Netflix’s “Bojack Horseman” is a masterful introspective satire of the seemingly-glamorous celebrity life, which focuses on the inner struggles of a few very distinct characters. Though the cartoonish show is disguised as a comedy and even goes to great lengths to seem light-hearted and fun by featuring a dozen of punchlines per episode, the actions of Bojack & co always have deeper meanings and unforeseen consequences. Without giving away any spoilers, it’s safe to say that “Bojack Horseman” is one big psychological analysis which sheds light on the question “How do different personality types (who also happen to live their lives in a superficial world that cherishes appearance more than essence) deal with their existential struggles?”.
With a protagonist who can best be described as a hedonistic existential nihilist who tries to better himself in relation to others, find real and self-fulfilling success, and ultimately accept himself for what he is in spite of his unrealistic expectations, the likeliness of inserting any political undertones seems pretty low. Most of the times, Bojack is shown as an immature 50-year old horse-human hybrid who unsuccessfully tries to detach himself from his unsatisfying (and somewhat tragic) past, in order to find a sense of self-acceptance and happiness.
As far as the leading character is concerned, the fourth season of the series focuses on personal issues and the gradual maturation of a rather irresponsible and self-destructive washed-up Hollywoo star.
However, three quarters of the season are market by the political campaign of the loveable and cheerful optimist Mr. Peanutbutter (voiced by Paul F. Tompkins). The anthropomorphic Canadian-born Labrador Retriever is shown running for the office of governor of the state of California, and this subplot seems to draw many influences from the real world (where, if I may remind you, a wealthy reality show host had become President of the United States despite lacking any political experience, and other celebrities who similarly lack formal training in the field have announced their intentions to run for office).
The season 4 trailer has already given us an insight on the populist and hollow agenda of Mr. Peanutbutter, as he makes a speech in which he clearly states that he is simultaneously on the side of facts and on the side of feelings (spoiler: in the third episode, it’s finally revealed that he’s referring to the issue of fracking). This subjective method of distorting reality is a direct reference to the era of alternative facts and fake news that we live in. But there’s a lot more to the story, and the wittiness of the depicted situations manages to ridicule today’s political landscape in a very smart way, without pointing fingers. Those who have been following American politics for the past 2 years will get every joke and reference, and somehow it’s a lot better to keep the humor at a subtle level.
But before moving on and digressing the main political moments from Mr. Peanutbutter’s impromptu political career, you should be warned that the next part of the article is filled with spoilers. They don’t directly intersect with Bojack’s existential issues (as a matter of fact, there is only one brief moment when our beloved anthropomorphic horse influences the events), but they provide much of the satirical humor from this fourth season. So if you haven’t finished watching the whole season (or at least the first 10 episodes), then you should stop reading here and return whenever you’re ready.
First of all, we are constantly reminded of Mr. Peanutbutter’s incompetence and lack of understanding of the political phenomena. In the last episode of season 12, he is visited by his ex-wife Katrina, and he is given the opportunity to run for governor of California. Given the dog character’s very enthusiastic nature and cheerfulness, he sees this proposal as a challenge which he never really tries to fully understand.
It’s clear that he’s a mere puppet whose likability and charming personality are meant to sugarcoat a series of rather shady and environmentally-unfriendly lobby groups, and it’s later revealed that Katrina’s initiative has financial reasons (she collected money from these lobbyists in exchange for a promise that she’d provide the dummy governor who would sign strategic bills that favor the big money). Furthermore, the first minute of episode one introduces us to the lucky and spontaneous way in which the Labrador Retriever became a sitcom actor: a situation that’s meant to point out that Mr. Peanutbutter never plans ahead and his whole life is the result of chaotic decisions. His political career is just as unpredictable as his debut in acting, and he treats both situations exactly the same way: without much care and with a goofy light-headedness which takes foreseeing and thinking ahead out of the question.
Conversely, Mr. Peanutbutter’s incompetence is contrasted by the experience and leadership skills of the incumbent governor, Woodchuck Couldchuck Berkowitz.
Though we initially root for the loveable Labrador and assume that he’s running against some crooked politician, we quickly learn that the seasoned professional has proper education to hold public office, is ready to propose a series of policy proposals that are meant to solve real problems, and desires to have a political campaign that’s based on real debates on existing issues.
