Things I Liked – January 2020

Oh my God I can’t believe it’s 2020. Like, I’m old enough to remember when politicians used ‘by 2020’ as a conveniently distant future date against which to set themselves targets they could never be held accountable for.

I Liked a reasonable number of things this month and over the holiday, but I’m going to talk about two things which I Liked, but which also made me very, very sad. Those things being The Good Place and BoJack Horseman, both of which finished this month. They have a sort of nutrimatic machine relationship in that they’re almost but not quite totally unlike each other but, perhaps because I watched their finales on the same day, I can’t help comparing the two of them.

They’re both what you might call products of late-stage golden age of television—though I’m honestly not sure the golden stage of television means very much—in that they’re both shows which almost certainly couldn’t have been made 5 years earlier and probably couldn’t be made today. I admit I might be talking completely out my arse here but my feeling is that modern-day Netflix would have cancelled BoJack at the end of it first season (because it was far from an instant hit) and I’m honestly not sure how The Good Place ever got made in the first place. I mean, who the hell gives a 13-episode order to a show whose pitch is, “a sitcom about moral philosophy set in the afterlife.”

I’m sort of still debating with myself about whether I want to talk about these shows separately or in parallel because doing it separately will probably let me talk about them both more coherently and in more detail, but talking about them in parallel is very much where my head is at right now. Oh, also: spoilers for both The Good Place and for BoJack Horseman more or less at random, and throughout.

Let’s start at the beginning. If I wanted to be mega glib, and let’s face it, I always want to be mega glib, I’d say that, at its heart, The Good Place is about a terrible person who gets better and BoJack Horseman is about a terrible person who doesn’t. They’re both set against a self-consciously surreal backdrop, be it the anthropomorphic Hollywoo (although I suppose it’s  technically Hollywoob now) excess of BoJack, or the absurdist cosmological plasticity of The Good Place. They both balance coherent, self-contained seasons against a stronger through-line. And they’re both about things that TV shows normally aren’t about.

Actually, check that. Because, in some ways, BoJack is about the same thing that TV has been about for the last twenty years. It’s about a middle-aged man being a dick and asking us to sympathise with him (cf Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Mad Men). But I think what makes BoJack different is that it seems, at some point early enough in its run that it matters but not so early that you can’t see the transition if you squint, to realise that it could, and probably should, be about something else. Most of the first season of BoJack is basically arsehole porn which, now I see it written down, looks like it means something very different. But, in this context, I’m using it to mean that it’s a show where you watch a character who you know is an arsehole acting like an arsehole but you’ve got permission to enjoy it because you know he’s supposed to be an arsehole. And this is … fine? And it’s certainly better than the type of the TV show where you watch an arsehole acting like an arsehole and you’re mostly enjoying it except every twenty minutes the show stops and goes “ahhh, but aren’t you complicit now” sometimes in exactly those words.

A really good example of this is the second episode, ‘BoJack Hates The Troops’, where we see BoJack just being a total jerk to everyone for no reason, but also see him making a coherent but culturally taboo argument that the social pressure to unthinkingly valorise war veterans leads to an institutional complacency which justifies protracted involvement in unnecessary conflicts and, paradoxically, risks the lives of the very people we’re praising. And don’t get me wrong, the episode is okay, but looking at with a certain detachment it’s uncomfortably close to the kind of comedy that I have real problems with when it’s from a right wing political perspective: it’s basically about a cantankerous misanthropic figure who’s willing to tell it like it is no matter what the, y’know, man / hidebound conservative society / the politically correct liberal elite (delete as applicable) thinks. It has an element of South Park to it without the mitigating circumstance of having been created in the 90s.  And this is true, to some extent, for most of the first season of BoJack Horseman. Now hold that thought because I’m about to talk about a completely different TV show.

