Watching BoJack Horseman / How to be a Good Person

BoJack Horseman just launched the second series on the 17th July and my intention was to clean whilst I watched but, like last the last series, I ended up on a viewing marathon, gripped.

Last series I had been hesitant to delve into it; the comedy starts off slow, and it was only the rave reviews from friends that invested me in it. However once I got to the second half it was compulsive. I kept watching all through the night, pushing myself deeper and deeper down into an addictive hollowness as it pummelled me emotionally. I recognise too much of myself in BoJack – the occasional arrogance, the desire to prove talents that he is not quite sure he has, wanting to numb himself emotionally from everything, self-sabotaging – and here was a show that didn’t end with roses and sunshine. The protagonist always making the wrong choice, over and over, in the idea that the choice will bring happiness and instead it brings nothingness.

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Here’s a brief guide on how to be a good person:

  1. Lie to yourself
  2. Rationalise every action you’ve ever made based on “being true to yourself” and therefore good
  3. Justify that the consequences were the best possible outcome
  4. Say “I’m a good person inside”
  5. Do things every now and again for others and cling to them as indisputable proof of your goodness

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The first series is the process of BoJack slowly coming to see himself properly. The marketing as an adult comedy does a great disservice to the beauty of an end product; the show is not hesitant to get into the darker parts of what it is to be human/horse. BoJack comes to realise he’s terrible, he realises that there are things people won’t ever forgive him for, that you don’t get to pick how people view your past. That it might actually be your actions and not your intentions that shape who you are.

BoJack doesn’t get the Hollywood (Hollywoo?) pay off. He doesn’t get the satisfaction of forgiveness, or of being told that he is a good person. He just gets brief moments of self-realisation before he runs from his reflection once more. Seeing yourself in him you realise that you don’t get that cartoon magic of resolutions either.

It’s hard to come to that conclusion. Extremes are easy to identify: this person is evil, that one is saintly. It’s the blurry areas in the middle that are complicated enough to allow us to fashion a false narrative about ourselves. We want to believe that the world works according to how we feel, and that therefore overall we’re pretty neat. We don’t fit the extreme so we must be good.

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After getting through the second series and watching BoJack break me emotionally once more – realising his problems and still failing to act adequately enough – I was stuck reflecting on how I am always caught in the same mistakes too. At the core I want to feel like I have a goodness that is threaded through every action, and really the truth is that we are both good and bad in each moment and that one does not cancel out the other. Repetition means that it is not simply naivety but a willing ignorance to maintain the fiction that I make kind decisions. The people I have made feel terrible will still feel terrible. Whether they forgive me or not it doesn’t erase how I have treated them.

It is intriguing how so many of the “best” and “loving” actions align with what we want in our heads. This ego of good people syndrome extends to everyone, ruining revenge fantasies we build up. As much as we crave it people often don’t feel bad about the things they’ve done, or have everything turn to shit on them. The person that cheated on you? They probably are happier and feel comfortable that it was all for the best. Most people aren’t devastated, but walk away with a shrug – at the most you may get an “I’ll do better next time”. I am highly unlikely to think of myself as cruel in the moment.

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In some ways intent doesn’t really matter, because of how often we lie to even ourselves about the true reasons, coating them in a more acceptable veneer. Goodness is frequently self-serving, sometimes we help not just for altruism but for showmanship. Even a genuine act can be tarred later on, allowing us to we cling onto them as proof of who we want people to see us as. I can tell the story of helping a homeless man who had suffered heat-stroke where I co-ordinated a group of the public and arranged an ambulance, leaving me an hour late to drinks with a friend. I don’t tell it because part of changing myself for the better means starting with me looking at the slumped over man, bright red and sweating, and walking on. It means telling people that I got to the end of the road and then felt like shit, so to soothe myself I went back. It means acknowledging that I still walk straight past people in need without a glance every week. And that means making myself look unforgivably human.

That’s not to say I’m a pessimist, or that self-serving altruism is bad. It’s just I’m coming to realise that being good is a combination both how you feel and what you do, but ultimately the more important thing is that consequences of your actions. Working on being an inch better is painful, and slow and you slip back. It’s what makes BoJack Horseman such compelling viewing. Knowing your faults is not the same as changing. I’m going to fuck up more than I get it right.

That doesn’t make me “good” but it’s a little bit closer.

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