Nobody has any arguments against the ethical or professional conduct of Mr. Woodchuck, so the objections are pointed towards what he is, rather than at his plans. When Mr. Peanutbutter realizes that he can’t even get enough signatures to run for office (because people aren’t convinced that he’s suitable for politics), he turns the contest into a celebrity showdown by using the media to pressure his opponent. The goal of the increasingly-narcissistic dog is that of taking away political debate from the electoral race and turning everything into a one-off sports event where the best skier gets appointed governor.
As stupid as it might sound, Mr. Peanutbutter and his former wife Katrina manage to draft an all-encompassing bill which changes the electoral system of the state of California, but also includes populist and rather unnecessary proposals that are influenced by the interests of wealthy lobbyists (the most ridiculous one involves spending money on a bridge from Hollywoo to Hawaii). Consequently, determining the next state governor according to the result of a ski race becomes the legally-required procedure.
This is only the first example where the concept of giving credit to popularity and trusting celebrities too much is being ridiculed, and it’s marvellous. However, in an unexpected turn of events, Todd Chavez crosses the finish line first and is ready to give his oath in order to be appointed into office (even though he wasn’t even part of the race and anybody in the audience could have done the same). This can be interpreted as both a far-fetched situation that’s meant to push the narrative forward and raise the tension of upcoming events, and a satire of the poor legislative abilities of bill drafters (and the incompetence of the Congress majority, which didn’t even take such situations into consideration when ratifying the bill).
But since the young former couch-crasher is in the middle of an existential crisis of his own, he immediately resigns and enables the election procedure to carry on, just as the confusing law seems to state. If, at first, the democratic elections have been replaced by a ski race, the unexpected outcome and the rather rational decision of the winner have turned the situation around. When a ski race is inconclusive, then the best way to determine the victor is by universal suffrage, right?
Mr. Peanutbutter really benefits from this unexpected situation, as he is now part of the electoral race without requiring the signatures.
Additionally, the lobbyists have managed to get their first sweet taste of success by passing an extensive bill whose added contents were conveniently eclipsed by Mr. Peanutbutter’s wacky idea for a fair race. Isn’t democracy wonderful when clueless and unqualified celebrities decide to become political actors?
From this point onwards, it becomes a full-fledged electoral war which, aside from addressing the controversial issue of fracking, is void of real policy-centered debates. It becomes really clear that Mr. Peanutbutter is a puppet candidate who doesn’t know what he’s doing and has all the characteristics of a lying demagogue. He even has moments when he appears void of conscience and seems willing to say anything that would make him popular and ultimately help him win the vote. For somebody as good-natured as the beloved Labrador Retriever, this dose of Machiavellianism may come as a surprise. But to him, being elected into office is just an extension of fame and celebrity. The responsibilities involved are never discussed, and it’s almost as if Mr. Peanutbutter sees the whole affair as another acting gig for which he always expects to receive the script.
At first, the Labrador was supposed to conduct a campaign that’s specifically tailored according to what’s popular in the polls. This is a direct parallel to the modern electoral strategies, that make politicians avoid supporting unpopular opinions. Instead, the political actors embrace populist stances that are void of meaning and solutions, but also make sure that their discourse is politically-correct. Every message is tailored and calculated for the sake of looking good in the polls and ensuring an easy election.
The factor that changes the predictable and straight-forwardness of the campaign is a stupid mistake by the ever-uncareful Todd Chavez, who gets fooled into signing a paper which suggests that Mr. Peanutbutter is a fracking supporter. For the first time in the electoral race, the Labrador Retriever is forced into standing for one of his views (even if it was determined by accident), so he agrees to allow fracking on his property.
The consequences of these reckless actions are shown in the 7th episode of the season, when the house of Mr. Peanutbutter and Diane is sucked underground during a campaign fundraiser. The consented fracking has caused a series of destructive earthquakes bury the dwelling deep beneath ground level, and dozens of celebrities attending the fundraising event get stuck in there. This is a very smart move on behalf of the writers, as the results of reckless policies are quickly turned against the clueless political candidate, and the newly-established isolation from the outside world temporarily creates an anarchic state of nature.
