Netflix’s BoJack Horseman might have ended, but the show’s unique vision of a world filled with talking animals with big personalities, suffering from human problems, still resonates as one of the most ambitious and creative adult animations ever made.
People talked to BoJack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg on the creative process behind the show, and the Emmy-nominated episode, “The View From Halfway Down” – the unsettling culmination of the show’s exploration of life, death, and the stuff that happens in-between.
Has winning an Emmy ever been a personal goal of yours?
No. I mean, I guess it would be nicer to have one, then not have one, I suppose. The Emmys are an odd beast so I don’t presume to understand how it works or who gets what, or what it means or who deserves it. I mean, who deserves anything?
The “good curse” of being surrounded by so many talented individuals on the shows that I work on means that no matter how many awards we receive, or get nominated for, I’ll always feel a little disappointed that the people that I work with are not being celebrated enough.
I think about all the shows that I love that did not get an Emmy nomination and think, “Who am I to deserve this over anybody else?”
Why do you think this episode resonates so strongly with people?
In some ways, it’s the climax and combination of the entire series up until this point – it really builds on everything that’s come before. If you’ve seen the whole series, it takes on a tremendous amount of weight and power because you’ve gone on this journey with this character and you really understand what he’s going through.
Also, it was a very philosophical episode – there’s a lot to chew on. Conversations about what it means to live a good life and what happens after you die, what is the legacy you’re leaving behind and what is the purpose of a life.
I’d like to think of it as the kind of episode that you think about, it sits with you and you can mull over. Maybe if you watched it when it first came out, then watched it now, you might look at it differently.
What was the initial idea for this episode, and how did it change along the way?
I wanted to do a dream episode where BoJack has a dinner party with all the people who died on the show. I had that idea before we even knew this was going to be the last season – I thought it would be a fun, philosophical episode.
But we always knew that to justify it, it would have to feel like we got something out of the dream. Not just a dream for the sake of an interesting conversation. Originally, it was going to be centered on Herb, to return to this relationship that we hadn’t really talked about since season one, or two.
But as we started crafting the final season we started to see the trajectory of things, and this other idea spawned – what if it was this near-death experience BoJack had? Since we knew the show was ending we could really play with the audience’s expectations, the danger of not knowing if BoJack was really going to die.
That’s not an opportunity that comes around often on a show, those kinds of high stakes, especially when you’ve got a show named after your main character. Generally, he’s going to make it out alive! Unless, it’s the final season.
Was it challenging to make such a heavy, philosophical episode?
Alison Tafel was the writer of the episode, and I know it was a challenge for her. We didn’t want it to feel like a lecture, so we were always looking for opportunities for humor. Ultimately we want to make an entertaining episode of television, so the question was, how long can we have these people sitting round a dinner table talking?
Someone had the idea for the talent show, which was great because it could get everyone up on their feet and change locations, keep it dynamic. And Amy Winfrey, our director, had a lot of ideas for how to keep the episode visually engaging. We also talked a lot about theatre and plays, because they’re very talky.
Two big inspirations for me that I brought up and Alison read, were Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women and Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls. Both of those plays have some amazing scenes that are just different people talking about their philosophies, and talking over each other.
I’ve always felt like the most interesting stories come from people in a room talking. I was really happy that I got to end the show on my own terms, with my favorite thing – two people talking. On a roof.
Did working on this episode affect the creative team, emotionally?
Well, yeah – it’s a bummer of an episode. When you watch the show, you only have to watch every episode once. Maybe multiple times, if you’re a fan. But when we’re making the show, we gotta watch it over and over, and over, again. Constantly refining and rewatching this bummer of an episode.
We have a few episodes like that, where things get real heavy, and I’ll leave work and think, “I’m in a bad mood, I wonder why? Oh right. I’ve been analyzing this incredibly dark story, intimately and repeatedly.” For my own mental health, it’s kind of nice I can move on now.
But one of the things I’m very proud of of this episode is that we definitely do not glamorize death, or suicide, specifically. At least, that’s the reaction I’ve seen.
Was BoJack falling into his swimming pool during the opening montage always intended to pay off down the line?
The show was being made as we made it. We would build on things, and there’s been a lot of swimming pool imagery, during the main title sequence, but also generally throughout – we’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of swimming and drowning.
Almost every season there’s some kind of reference to those two ideas, and so it did feel like a really appropriate culmination, to have that play into the climax of the show, to be drowning in his own pool.
