There’s never been a show like “BoJack Horseman.” The Netflix series, which took its final bow on January 31, defied easy categorization from day one with its anthropomorphic reimagining of Hollywoo(d), sharp turns into existential melancholy, cutting jokes, and embrace of all things strange and poignant. It told the interweaving stories of five lost souls — BoJack (Will Arnett), Diane (Alison Brie), Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins) and Todd (Aaron Paul) — and the many lives they touched. By its bittersweet end, “BoJack Horseman” represented the best and most ambitious of this decade in television, taking apart timely issues and its characters’ innermost demons with the kind of consideration that remains all too rare.
After writing about “BoJack Horseman” since its beginning, I chose 10 episodes I felt show the series at its best and most representative, and asked creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg to walk me through the process of making them. The following is an edited and condensed version of our lengthy conversation (complete with SPOILERS for the final season and episode of “BoJack Horseman” — proceed at your own risk!).
Season 1, Episode 11: “Downer Ending” (written by Kate Purdy, dir. Amy Winfrey)
BoJack procrastinates writing by going on an epic bender, complete with symbolic visions and hallucinations in different animation styles.
Raphael Bob-Waksberg: I feel like in the first season of any show, there are episodes that feel like a big stepping up moment…and “Downer Ending” is the ultimate example of a big step up in terms of a mission statement for what the show was and could be, and the kinds of stories we wanted to tell.
On our first day of talking about it, Kate [Purdy] brought in this thick, old book about ancient dreams and visions, and I was like, “wow, you’re definitely the right person to write this episode!” She came at it with a seriousness that I was not expecting and imbued it with so much. So the episode worked because of what she brought to it, and also on the visual side, what Amy [Winfrey] and the animators brought to it.
By design, I wanted “BoJack” to feel like a real, grounded show despite having wacky talking animals getting into humorous escapades. I was worried that people would think it was too “cartoony,” so at the beginning I had a loose rule that I didn’t want to see fantasy sequences or hear inner dialogue…and then in relaxing the rules for this episode, it kind of opened up a completely different way of thinking about the show for me. And I think the animators were also thrilled to have that freedom to go for broke. It gave us a runway for future episodes to continue exploring that kind of visual storytelling.
Season 2, Episode 7: “Hank After Dark” (written by Kelly Galuska, dir. Amy Winfrey)
In an episode that dropped in 2015, Diane reminds the public that a beloved comedian has multiple sexual harassment allegations against him, tries to hold him accountable, and ultimately fails.
RBW: Some people thought “wow, they really predicted Bill Cosby!” Other people thought “wow, they’re really reacting to that Bill Cosby thing!” The truth was probably somewhere in the middle. We were in some ways reacting to some of the stories we’d heard about Cosby and other celebrities, but we were not anticipating that the Bill Cosby story was going to blow open in such a huge way as we were making the episode.
Our show is a showbiz satire. So one of the things for us to keep track of was, what’s happening in our industry and what needs to be satirized? We didn’t just want to do it in a glib, easy way (though we’re very fond of being glib and easy as well). But every season we talked about, “what is going on right now, and what are some of the problems that need to be exposed or discussed? What about the hypocrises of this industry that are maybe less obvious, that other Hollywood satires aren’t touching quite as much?” So the way in which — well, “problematic” men feels like letting them off the hook, so actually, the way in which violent, terrible criminals are let off the hook in our industry felt like something that was not being discussed as much as it should’ve been.
Caroline Framke: As you continued to tell these stories about Bad Men in the industry going forward, how did you approach to them change, given how the industry was reacting to it all in real time?
RBW: As you see in later seasons, we felt that the best way to keep the story interesting, and also honest, was to turn the magnifying glass onto BoJack himself. If we tried to do another episode involving another guest star, it would’ve felt like we were repeating ourselves…[like] “look at this bad guy we’re bringing in for one episode and then say goodbye to him!” That, in a way, feels easier.
Season 2, Episode 11: “Escape from L.A.” (written by Joe Lawson, dir. Amy Winfrey)
BoJack skips town to visit an old flame in New Mexico, before getting tangled up with her teenage daughter Penny (Ilana Glazer) and crossing the line.