All the main characters are stuck inside the house, and wise decisions have to be made in order to insure a quick rescue from the outside world, whilst the food resources get managed properly. Incumbent governor Woodchuck Couldchuck gets inside the house and appears to have good intentions: he uses his animal side to dig an underground tunnel that would help take fundraiser participants back out, but the ground-shaking acoustic enthusiasm that Mr. Peanutbutter encourages destroys all hope. Furthermore, the hands of the governor get crushed – a situation that will play out a major role in the next few episodes.
Mr. Peanutbutter’s friends and supporters get stuck inside the house longer than expected, and for the first few days it’s Berkowitz’s smart management of food resources that keeps everyone alive and fed.
However, when Bojack Horseman demands that he should get a bigger portions and his Labrador Retriever friend stands for him, a mob rule is established and the new majoritarian will overthrows the sustainable-minded management of the governor.
If Woodchuck Couldchuck Berkowitz appears to have all the leadership skills and the ability to think and make decisions in the interest of the larger number, Mr. Peanutbutter is impulsive and favors his friends without thinking about the consequences. Correspondingly, the incumbent governor is an utilitarian, while the more likeable but incompetent Labrador Retriever has authoritarian ideas which he uses to arbitrarily make use of his power.
The events that follow are very reflective of contemporary politics: the more popular and appealing of the candidates, in spite of his lack of experience and competence to hold office, makes use of his celebrity in order to instate a bona fide mob rule. In political science terms, the crucified candidate is a democratic utilitarian, whilst Mr. Peanutbutter is an ochlocratic tyrant who just happens to possess the kind of charisma that makes him likeable.
Furthermore, the more or less metaphorical crucification of the experienced individual who professes in the name of facts and reason and his replacement with a likeable dummy presents the fragility of liberal democracies and how irrational charisma can stir hateful arguments against those who govern with knowledge and proper skills. Mob rule and the manipulation of masses against the elites is one of the main tools that authoritarian regimes have used against the establishment. The criticism doesn’t always have to be informed or based on documented facts: governor Berkowitz loses power in this micro democracy just because Mr. Peanutbutter is once again on the side of feelings and he briefly convinces everyone that everyone is entitled to consume as many food resources as he desires.
The irony is always strong in the universe of Bojack Horseman, and it’s somewhat satisfying to see how the ochlocracy quickly turns against the newly-established tyrant. As soon as the resources run short due to irrational consumption, it’s Mr. Peanutbutter’s ex-wife Jessica Biel who takes initiative and suggests that they should resort to cannibalism in order to survive. The former charismatic leader gets replaced due to bearing the burden of incompetent policy-making and having the unpopular opinion, and a new order it established on the same grounds that overthrew reason and facts.
It’s fascinating how such profound political ideas can be presented so light-heartedly and subtly by the producers of Bojack Horseman.
The subsequent events strengthen the idea of pure chaos. Mr. Peanutbutter, realizing that he’s a terrible leader and impulsive decision-maker whose endeavour in politics affects his marriage, withdraws from the race for governor. However, his spot is taken by the man-eating Jessica Biel, who doesn’t mind being a puppet for lobbyists herself.
Also, as a way of proving that politics is void of principles and anything can happen in a short amount of time, Mr. Peanutbutter starts endorsing his former opponent, Woodchuck Couldchuck Berkowitz. The Labrador’s influence and the incumbent governor’s policy proposals don’t have much impact on the constituency, though: the debate only revolves around the appearance of the candidates’ hands.
This is a very nice and subtle throwback to the GOP primaries from early 2016, when the media extensively covered a hand size-related feud between Marco Rubio and Donald Trump. In a nutshell, the Florida Senator has stated that the hands of the New York real estate billionaire were too small for a man of his size, and even implied a correlation between hand size and other matters. The current President had used the accusation in a televised debate to confront his opponent, and the situation escalated so much that plenty of media outlets have began to publish articles in which the hands of Donald Trump are thoroughly analyzed, compared, and scrutinized according to their size.
