Hollywood glorifies crime

The discomfort in Hollywood - HUch # 91

| by Tea Collot |

The series BoJack Horseman is known for her dark humor and garish cartoon aesthetic. Behind it, however, there are abysses - and those who give the series time will soon discover it in themselves.

"One would like to say that the intention that man be happy is not contained in the plan of 'creation'."1 The accusation of cultural pessimism towards Sigmund Freud is not new. So man is fundamentally condemned to misfortune - and not just because of the external circumstances to which he is naturally subject, no - the misfortune is deeply rooted in himself.

Raphael Bob-Waksberg's series BoJack Horseman was based on a similarly gloomy premise from the start: It portrays heaven and earth of human existence in such a nuanced manner that one would not expect from an "adult humor" cartoon series in a brightly colored watercolor look. The entry, which still playfully and humorously introduces us to the anthropomorphic animal-human world of an alternative Hollywood, slowly but inexorably leads to an unease that runs through the entire series. The first season may seem awkward in terms of implementation and is comparatively digestible for us as viewers. Nevertheless, she has mastered the basics of her narrative craft and already indicates the profound conflicts - and in part also the abysses that will open up in the further course of the series - at the origin.

For six seasons, the series tells of its eponymous protagonist, the alcoholic, depressed horse and former sitcom star BoJack Horseman, and his thoroughly destructive search for something that could correspond to his weird idea of ​​"happiness". The series' characteristic balancing act between abstruse wit, playful illustration and the approaching abyss is achieved so skillfully from the third season at the latest that it is virtually impossible for viewers not to pursue it any further. The only requirement, which at this point is also a clear trigger warning2 should be understood for the entire series, reads: You should feel psychologically able to endure the massively traumatic narratives. Because BoJack is not only a horse that gnaws at its own trauma, but also one that causes massive suffering in others - and often in full awareness of what it is causing.

Magic of illusion

The ego needs coping strategies - and that already as a child. Ten-year-old BoJack sits in front of the television with big eyes and watches an interview with his great idol, the racehorse Secretariat. He's sliding closer and closer to the television, turning the volume up further - also to drown out his arguing parents. The fan mail read to his idol during the interview is a letter from BoJack himself. The question he turns to his idol is obviously one that neither of his parents has ever answered properly Received reply. He asks what to do when he's sad. Secretariat advises him through the television: “BoJack, when you get sad, you run straight ahead and you keep running forward, no matter what. [...] Don't you stop running and don't you ever look behind you. There's nothing for you behind you. All that exists is what's ahead. "

BoJack takes this advice to heart. His coping strategy turns out to be an escape into the world of the entertainment industry. After the first moderately successful attempts as a stand-up comedian, he made his big breakthrough as an actor: He got the lead role in the hit sitcom "Horsin‘ Around ". And in one fell swoop, BoJack found exactly what he longed for his entire life: the great independence, a move away from home, the affection of an audience of millions and - in his crew - even a kind of sitcom surrogate family. In his escape he escaped the childlike impotence and created his own dream life. Or to destroy the illusion: what lies behind him, what he has fled from - the mother who couldn't love him because of her own trauma; the father, who was never there for him - he mercilessly suppressed.

The surrogate family comes in handy for him. As an ideologically trimmed decal, it functions as a projection surface for his unfulfilled need for family affection. From one episode to the next, he takes refuge in the twenty-minute sitcom lie in front of a live audience - a lie with feel-good assurance for the heart, after which the viewers applaud and then return to their own, completely dysfunctional families. It is a lie that BoJack himself believes: that there is always a happy ending, that bad deeds have no consequences if he only apologizes often enough in the end and is loved by the people around him. It's a lie that he internalizes.

For him, BoJack's stage functions as a stepping stone into alienation - his thoroughly wrong understanding of what love and affection mean, because he never experienced them as a young horse, is expressed not least in the fact that he is ruthless and of every member of his surrogate family Treated badly. He does nothing when his friend Herb is kicked off the show for his homosexuality. He also does not prevent the expulsion of his stylist, who is falsely accused of making a mistake that BoJack actually made. But the illusion holds. The remorse is too easy to numb: from alcohol, affairs and the booming intoxication of fame. Lust weighs heavier because he is a star, everyone loves him. And the trauma is throbbing softly. He can't hear it.