RBW: There was a lot of conversation about “how bad do we want BoJack to be in this episode? Is there a point of no return, are we concerned that we’re going to lose some of our audience over this? Are we pushing these characters too far into the realm of the unforgivable?” And also, “what are the mechanics? What is he doing, what are we seeing, what is the story, how does it operate?”
The original plan was just BoJack searching for the one who got away, he’d have an affair with her, and then she’d feel bad about it and send him away. Then we were like, “what if there’s a misdirect where it seems like he’s going to sleep with the daughter instead?” And then: “what if he does?”
There’s this thing in writers rooms where you’re always pitching the darkest story you’re never going to do…like, “can you imagine if the protagonist of our show tried to sleep with a 17 year old girl? What kind of show would do that? That would just be crazy, right? We would never — right?” But then it became, “What if we are that show? What would that look like?” And once the idea was out there, it felt kind of cowardly not to go down that road. (Also, I realized that the other plot was literally just the Adam Sandler movie “Funny People.”)
We knew we weren’t going to feel all the ramifications of it immediately, that they were going to linger over the show…[so] we were continually reminding the audience that the ramifications on BoJack and the world he left behind in New Mexico are lingering. We knew that if we did this thing, we couldn’t pretend it didn’t happen. Our audience wouldn’t stand for that — and for the show we’d built up to that point, it wouldn’t have been consistent.
Season 3, Episode 6: “Brrap Brrap, Pew Pew” (written by Joanna Calo, dir. Amy Winfrey)
Diane decides to get an abortion, but mistakenly tweets “I’m getting an abortion!” from the account of her pop star client, Sextina Aquafina.
RBW: In the last 5 years, abortion no longer feels like as rare a thing to discuss [on TV]. But at the time, I remember feeling like most stories about abortion were about teenage girls who don’t know what to do and can’t afford to have a baby, who almost have to be too sympathetic to justify the abortion. Politically, we wanted to tell the story of a woman who’s very comfortable financially and in an (arguably) stable relationship who wants to have an abortion because she doesn’t want to have kids — and that’s enough of a reason.
I think that’s the story of a lot of abortions, and we live in a country where abortion is the law of the land, and should be legal…I don’t think you need to dramatically make excuses for why that woman deserves to have an abortion. I wanted [the episode] to be somewhat straightforward, but then you ask yourself, “what is the story? Where’s the conflict coming from?” So we made an episode less about abortion and more about how people talk about abortion, and how it’s portrayed and discussed in the media.
Joanna [Calo] did a lot of research, talked to abortion providers, and put a lot of thought into what is the message we want to give and the responsible way to send it, so it doesn’t feel too glib, while at the same time having the same “silly fuck you” energy that our show is known for.
Season 3, Episode 11: “That’s Too Much, Man” (written by Elijah Aron & Jordan Young; dir. By J.C. Gonzalez)
BoJack and Sarah Lynn (Kristen Schaal), his former costar/child star, go on a bender complete with rolling blackouts that ends in Sarah Lynn’s death by overdose.
RBW: J.C. [Gonzalez] was very excited at the time to get his own drug trip episode, and I was like, “yes, though this is less of a ‘fun wacky drug trip’ than ‘harrowing drug binge.’” He did an amazing job, from the Disney Princess opening, to the comedy of the rolling blackout structure, to the harrowing darkness of the last act. Visually, it’s an exciting episode, and gorgeously written, with such a smart structure.
I think I always knew that [Sarah Lynn was going to die] eventually, depending on how long the show lasted. It’s heavily foreshadowed in her first appearance, and it was more of a question of when. We talked about doing it in season 1, but it felt too soon. Then we talked about doing it in season 2, but we had Herb [Kazazz, BoJack’s old friend] die, and we were like, “we can’t have two of them die, it would feel redundant”…then as we were talking about season 3, it felt like it was the right time. We’d built [Sarah Lynn’s story] up enough, but also let it recede enough into the background that people weren’t necessarily expecting it.
CF: This is also one of your first, pivotal episodes that more meaningfully engages with what it means to be sober, and relapse. How were you talking about BoJack’s addiction in the beginning versus in the end?
RBW: I mean, so much of this show is just a big joke at first. And then the longer we looked at it, we had to figure out what to take more seriously and what we could get story out of. Because we’d established the show as being in a somewhat cartoon universe, but also having a grounded cause and effect, the joy and the freedom of doing the show was that it’s elastic. But the more we lived in this world, the more [his addiction] felt like a serious thing we had to deal with.