While the first season of BoJack, like its protagonist, staggers somewhat drunkenly from topic to topic, gradually developing a sense of self-awareness, The Good Place hits the ground with a  clear, sharply defined sense of what it’s going to do. It even has that thing that I normally hate (and which BoJack will ironically satirise in season five with Philbert) where it labels all of its episodes as ‘chapters’ like it’s a novel, and for once I think it’s almost warranted. In a certain superficial way, the appeal of Eleanor’s escapades in the early episodes of The Good Place resemble the appeal of watching BoJack’s escapades in the early episodes of BoJack Horseman. There’s a strong element of ‘what outrageous thing is this character going to do next’ – although the outrageous thing in Eleanor’s case is usually something like “eat a lot of shrimp” or “problematically objectify Tahani” whereas the outrageous things in BoJack tend to be more along the lines of “take a tonne of drugs and then have sex with somebody who you first met when she was six and she was playing your daughter on a TV show”. But The Good Place commits to its high concept very very quickly, addressing its central ethical themes so directly that the main character specifically starts taking lessons in moral philosophy and the the entire meta-narrative (arguably at least) is framed against the distinction between consequentialist and deontological ethics. While the first season of BoJack Horseman is flirting with the question “why is BoJack such a shitheel?”, The Good Place is asking “if Eleanor tries to become a better person from fear of extrinsic punishment rather than intrinsic motivation does it still count?”

And, so yeah, let’s get back to BoJack. In S1E8, ‘The Telescope’, we finally meet BoJack’s former-friend-who-he-totally-screwed-over Herb Kazzaz. Herb, it turns out, was the creator of “very famous TVs show” in which BoJack starred “back in the 90s” (I’m putting these in quotation marks because the theme song opens with the line, “back in the 90s, I was in a very famous TVs show”). He and BoJack had met when they’d both been (slightly failing) stand-up comedians together on what I assume is the LA club circuit except I have no idea how stand-up works in America. But when he got his big break, he’d made certain to bring his best friend, BoJack, with him. Spoilers: this ends badly. At some point, a few seasons into Horsin’ Around, Herb is outed as gay and as it’s a family show the network wants to get rid of him and BoJack entirely fails to stand up for him. Herb goes on to do other things, and have a very rich and fulfilling life, but in ‘The Telescope’ we discover he’s also dying of cancer, and that he never forgave BoJack not for letting him be fired but for not being there for him afterwards. The advice I usually give people about BoJack Horseman is that if you’re not sure whether you’ll be into the show or not, give it until ‘The Telescope’ and see how you feel after that. Because this is the episode where it becomes clear the show is doing slightly more than just arsehole porn (although it hasn’t quite shaken its South Parkisms – Herb is specifically dying of rectal cancer and, obviously, that’s a real caner but they still went with the butt one for cheap laughs). Herb’s relationship with BoJack feels real and you get a strong sense that BoJack has irreparably harmed him but not defined him. And that’s a more nuanced approach to that kind of character than you usually get and one that the series will steer more heavily into over time. It’s also the first example of willing the show is to, well, go there (and, having made several South Park comparisons the thing I respect about BoJack and respect less about that subgenre of shock, gross-out TV is that most of those shows will happily ‘go there’ when it’s safe shock value like Saddam Hussein holding a severed penis but not so much when involves genuine emotion and actually thinking about things that matter). At the end of the episode (I did say there were going to be spoilers) BoJack—who, it becomes evident, has been carrying a huge weight of guilt and shame about this for decades—returns to Herb’s house to apologise or having abandoned him all those years ago. At which point Herb, in no uncertain terms, says it’s not okay and he’ll never forgive him.

The next time we hear about Herb Kazzaz, he’s dead (although, ironically, not from cancer).

And this is … devastating. Because you can completely understand why BoJack did what he did and sympathise with him because he obviously he hates himself for it. But what BoJack Horseman does that I feel shows other shows don’t do is confront you with the fact that no matter how understandable and relatable BoJack’s actions might be, and no matter how much he suffers for him, Herb doesn’t owe him shit.

