Learn how to write great TV from watching BoJack Horseman

Every so often a piece of art comes along that is so good, so innovative, that it forces me to reassess my perception of art itself. I remember reading the short story ‘The Soul is Not a Smithy’ by David Foster Wallace and it was like that ‘mind-blown’ GIF happening to me, in real life; the boundaries of possibility in the form of writing were broken wide open, and my perception of what a short story could potentially be was permanently changed. The same thing happened with Stanley Kubrick movies, and certain episodes of Buffy, and books by James Baldwin. With music, it’s Maurice Ravel. More recently, it happened when I watched Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It’s like when I watch/read/hear these stories, the rules change, and so do I.

Watching BoJack Horseman was one of these perception-altering experiences, although it wasn’t as instantaneous as some of the others. Many people have said, when I go on about the show and how great its impact has been on me, that they tried to watch it but ‘just didn’t get it’. And I get that. It’s an unforgivingly dense, dark, tangled story about depression and addiction and the sour side of fame. When I watched it for the first time, I too found it difficult to digest. It goes against our modern predilection for ‘binge-watching’ because it is far too dark to binge on (like trying to eat a whole bar of Montezuma’s ‘Absolute Black’). It is packed full of in-jokes and details that can be overwhelming if you are just after some light entertainment. The strands of its story arcs are messy and often intentionally abstract.

But something about BoJack and its twisted sense of humour kept me watching. I liked that it was challenging, and weird and colourful and neurotic. The final season, which aired earlier this year, was television at its absolute best; it made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me grow. It made me want to become a TV writer. BoJack did its own thing, from beginning to end, proving that innovation is possible (and necessary) in whatever format you happen to be creating for.

So, what can we learn from the writing of this groundbreaking show, and incorporate into our own storytelling techniques? I’ve condensed it down to five rules, but we are really just scratching the surface (spoilers ahead) …

  1. EXPLORE ‘CURRENT’ SUBJECTS IN A TIMELESS WAY

Many of BoJack’s storylines focus on complex subjects affecting modern life in the US, like opioid addiction, the #MeToo movement, cancel culture, gun politics and toxic masculinity. In the landscape of animated comedy, this is nothing new; South Park, The Simpsons, Family Guy et al. all reference contemporary culture. But BoJack goes one step further, by delving into the emotional impact of these subjects upon its characters, rather than using them as a passing joke or one-episode feature. We see how the opioid crisis personally affects BoJack for a whole season. We see how Diane faces issues within feminist culture through her career path and journalistic endeavours. And the whole of season six is dedicated to BoJack being ‘cancelled’, and what that looks like from the other side of the headlines. By taking this approach, the writers ensure that that stories are always grounded in character realism, and this results in a show that is emotionally timeless.

2. CREATE CHARACTERS THAT ARE LEARNING, CHANGING CONFLICT-MACHINES

Part of the unpredictability of BoJack Horseman is that the goalposts for its characters are constantly changing. Conflict is a vital element of any story, but permanent change as a consequence of conflict is often omitted from TV shows because of the old sitcom trope of everything needing to be ‘back to normal’ by the end of each episode. Sitcom characters usually don’t learn anything for this reason, but BoJack’s characters grow then un-grow, fuck up then try to rectify their fuckups with positive actions, and everything that happens in this world has a lasting effect. This is why the ending of the show is so powerful; it is the culmination of six seasons of mistakes, reactions and consequences.

3. BALANCE LIGHT AND DARK, AND BE FEARLESS IN YOUR APPROACH

Look, if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that life is fucking dark. If you want to write a story that is universal, there needs to be some degree of darkness in it, and BoJack goes to some of the most darkly human places imaginable (insert joke about the irony of using animal characters to tell deeply human stories). But it traverses the darkness without smothering its audience in it, by bringing in just the right amount of lightness and humour. It balances its absurdity with complete honesty from start to finish. One of the reasons this show resonates with a lot of people is the naked approach it takes to depicting depression, a subject that, until now, hasn’t ever really been tackled on TV in the same way. If you want to connect to your audience, you need to be willing to get vulnerable.

4. DIALOGUE, DIALOGUE, DIALOGUE

So much ground has been covered in every imaginable format of TV comedy, from traditional sitcoms to animation to sketch shows, that if you are going to delve into this ever-evolving mode of writing it is fundamental that you stand out by having a unique voice. What’s clever about BoJack is that its deliciously discursive, character-specific style of dialogue – from Mr Peanutbutter’s recurring ‘am I…?’ and ‘Erica!’ jokes, to Princess Carolyn’s alliterative tongue-twisters – is juxtaposed with the formulaic blandness of its show-within-a-show, Horsin’ Around, which is constantly being replayed in the background of scenes (‘Do you just take those DVDs with you everywhere you go?’) and serves to highlight the idiosyncrasy of BoJack’s narrative voice. The show consistently transcends TV tropes and clichés by drawing attention to them; just another facet of its genius.

5. MASTER REINVENTION

For me, the thing which sets BoJack apart from its animated predecessors is the constant cycle of reinvention the show puts itself through. In Rule 2 we learned how important it is to allow your characters to grow if you want to keep your show fresh. But allowing your characters to grow also means reinventing the world in which they live, over and over, and being unafraid to shed old layers to move forward. Putting faith in your characters is a requirement – trust that they’ll evolve and learn from their mistakes and become the people they are destined to be. This kind of writing takes a lot of work, and a lot of fearlessness, because you have to be willing to go through the process of death and rebirth along with your characters rather than clinging to the ideas that may have made the story successful in the beginning. But it’s the only way you can create stories as powerful and resonant as this show was.

It’s worth mentioning, in conclusion, that BoJack’s creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg has been very open about his striving for equality in the casting of the show, and in the writers’ room, and this is no doubt one of the primary reasons for BoJack’s success. We can only hope that the days of the all-white, all-male writers’ room have passed, because when we bring diversity into the writing process, we are increasing our capacity for learning and consciousness, and this leads to much stronger stories.

Thanks for reading. I’ll leave you with this quote from storytelling master, Joseph Campbell:

‘The reach of your art is the reach of your compassion.’

BoJack Horseman is available in its beautiful entirety on Netflix.

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