A pure lust self

At the beginning of the series, 14 years after the end of »Horsin‘ Around «, the former sitcom star ekes out his sad everyday life in his Hollywood villa according to a scheme that Freud did in 1930 Culture discomfort described. He oscillates from satisfaction to satisfaction, looking for distraction, intoxication - three avoidance strategies defined by Freud - in the wretched attempt to escape his depression. As viewers, it is initially difficult for us to grasp the actual depth beneath its surface - a vulgar personification of Freud's lustful self. Little by little the most important characters of the series are introduced to us: his best friend and roommate Todd, his agent and ex-partner Princess Carolyn, his arch-rival Mr. Peanutbutter and finally the author of his biography and later best friend Diane Nguyen, who in Progress will become the most important constant in his life (and the personified voice of reason). As a screwed-up egomaniac full of toxic behaviors that have burned themselves into him over the years, BoJack will manage to disappoint each and every one of these people in a variety of ways.

Horses are escape animals. If there is a potential danger, they try to escape it as quickly as possible. For years BoJack has been developing his own form of escape behavior, each time getting into a vicious circle of self-sabotage, based on his internalized self-hatred. If he is shown affection, he brutally pushes everything and everyone away from himself, partly consciously and partly unconsciously sabotaging all relationships, because he is convinced that he is not worth this affection at all. At the same time he distances himself from any wrongdoing, "apologizes" and justifies himself for his "slip-ups", which do not even reflect his "real, good self" - namely his innermost need to be a good person. A need that keeps coming into conflict with the nagging self-hatred that it nourishes through its repetitive mistakes.

The »slip-ups« and missteps that BoJack can allow himself over and over again because, as a rich, male Hollywood star, he never has to fear any real consequences in a superficial pseudo-world, turn into increasingly heinous crimes in the course of the series People around him who are becoming increasingly difficult to bear for us viewers too. It is the women in BoJack's life who suffer most from his misconduct. A week-long drug tour on which he takes his former sitcom daughter Sarah Lynn with him ultimately costs her her life. Countless, nameless women are treated by him like objects that he can push away from himself after sex. The horror goes so far that it almost assaults a minor - the daughter of a former friend.

BoJack is a master at blocking his atrocities. His entire environment - and we as viewers who constantly accompany him - do not learn by the end of the series how much he was ultimately involved in Sarah Lynn's death. How violently a trauma can discharge, however, when it throbbing over the years, and how many people can be carried away by it, the series shows us in its fullest, most brutal extent. The further it is forced down, the louder it gets, impatient - in danger of exploding at some point. And at the latest when the abyss opens up and threatens to pull others into it, it is time to take responsibility. Or as BoJack's best friend Todd replies: “You are all the things that are wrong with you. […] It's you! Alright? It's you. Fuck man, what else is there to say? "

Reinstating the trauma

In the fifth season the lines between reality and imagination become blurred. When BoJack plays the problematic protagonist Philbert in the series of the same name, whose inner strife with himself and the crimes of his past is slowly but surely driving him insane, BoJack is increasingly losing confidence in his own perception. The series provides a kind of meta-comment on itself and its reception, with BoJack playing the great, suffering anti-hero as Philbert, who is adored by viewers for being so approachable, flawed and relatable is. The producers of the series BoJack Horseman reflect their previous portrayal of the character in order to counteract a reception that BoJack understands as a sympathetic and clever anti-hero who merely acts as a plaything of his trauma. His best friend Diane, who co-wrote Philbert and who helped the character gain its character depth, criticized the series most severely after it was released and refused to work with it from now on. She distances herself from the glorification of character and gets into an argument with BoJack, in which she demands that he take responsibility for his disastrous actions in his own life.

