now, he’s a has-been, living in luxury in a satirized LA and trying to get back into the limelight. He does this by hiring a writer, Diane (Alison Brie) to help publish his memoir and make everyone fall in love with him again.
Of course, that’s harder said than done, since he’s a bit of a jackass. No, horse. Wait. I’m all mixed up. BoJack is a shallow, self-involved fame-hog that just wants to be admired and loved. It goes deeper than that, as you might expect, but that’s the basis for a character that doesn’t like change. He used to be on top, and things have changed, and now he wants stability. Which is interesting, then, that his life now is no longer stable, yet he feels almost inherently attached to it, afraid to let this “shitty” life go in favor of a more “happy” life. Misery loves company, as they say.
And his company is great. His slacker roommate Todd (a delightful Aaron Paul) steals the show in most regards. He’s got hopes and dreams of making it in showbiz too, with a budding rock opera in the back of his mind, along with a million entrepreneurial ideas that he shares with Mr. PeanutButter (a cheery Paul F. Tompkins), who was also on a show in the 80’s that bares a striking similarity to the one BoJack was on. He’s also a dog. And acts like one, often. Oh, and he’s dating Diane, BoJack’s writer, whom he holds strong affection for. Remember: this is a sitcom after all! Even if it involves a talking horse. Wait, didn’t they already do that?…
Rounding out the ensemble is Princess Carolyn, a cat who’s an agent (or an agent who’s a cat? huh?) played by Amy Sedaris, and a host of minor characters that all happen to be animals of some sort and are mainly voiced by Patton Oswalt because hey, that worked in Ratatouille, why not here? But the main focus is BoJack, whose relationship with everyone around him is strained, and it’s mainly due to him. He and Princess Carolyn have an on-again/off-again relationship, both romantically and in regards to representation. BoJack and Mr. PeanutButter obviously have beef, though it’s quite oblivious to the always-optimistic labrador (very true to life, I might add). Diane and BoJack are trying to figure out their feelings for one another, and Todd is trying to succeed on his own merits – much to BoJack’s chagrin.
It’s a great, complicated show that takes some surprising, memorable turns. We really get to examine BoJack as a person (er, horseman) and how he feels about himself. Spoiler alert: it ain’t pretty. But it’s the emotional core that makes this cartoon more than just another, well, cartoon. It goes deeper than that. It’s a brave venture, and I think it pays off, and goes to show that even something that looks silly can have a serious side that is worth visiting.
Both shows bring self-examination and self-realization to the forefront of their plots, and they came at an interesting time for me. I too like to step back and really look at myself. See who I am, why I do the things I do. I struggle with the question, “Am I really that terrible?” all the time. And, if these shows are any indication, the answer isn’t simple. It’s more of a journey than anything else. One that never really ends. “Adulthood”, the proverbial carrot dangling in front of the treadmill that is life. But it’s a fun fun while it lasts.