On the subject of what we know owe to each other, pretty much the entire arc of The Good Place is framed around Thomas M. Scanlon’s book: What We Owe To Each Other. And it’s sort of fascinating that The Good Place and BoJack both wind up addressing quite complicated moral questions, but from completely opposite perspectives. BoJack approaches its questions of personal morality from the inside out—we start out with BoJack and who BoJack is, and in a way, particularly in the early series, that focus is almost an impediment to the show analysing his actions clearly. For example, and I’ll come back to this, it takes them a little bit longer than it perhaps should have to treat Sarah Lynn as a real person, rather than a slightly mean-spirited Lindsay Lohan / Britney Spears parody. Whereas The Good Place is grounded in incredibly abstract philosophical questions. Scanlon himself was interviewed about the show in 2019 and one of the things he mentioned was that while he had no formal connection to it one of his students was a consultant on the show and she’d been specifically hired because she was a lecturer in philosophy and had written a paper on whether you could become a good person by trying to be a good person. Hell, in the bluntest possible sense, it’s not an accident that The Good Place is named after a numinous cosmological concept that the characters in the show are striving towards but can only reach after first realising that they haven’t already. And BoJack Horseman is named after, well, BoJack Horseman.

As both series progress, they shake up their formulae to different degrees. In the case of The Good Place this feels like the execution of an intentional plan. I’m not totally sold on the premise of season 3 where the protagonists get sent back to earth but, having now seen the whole thing, I can understand how it fits together, and I suspect on a re-watch I’d appreciate it more than I did at the time. This a trite comparison but there’s a sort of Divine Comedy vibe to it where the characters start off in a hell-they-think-is-heaven then gradually work their way out through the actual hell to a sort of purgatory, back to earth, and finally to the real good place and beyond. BoJack, however, handles its escalation rather differently. Because its aforementioned willingness to go there, BoJack naturally builds up an enormous back catalogue of shitty things he has done that come back and bite him in the arse—although never hard enough that it quite inspires him to make any meaningful changes in his life (at least not any that stick). The seasons feel thematically distinct (although, if I’m honest, 3 and 4 blur into each other a bit) but because the premise of the show is BoJack trying to change and failing there’s always a little bit of a soft reset, at least in terms of his personality. In a strange way, BoJack feels like it has more of a through-line than it does. While we learn more about BoJack, or his world, or the supporting cast in most episodes because the series is, at least in part, a character study and in part a satire a lot of episodes (even good ones) are either reaffirming things we already know about a character we understand quite well or else satirising something topical. ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ (the episode in which one of Princess Carolyn’s movies has to cut a large number of its scenes because of a mass shooting: “you hear about it happening to other people’s movies, you never think it’ll happen to yours”) and ‘Fish Out of Water’ (definitely just a parody of Lost in Translation, albeit a really excellent, utterly heartbreaking one) are good examples of this: they’re two of my favourite episodes but you could cut them both without really losing anything from the overall narrative. Whereas removing any of The Good Place’s 52 episodes would make it collapse it like, appropriately enough, a house of cards (I mean, appropriately because there’s 52 episodes and 52 cards in a deck, not because of anything to do with the cancelled Netflix show, House of Cards).

I think what gives BoJack it’s sense of growth despite BoJack’s consistent failure to, well, grow is that it often feels (and I may well be projecting here although I’ve seen interviews which at least semi-reinforce this interpretation) as though the show itself is developing the self-awareness that BoJack never does. At the beginning, you get the impression that you are kind of supposed to think BoJack is a bit cool and to, if not give him a pass for his shittier actions, at least sympathise with the fact that whatever he does it’s explained by his crappy, crappy life. But as the show goes on, it becomes increasingly interested in its supporting cast and seems to become more and more aware of how problematic it is to ask your audience to sympathise with a protagonist who consistently worsens the lives of other characters you are also asking them to sympathise with—and with whom they might, in fact, have more in common, either for reasons of gender, ethnicity, sexuality or, y’know, not being a famous, millionaire TV star.