The fifth season illustrates particularly well why the narrative structure of the series is so extraordinary. It is based - far removed from the static sitcom standard that dominates the animated US series landscape - season after season on the structure of a classic tragedy. Starting with an exposition that introduces us to the initial situation, the following episodes increase: we are introduced to the story (s), the pace increases, conflicts become apparent. In the middle of the season we reach the climax: A car accident and its consequences make BoJack addicted to opiates in addition to his alcohol addiction. This point marks the beginning of the end of his displacement lifestyle.

The following event is determined by a delay: the plot falls, the pace slows, BoJack holds a twenty-minute monologue at his mother's funeral in what is probably the most unusual - and probably most related to the theater - episode of the series, after which he even looks for a therapeutic one Support. And if we basically already know that the catastrophe will occur, we too fall into the very lie that BoJack keeps telling himself: that in the end everything may turn out to be good. But the disaster is inevitable. In the penultimate episode, BoJack finally falls into drug psychosis and finds himself on the set of "Philbert" about to strangle his partner Gina during a murder scene. At the last moment the crew steps in.

Another bridge to Freud can be built on the subject of the drama-like narrative. In 1897, after 15 years of professional experience, he finally admitted in a letter to his friend Wilhelm Fließ that he had not cured a single patient. He recognized "that the unconscious never overcomes the resistance of the conscious, [...] that in the deeper psychosis the unconscious memory does not penetrate, so that the secret of the youthful experiences does not reveal itself even in the most confused delirium."3 This discovery marks a radical turning point in his thinking: With the discovery of the relevance of stories - because the stories of Freud's patients were never about anything else - a piece of literature entered the practice of psychoanalysis.

We can hardly get at the most exact, truest version of an event - it is highly doubtful whether this even exists in a kind of "pure form". But it is at least possible for patients to "re-enact their own lost stories" on the analyst's couch.4as the philosopher Klaus Theweleit puts it. Sigmund Freuds published in 1899 Dream interpretation is therefore also referred to by Theweleit as the first book with the theory novel genre. And so he goes on to interpret: "Literature is a dream or daydream, dreamed in a bed of facts." Literature, drama, art - all of them make it possible for us to reach into ourselves to a certain extent that with the help of a piece of truth can be articulated in fiction.

The View From Halfway Down

The penultimate episode is titled The View From Halfway Down and is about a dream-like, strongly symbolically charged near-death experience after BoJack's attempted suicide and is thus the most obvious reference to the unconscious. Lisa Hanawalt, co-producer of the series, on whose drawings the illustration of the animated animal world is originally based, describes her style as being strongly oriented towards her own dream images. The dream-like is at the same time a fantastic element that runs through the entire series. But the symbolic power of the illustration is not expressed as clearly in any episode as in The View From Halfway Down.

Together with all those characters whose death he had to come to terms with in the course of his life, BoJack finds himself in a dream-like sequence. Here BoJack's father takes the form of his childhood idol Secretariat, in which the Freudian assumption finds expression that the father figure is often embodied in the dream by an authority figure. Already at the scene, which is a mixture of BoJack's old parents and the set of »Horsin‘ Around «, the strange distortions that are characteristic of dream structures become clear. The interior is peppered with paintings depicting different phases of BoJack's life: a painting that previously hung in his villa and on which we can see him swimming depicts how he watches himself drowning. Until the end of the episode, he is not aware that this is an obvious prediction: namely that he is about to die and it could be the last time that his consciousness will fight for him.

In this episode we find a symbolic embodiment of the discomfort that increasingly runs through the entire series and which at the same time represents the approaching death: a tar-like substance, which at the beginning drips quietly, but ultimately devours everything BoJack pursues through his near-death experience. Even we, as viewers, do not know whether it could be the last time that we will accompany our protagonist through his innermost quarrel: through the profound conflict as to whether he was ultimately a good person. This existential question is debated by the deceased guests who have gathered at a dining table to have their last meal. Since this is still BoJack's near-death experience, it is ultimately just a transfer of his own perspectives to the deceased. In no section does this transfer express itself more graphically than in the stage performance, which the deceased characters arranged for BoJack following the dinner.