It felt as though we’d been setting it up all along, although the truth is, we’d been driving where the road took us.
BoJack Horseman changed quite a lot from the first season to the last. Was that an organic process?
One of the big things that made the show special, and was part of my original pitch for the show, was that it was not going to repeatedly snap back to the status quo, like most cartoons do. I remember thinking about the Netflix model, about how I watch shows on there, before I pitched to them.
I wanted to be really conscious about this, that if something happens, it has a lasting affect. By nature of that, it made the show have to change and adapt as it went. BoJack couldn’t just learn the same lesson over and over. I mean, you could argue that he did (laughs). He was slow to take certain lessons. But relationships had to shift and change, he couldn’t be an asshole to one of his friends and then have it all be forgotten the next episode.
The damage accumulated, and that definitely affected not only the story of the show, but the tone; it made the whole show heavier, more complicated, and, I think, more interesting.
Is it difficult to distinguish these surreal, hallucinogenic episodes from the “regular” absurdity of BoJack’s world?
Yeah, that’s the thing, the show already takes place in an exaggerated universe. But I think that makes it easier, in some ways, because we just push it a little further. Almost half of the episodes are, in some way, stylistic experiments.
Some are bolder than others, but a lot of them come from us telling the story from a new angle. So when we take the really massive swings, it doesn’t quite feel like as much of a departure, because we’ve already experimented so much already.
One of the things I really loved about BoJack is that it was a very elastic show – we could tell all different kinds of stories in various ways. It could be political, small and intimate, it could be bombastic, very silly, or very serious.
I would hope that in projects I’m continuing to work on, I will find other ways to exercise all those different muscles, because it was such a joy on BoJack. It allowed us to go all sorts of places that I wouldn’t have been able to, in a more restricted universe.
Were there any interesting scrapped ideas that the team never got to use?
Oh yeah. You brainstorm a lot of stuff, and some of it rises to the top, others remain in the “maybe pile.” For example, we introduced this idea of a book that BoJack’s dad wrote – but BoJack never read that book. It was always something we had in our back pocket, that maybe, someday, he would find out what was in it.
In the last season, we talked about doing an entire episode about the book. But we didn’t really have a firm pitch for that, and there were so many other ideas we wanted to do.
The implication was that the book wasn’t very good. But maybe there’d be some interesting insight in there. Like, “Horsin’ Around,” as a show, is not very good, but it means so much to our characters. I think we could have done something similar with the book. The prose might be clunky and uninteresting, but perhaps you could glean some insight into BoJack’s father, or their relationship. Or even the state of horses in the world.
That’s something we’ve had fun with throughout the show, but especially in the last season we’ve been asking, “What does it mean to be a horse? What is the history of the horses?”
Did you ever consider making the animals into some kind of race allegory, or was there a fear of being too on-the-nose?
Yeah, we were very careful with that. There’s all these implications, so we really tried to avoid, early on, making specific connotations to race. I think there are ways in which we could discuss what it means to be an “other” in society, without making it a direct allegory to race. That’s what we got more comfortable doing as the series progressed.
There was no animal that was a stand-in for a specific race, or specific experience. It’s just a totally different universe. So there would be ways in which it could feel similar, but we wanted to be careful about what we were really saying.
Something I really admired about BoJack was that there were no easy fixes – systemic issues couldn’t be solved with a great speech, or a single character with a good heart. How important do you think it is, to tell these kinds of stories?
I think those stories can be helpful too. I don’t want to send a hopeless message out there, to suggest that nobody should try to do anything because the system is f**cked, climate change is coming and all your favorite musicians beat their wives (laughs).
I want to have a little more optimism than that. So I’m grateful for those inspiring stories. It’s a cliché, but I do think that the only people who change the world are those foolish enough to believe they can. I don’t think sitting around being cynical is helpful.
And yes, on the show, the characters were not able to take down “Chicken-4-Dayz,” or “Whitewhale,” or Hank Hippopopalous. But at the same time, BoJack made this show, “Horsin’ Around,” which was profoundly influential. Or Diane, when she writes her book at the end of the series – we see how that helps people.
I want to be realistic about the way I see the world, but I’ve always felt that Bojack is actually an optimistic show. Not everyone agrees, but I see it as a story about how people can change, and change each other. How you can make a difference in somebody else’s life, which might be small, or might be profound.
I like to believe that those differences can add up.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.