Sarah Lynn is kind of the poster-child for this. When she’s first introduced in S1E3, ‘Prickly Muffin’, she’s played almost entirely for laughs. And this one of those really difficult satire things. Because the machinery of fame does, in fact, chew up and spit out vulnerable young people, especially vulnerable young women, simultaneously over-sexualising them and holding them to ridiculous standards of moral purity, while getting them hooked on hard drugs and stealing all their money. And this, as an exploitative system, is worth critiquing. But that critique needs to be more sophisticated than “it’s funny because she used to be a kid and now she’s on drugs” and it probably shouldn’t end with the protagonist banging her, even if one character does point out that he’s kind of taking advantage (especially if that character is sometimes framed as having a tendency to over-react to minor things). And to give the writers their due, they do seem to have realised that they did Sarah Lynn dirty—that they treated what was clearly her very real cycle of despair and self-destruction as a comedy beat in the otherwise very serious cycle of despair and self-destruction of their male protagonist. They acknowledge in later series that BoJack had at least some moral responsibility towards to her that he failed to live up to, and do a better job addressing the question of what being Sarah Lynn was like for Sarah Lynn.

You can see a similar process happening with the rest of the supporting cast. BoJack’s agent, Princes Carolyn, is also kind of a joke character at the start. Partly a satire on the greed and superficiality of Hollywoo’s culture, the show doesn’t give much thought to the fact that she’s dedicated to her whole life to the career of this ungrateful arsehole who will inevitably fuck up every opportunity she finds for him. It reminds me a bit of Parks and Rec where, in the first season, the idea that Lesley Knope cares about and is good at her job is seen as both comic and a little bit contemptible. Which, by series two, the writers seem to have realised was not quite the position they wanted to be taking on women in public service.  Similarly, by about midway through the second series of BoJack Horseman, while Princess Carolyn continues to be a sharkish Hollywoo type, they’re really engaging with what it means to be that committed to your career and to be constantly undermined by one jerk. Increasingly, the focus of the series changes and it seems to become a lot less interested in the question of why BoJack Horseman is the way he is and if there’s anything he can do about it, and a lot more in the question of how his behaviour affects the people around him.

In its final season, for all its commitment to the ephemeral questions of philosophy, The Good Place ultimately affirms a position that could be summarised as “heaven is other people”. The four plucky humans from the original neighbourhood finally fix the universe, design a more just afterlife, overcome their personal failings and finally arrive at the good place of the title. As its last twist (I did say there would be spoilers) our heroes discover that everybody in the good place is, well not exactly miserable, but worn down from an excess of contentment because eternal joy is simply not sustainable. Their solution to this is to create a door within the good place through which, at a time of your choosing, you can leave it to an unknowable but peaceful future. After fifty two episodes of questioning, the show defines a good place as one filled with people you care about, who try their best to be good to each other, and who can, in the end, move on when they want to.

Moving on is also the theme of BoJack’s final episodes (although I should say the internet at large somewhat disagrees with me about this) but it takes a far darker turn. Because, speaking wholly personally, the message I take away from the final season of BoJack Horseman is that there are some people you need out of your life. Or, to put it less less bleakly, there are some people you grow beyond. In the last couple of episodes of the season, I found myself trying to predict whether BoJack was going to die at the end because I couldn’t work out how they’d get an ending to the show otherwise. The problem is that, in some ways, every season has had a similar formula: BoJack is awful, he is presented with the opportunity to get better, he almost does, but then he fails. And especially for a show that is, at least in part, about addiction it would be a little disingenuous for BoJack Horseman to end in a way that signals that BoJack is definitely fixed now. Because that’s just not how it works. Having him drown in a pool, as the title sequence has always vaguely hinted he might, is the only real way to resolve his narrative with any sense of finality.