"Life is a neverending show, old sport, except the minor detail that it ends," begins his sitcom daughter Sarah Lynn, and at the end jumps through an open door into a black abyss. And so all other characters follow her. In a last, convulsive attempt to save themselves from death, Secretariat shouts from the stage: "I wish I could have known about the view from halfway down".Seconds later, the door devours him too. During BoJack's subsequent escape from the deadly substance, he manages to call his best friend Diane and ask for help. But she only tells him what happened to him shortly before his suicide: That she couldn't answer his call before he plunged back into the water. It is slowly dawning on BoJack that he may never wake up again. While the tar is about to devour him, he ultimately finds peace on a completely dissimilar question: he asks Diane how her day went.

Attempting a cure?

You could be the end of BoJack Horseman describe as anti-climactic: He survives, is ultimately - in the usual cynicism of the series - sentenced for nullity and ends up in prison for two years. When he was released one day, he had last conversations with his former friends. It becomes clear that they have now distanced themselves greatly from BoJack and its toxicity. With this ending we are confronted with unresolved conflicts: Ultimately, we don't know anything about what will happen to BoJack or in which direction it will develop now. And strictly speaking, that was exactly what was clear from the start. Because the series never intended to present us with a happy ending or a fait accompli in any way.

Neither BoJack Horseman still Freud's theories take us by the hand and assure us that everything will be fine. The cultural pessimism accused of Freud finds its justification in his positivistic understanding of psychoanalysis as a kind of "basic science". And Freud's merciless sexism, who for years carried out questionable and even abusive treatments on his patients and in some cases also contributed to their traumatization, must be mentioned here. The theory of "penis envy", as Freud attests to women in his "Basic Science", must be criticized and rejected because it does not work historically and without a clearly defined concept of society. For this, historical facts such as the existence of a patriarchy would have to be analyzed and criticized, instead of locating an essentializing "penis envy" in being a woman itself. In his work, Herbert Marcuse, for example, provides an attempt to interpret Freud's cultural theory in the tradition of historical materialism and thus to point out the historicity - and thus also the changeability - of culture Drive structure and society. These critical approaches to Freud open up possibilities that go far beyond him. And right here comes too BoJack Horseman in the game.

The series doesn't want us to forgive its protagonist for his crimes. Drawing human abysses is her greatest strength And above all because in the end it always indicates the possibility of change. They are stories of trauma that, despite all the pulling and tugging, we never fully get a grip on. Because the look inside is bloodcurdling. Just like trauma, discomfort is also a place that words can barely grasp - the series circles this place ever more intensely, season after season.

And yet it can be stated that this trauma never means the end: Because the penultimate episode 11 - the catastrophe - follows episode 12, which never points to a final conclusion, but (at least as a possibility) in the direction of a new, self-determined future. How this future might look and what consequences have to be drawn is up to the audience. In a world that will inevitably traumatize us due to all the prevailing constraints, options for action open up at the same time: for example in therapy, in political organization or in building relationships. An optimistic look to the future cannot be hoping that the trauma will eventually go away or that we will get it driven out entirely. History cannot be rewritten. One has to try to understand them in order to be able to take their further course in hand. Or as our flagship pessimist Freud put it himself: "The program [...] to become happy cannot be fulfilled, but one must - no, one cannot - give up efforts to somehow bring it closer to fulfillment."5


1 Sigmund Freud: The discomfort in culture. Frankfurt am Main 1994, p. 42.

2 Trigger warning: drug and alcohol addiction, depression, psychosis, suicide, sexual abuse of minors, graphic representation of (near) murder, graphic representation of a near-death experience.

3 Sigmund Freud, quoted from: Klaus Theweleit: absolute (ly). Sigmund Freud Songbook. Freiburg 2006, p. 57.

4 Ibid., P. 58.

5 Sigmund Freud: The discomfort in culture. Frankfurt am Main 1994, p. 50.