In the cartoonish world of Bojack Horseman, the factor that matters isn’t hand size, but their appearance. Governor Berkowitz had crushed his natural hands in an attempt to save the trapped celebrities who were attending Mr. Peanutbutter’s fundraiser, and had to find a new pair to allow him to perform his daily tasks. Unexpectedly, it turns out that the voters from California care much more about their candidates’ hands than about the policies that they propose. In a shallow world that glorifies appearance and cares much more about aesthetics than about essence, this makes perfect sense. However, it’s still ridiculous to see how the opinion polls change as Woodchuck Couldchuck switches between different pairs of hands. When he has claws, the voters seem to dislike him. But when he finally finds a fitting and functional pair, his leading position quickly returns.
Controversy is inserted into this wacky campaign when Katrina, Mr. Peanutbutter’s ex-wife and the campaign manager who represents lobbyist interests, undergoes further research on the origins of the new pair of hands and discovers that it was previously owned by a “pedophile slash murderer”. Clearly, the ideas and policy proposals are irrelevant when the state’s future governor wears the hands of a convicted criminal, and the state of doubt and uncertainty prevails until election day.
As Bojack tries to deal with his family issues and tries to reconcile with his past, televisions all around Hollywoo announce that Woodchuck Couldchuck Berkowitz had finally won the elections, thus putting an end to this season’s crazy and bumpy political angle. However, the pointless bridge from Hollywoo to Florida is still being mocked in the last episode, as a way of reminding us that political drama finds convenient conclusions, but the disastrous policy making remains there for the everyman to deal with.
Through Mr. Peanutbutter’s populist and hollow political campaign, “Bojack Horseman”, makes a bold statement about the ever-thinning line between the celebrity world and the realm of politics.
At first, it might appear that anyone who is influential among the masses and makes likeable statements is fit to govern. However, these people (the likes of Donald Trump, Kanye West, Kid Rock, and many others) are delusional and have a very narrow understanding of phenomena.
The political literature is very rich in the field of describing what governance implies and how leaders should be. In “Commentariolum Petitionis”, Quintus Tullius Cicero explains to his brother Marcus that the behavior employed during political campaigning is very different from the office holder’s decision-making process. However, a disappointing discrepancy between the two states can lead to a kind of bad reputation that not even efficient campaigning can fix, thus losing chances to be re-elected in office.
Furthermore, Machiavelli recommends political leaders to employ two different faces: the lion and the fox. The first implies facing issues and eliminating your political opponents through skill and force, whilst the latter is about deception and persuasion. Neither type should be employed for an extended time without alternation, as legitimacy is built on the unpredictability factor. Though the 16th century manuscript of “The Prince” refers to physical violence and legitimate murder, its contemporary adaptation should resort to the use of arguments. The lion should be the side that addresses issues fearlessly and in a straight-forward way for a greater purpose and when found in a position of power (being a lion isn’t just an attitude, but also a status), whilst the fox’s correspondent refers to the use of alternative means that are much more concerned with manipulation, deception, and remote coercion.
Even though Mr. Peanutbutter and Jessica Biel appear to be Machiavellian in the ways they try to get elected into office, their political personas are incomplete and mostly hollow. They don’t resort to the correct strategy that the Florentine political advisor suggests in his book and mostly lack the qualities that would make them serious contenders in politics. However, the constituency seems to be completely oblivious and indifferent in regards to public policy and real democratic debate, and their erratic and spectacle-oriented behavior isn’t just a criticism of Hollywood, but also an alarming sign that our democracy is on the verge of dissolving into an irrational ochlocracy or mob rule.
When a show like “Bojack Horseman”, which is mostly concerned with existential issues, chooses to satirize the political landscape and even portrays a situation where the decisions are made according to thoughtless passion, then we ought to think about the state that we find ourselves in. Our lack of universal political education and irrational way in which we made decisions in regards to our future should depress us much more than Bojack’s tragic story, as the future doesn’t look so great when we ditch experienced leaders just to fulfil irrational sentiments. Just because anyone can run for public office doesn’t mean that every candidate is qualified and should be taken seriously, and this is a flaw that we have to deal with in the near future. And just like in the case of Mr. Peanutbutter’s house, we’re consuming a limited amount of resources and have privileged houseguests who can break rules just because of their status.