What the show does instead is more interesting: it resolves BoJack’s story by resolving everyone else’s. Diane moves away to Chicago and then Houston, ultimately going on anti-depressants, marrying a nice bison, and writing teen adventure stories about a girl detective. Princess Carolyn adopts a baby porcupine, marries her devoted assistant, Judah, and formally ditches BoJack as a client. Todd gets an asexual girlfriend who seems to get his quirky style and they move into together. Hollyhock cuts BoJack completely out her life in a letter whose contents we, devastatingly, never get to see. Even character actress Margot Martindale finally breaks free of her life of crime, going back to her career as a successful character actress. Only Mr Peanutbutter is still where he started the series but he’s a Labrador.

And a lot of people do interpret the ending, where BoJack and Diane sit on a roof as they did in the first episode, and have a heartfelt conversation about where they are and where they’re going, as signalling hope for BoJack, because the possibility of change is always there. And I don’t totally disagree—after all, The Good Place has just spent four seasons telling me that even the worst people can change, and all you have to do is try (and possibly also spend a subjective eternity trapped in an endlessly looping series of moral thought experiments)—but, for me, what’s crucial is that BoJack at the end of series 6 really has no more hope than BoJack at the end of series 1. His shitty behaviour has caught up with him more comprehensively but it’s caught up with him before and it hasn’t stopped him behaving shittily (moreover the moment Princess Carolyn suggests Hollywoob is ready to take him back, he starts immediately trying to re-secure her services as his manager). I suppose people that take the “hope” reading interpret the bit where BoJack says to Diane “wouldn’t it be funny if this was the last time we ever spoke to each other” and she clearly knows it will be as him tacitly admitting he knows it will be too. Whereas I see it as him still not quite getting it—because, like the show when it first started, he has never quite believed in the reality of anyone who is not named BoJack Horseman.

There’s also a bit where, attempting to evoke a friendship that was always based in mutual cynicism, BoJack reminds Diane of the old joke that life’s a bitch and then you die. Diane responds by telling him that sometimes, life’s a bitch and then you go on living. Again, some people seem to see this as her encouraging him to keep going and perhaps one day find a measure of peace. To me, it’s an acknowledgement that, like the inhabitants of the good place before it falls under new management, BoJack is a stuck in a world that will deny him nothing, but will never satisfy him, and even if he can change he probably won’t.

A final weirdly fascinating parallel between the series is that they both ultimately portray death (and obviously everyone’s been dead from the beginning in The Good Place but bear with me here) as a doorway on the other side of which there is nothing, or at least nothing knowable. But while, in BoJack Horseman, this is a terrifying statement of existential nihilism—in the penultimate episode as BoJack lies drowning, Herb Kabazzaz tells him that beyond the door there is nothing, and that this is all there is—in The Good Place it’s seen as a necessary component to a meaningful life or afterlife. BoJack, from fear of the empty door, has spent the last twenty years trying to be something, anything, always before it’s too late. For the characters of The Good Place knowing the door is there is what makes everything else matter.

And, in a way, it’s a bit weird that the most life-affirming show is the one where the main characters all start off dead and, in the last episode, walk one-at-time willingly into oblivion.

So. Um. What’s been making you sad this month? Let me know in the comments. Or don’t.

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9 Responses to Things I Liked – January 2020

  1. Sera says:

    Oh, hey, it feels like we just got your last newsletter. What a treat! I haven’t watched either show but now that you’ve drawn some interesting parallels between them, I may venture a watch. I particularly enjoyed your analysis of You in your last installment – it makes sense, especially in the context of season 2, that the show is critiquing something (in this case, romance) that the show runners have poorly understood and that the object of their critique is furthermore a dated one. The show left me uncomfortable, though it was superficially entertaining. Your explanation makes total sense. Since you ask, politics and social inequality make me sad (rather, they piss me off), but on a personal note, I’m decidedly not-sad, so thank you for asking and also thank you for your newsletters!

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I’m glad you’re not sad in general. I was being a bit frivolous when I asked people to tell me what made them sad, though I picked a bad weekend for it what with Brexit and the vote on impeachment witnesses. Normally I ask people to tell me what they’re Liking.

      Other than that, thanks for the kind words. I’m happy you enjoy reading my blog posts 🙂

  2. Kamala says:

    Sad…nothing in particular.

