Screenwriting 101: Learning from BoJack Horseman

By August 25, 2017Main, Screenwriting 101

By: Steffanie Moyers

“I’d read a line from a scene, something really have and awful BoJack had just done. I’d be alone in the recording booth, say the line, then look up to Bob (the show’s creator) and yell: you’re paying for my fucking therapy! And he’d just give me two thumbs up and smile, like it’s nothing”.

-Will Arnett on BoJack Horseman, NFYSEE BoJack Horseman panel, June 2017

BoJack Horseman is a show that, before you’re aware it’s happening, sinks harrowingly deep into your soul. Sickening your emotional core, wreaking havoc on your nervous system like marrow being sucked from your bones. It’s heavy, it’s painful, but you can’t stop. A phrase coined last season was, “fetishizing your depression,” which is something the show not only continuously plays upon to varying degrees – but subconsciously instills in it’s viewers before they’re even aware it’s happening.

And with a fourth season now on its way (see the trailer below), we thought now would be a good time to look back at the series in an attempt to unveil the method to its madness.

Season three starts off right where it left – with BoJack on his way to the Oscars and tender jokes and running gags hidden everywhere like Easter egg gems for the true fan like myself to rewind, pause, and giddily enjoy (such as the opening interview sequence of S3E1 with the phrase “He’s tired of running in circles” on the Secretariat poster, or in the end episodes the line, “What’re you doing here?” just to name a few). Season three, much like the first two, carries the same course of character arcs.

The first few episodes have loose plots with a few steady arcs that dip in and out…including a beautifully experimental episode set entirely underwater with no dialogue – nothing but music, tone, facial expression and writing to guide you for 20min. Still, synonymous with the first two seasons, halfway through something serious lands and that’s all it takes. You’re in deep, you’re invested, and before you know it you go from debating giving up on these goofy, depressed anthropomorphic characters to being glued to the screen with your jaw half open at the brutal one-liner-cut-to-blacks and tears welled up in your eyes by the time the credits roll.

The writers of BoJack hold immaculately true to subtle yet powerful styles of writing. Not the least of which, is the use of the word “fuck” (and its variations) only once a season. In each season, cussing and extreme inappropriate behavior is the norm. Yet it’s not until somewhere in the final three episodes of every season that, when things get really heavy-handed, a character deeply invested in BoJack’s life will be greatly let down by him in a moment of sincerely attempted reconciliation, and in one form or another deliver an astonishingly powerful “fuck you” of sorts. It catches me off-guard every time, and cuts me deeper each season.

In season one, this occurs when his initial friend, writing partner, and show runner Herb Kazzaz (whom is dying of cancer) refuses his 20-year-late apology and tells him, “get the fuck out of my house”. In season two, in what is arguably one of the best episodes ever written for television (Escape from L.A.), while visiting his youthful love whom is now married with children of her own, she horrifyingly catches BoJack trying to bed her teenage daughter, and delivers the brutal line, “If you ever try to contact me or my family again, I will fucking kill you”. However, in season three, the character who delivers the traditional “fuck you” blow is the strongest yet – for he is by far the closest to BoJack of the three – his self-proclaimed best friend and room mate, Todd.

In an immaculately written monologue, quiet, sheltered Todd finally calls BoJack on all his self-destructive, narcissistic behaviors telling him he cannot blame his childhood, parents, fame, drugs, nor alcohol for his actions. Todd lays into BoJack as he truly stands up for himself for the first time, telling him that the problem is himself, always has been, and always will be. After a beat between the two characters, Todd turns away, and powerfully delivers the final line before a harsh cut-to-black – “Fuck! Man…what else is there to say?” It was in this episode where my already cracking heart officially broke. I have not seen a moment between characters – live action or otherwise – be so honest, so real, and so devastating since HBO’s Six Feet Under. The episodes to follow only got heavier.

In the episode “It’s You”, BoJack begins partying for his Oscar-nom celebration, only to be intruded by Diane telling him no one will be there for him when he tries to kill himself from the inevitable depression to follow the Oscar pursuit. By the end of the episode, it is revealed that BoJack’s nomination was an accident, and indeed, not a single person is there for him. The episode has arguably some of the best jokes – especially in the scene where Todd and Mr. Peanutbutter (whose relationship I’ve always appreciated and admired) are coming up with Oscar nominations. In one exchange, Todd offers up, “What about Daniel Day Lewis? He’s always up for something!” To which Mr. Peanutbutter quips, “You’re right! Let’s throw him up there,” and haphazardly writes his name under “Sound Editing”. Side note: the return of the “Halloween in January” gag from season one was possibly one of the best running gag comebacks this season.

The episode to follow, “That’s Too Much, Man!” is a parallel of season one’s “Downer Ending” – a drug-fueled binge with harrowing flashbacks and black outs intertwined with BoJack’s darkest emotions clawed deep from the shadowed recesses of his mind. He mentions for the first time since the actual “Escape From L.A.” episode, his guilt over Penny. The writers have paralleled Penny and Sarah as pseudo-daughters for BoJack, his love for both of them and his utter blindness to his guilt for one spilling over into his harming of the other. The episode ends at the haunted, romanticized Griffith Observatory – where in season one we see BoJack make promises for his dreams and where the season one finale ends. The turn in the end of this episode had my now broken heart utterly shattered.

This season of BoJack was so, so heavy…I had to pause multiple times during episodes to truly take it all in, and wait longer and longer periods between watching end episodes to emotionally and mentally recover. Writing that can reach those depths with my psyche is what I aspire for more than anything. It is so rare and gut-wrenching. The finale of season three wraps up a BoJack that, an audience truly cannot and should not love anymore. He abandoned those who stuck by him (the bottle-view episode of his breakup and relationship with Princess Caroline was something of a fever dream), betrayed those closest to him, and intentionally crushed those who refuse to see him for who he is. He’s almost bedded an underage girl, taken heroin named after himself, and unintentionally played a hand in killing a girl he helped raise with his career and life.

Season two ended on such a hopeful note of rebirth, change, starting over. Season three ended in such a way it could’ve been a series finale. It was nearly suicidal, but brilliant, and beautiful all the same.

The depths in which this show speaks about feminism, racism, sexism, depression, life-long happiness, careers, and the added caveat of the toxicity and addiction of the world of Hollywood (where I now personally live and work and is so hauntingly befitting I cannot even comment)…BoJack Horseman is not only Netflix’s best show – it is one of the best shows ever written. Period.


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