    Angry? Furious? Filled with impotent rage? My %*f@! country.

    Sigh.

    But Pansies in audio comes out in 2+a little bit days! *shrieks internally in excitement*

  3. Kaley says:

    I was watching The Good Place at the same time as I was coming to terms with finding out that I was on the autism spectrum and reading a lot of blogs of autistic people, and I couldn’t help but notice how many of the protagonist’s failings in that show are mostly just times when she didn’t want to socialize, like wanting to eat alone in the cafeteria or being annoyed by the guy at the mall trying to talk to her about the environment (why is he not considered a bad person for trying to talk to random strangers without considering if they might be introverted/shy/autistic and bothered by the encounter??). I get it that the show has to walk the line between showing us a protagonist who could be seen as “bad” and yet making her sympathetic, so she they couldn’t make her a murderer or something. But the unfortunate side effect is that the underlying message is “if you’re not extroverted you’re bad and should go to hell” which just left a horrible taste in my mouth. I couldn’t bear to finish watching the show so I don’t know if there’s some spin at the end that explains this all away. It made me sad but not for the reasons that the creators of the show intended.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I can see that reading – and obviously I don’t want to tell you how to feel about anything. I think one of the flaws of The Good Place is that because it handles its ethical issues in quite abstract ways, it often uses shorthand for moral failings rather than more concrete examples.

      For what it’s worth, Eleanor doesn’t code as especially introverted to me. Cafeteria scene aside, she doesn’t actually avoid communicating with people, in fact she often goes out of her way to communicate with them in a negative way. It’s fine for her to not want to talk to the canvassing guy, but she makes a point of being rude to him. I think part of what’s tricky is that the show often defines Eleanor’s problems in terms of her not caring about people and, again, I think you can be introverted or, for that matter, on the autism spectrum and still care about people. But the shorthand the show uses is often just her walking away from social situations.

      I think a good example is the sequence of encounters in which she jumps through increasingly awful hoops to avoid being the designated driver for her friendship group. And when they call her on it, she walks away from them. That, to me, doesn’t read as someone who isn’t particularly interested to socialising. Just as someone who is only interested in people for what she can get out of them.

      But I can see how these things could come across differently to other people.

  4. Sophie says:

    I have only watched the first episodes of these shows, but really enjoyed this blog post and, at some point, really want to watch the entire shows.

    What’s been making me sad is the Queen’s Thief series. I’ve been re-reading them in preparation for the release of the sixth and final book in August. The series is set in this historical fantasy world based on a mashup of the Byzantine Empire/the city states of Ancient Greece, city states whose independence (and uneasy coexistence) is threatened by the encroaching Mede Empire (the stand-in for the Persian Empire). The rulers of these city-states are all good people who have to make huge personal sacrifices to try to ensure the welfare of their states, often with morally ambiguous results. Not only is it nice to read about good rulers in the current political climate, but the series tells a story of empire-building and war by focusing on only a very few close personal relationships. Megan Whalen Turner has a very elegantly restrained writing style, a bit like Mary Renault’s, and so while all these terrible things happen—maiming, exile, miscarriage, torture, death in war, for example, in no particular order—they pass by largely by implication but are allowed to be no less emotionally painful for it.

    But the series isn’t only sad. It’s also quite funny, mostly because though the series centers around Eugenides, the Queen’s Thief, every book is told from a different character’s perspective looking in at him from the outside and being very confused. He’s petulant, irresponsible, wry—yet is always ten steps ahead of every other character. There’s also a really unusual, horribly painful, deeply heartfelt love story which helps define the series and which I am trying very hard not to spoil.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I’ve heard really good things about the series – just never got round to reading it. And now I have even more motivation to add it to my ever-expanding To Read pile.

      • Sophie says:

        For the sake of your To Read pile—the first book of the series is really more of a prequel. The second and third books, The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia, are, as their titles suggest, basically a duology you can read without having read any of the other books and which provide an ending of their own. For me, they’re also the most outstanding in the series.

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