I think when we first pitched this episode, Netflix was nervous because they felt like, after this episode, BoJack had to get sober. Story-wise, we weren’t ready for that…he definitely should get sober, but lots of people come this close to death and don’t necessarily take the steps they need to take in order to get better.
Season 4, Episode 9: “Ruthie” (written by Joanna Calo, dir. Amy Winfrey)
Princess Carolyn’s descendant Ruthie (Kristen Bell) tells a story about one of Carolyn’s worst days, when she miscarries for the fifth time. At the episode’s end, we learn that Ruthie is just a hopeful figment of Carolyn’s imagination.
RBW: My memory of making that episode is the table read, which was devastating. Multiple people cried — but that was also because it was the morning after the 2016 election. We were all going in “we have to read a script today?!” Nobody was in the mood. Everyone was just looking at their hands like, “what is the future? What is the country we’re living in? Anyway, let’s read this fun cartoon show!” And then the episode is just, a real bummer! So it didn’t get a lot of laughs, but it was definitely very emotional.
I never knew how deep we were going with any of the characters in the beginning. I knew by the end of the first season that the show may be more serious than it seemed at first, but every step of the way, we’ve been encouraged by the performances the actors were giving us. Every season of the show, there’s stuff I never would’ve tried because I didn’t think we could get away with it, but then every time you give Amy, or Will, or Paul, or Aaron, or Alison an emotional monologue, they can handle it, and they elevate it. By the time we got to this episode, there was no question that Amy could handle whatever we threw at her.
Season 5, Episode 3: “Planned Obsolescence” (Written by Elijah Aron, dir. Aaron Long)
Todd’s girlfriend Yolanda (Natalie Morales) tries to hide their shared asexuality from her parents; Mr. Peanutbutter and twentysomething waitress Pickles (Hong Chau) get closer; BoJack encourages his costar/girlfriend Gina (Stephanie Beatriz) to follow her singing dreams.
RBW: I’m excited this is on your list. I think it’s worth talking about “what are the big standout episodes,” but sometimes I get a little uncomfortable in those conversations because I want every episode to be somebody’s favorite. Yes, there are times when we’re breaking the season when you put a card up on the whiteboard and you know that’s an episode people will be talking about. And then we have other episodes that are just making sure we’re moving the stories along — and those are just as hard, if not harder, to break and write.
Season 5, I think we did the best job of any season of juggling the episodic with the serialized, of making each episode feel special. “Planned Obsolescence” is a beautiful example. There’s a thematic resonance, and it all takes place over one night, which gives it a feeling of compactness. It’s also a spiritual sequel to season 2’s “After the Party,” with that same kind of idea behind it of exploring three relationships.
The additional twist of this episode, which is a little subtle, is the idea that we’re exploring these stories through the eyes of these three women who are guest stars. That was somewhat inspired by the “Mad Men” episode “The Beautiful Girls,” which does a similar thing with Faye, Peggy, and Joan, where you realize it’s about how these three women approach the world. “Planned Obsolescence” doesn’t necessarily aspire to have the same kind of thematic weight, but it’s about the expectations when you’re in a relationship, and how you gird yourself against disappointment, and what are the compromises with yourself throughout? So thematically, I think it’s a very strong episode, and that’s what gives it some of its power even though we’re using three disconnected stories.
Season 5, Episode 6: “Free Churro” (written by Raphael Bob Waksberg, dir. Amy Winfrey)
In the episode that earned the show its first Emmy nomination for Best Animated Program, BoJack gives a eulogy for his mother in one uninterrupted 25-minute monologue.
RBW: Back in season 3, [the largely silent episode] “Fish Out of Water” was a big risk and departure for us that had me leaving my comfort zone a little bit, since I very much think in terms of dialogue…and “Free Churro,” of course, was the opposite. It was like, “now that everyone appreciates how beautiful and clever our animation is, can we strip away the incredibly dynamic camera work, the animal gags, the establishment shots, and solely rely on dialogue?”
But then the question is, how do you justify it? A funeral felt like it had the weight to carry the episode, and while every season it feels like we have someone to build a funeral around, at this particular point, it felt like we had a juicy relationship to explore.
So we did a couple things: we watched a episode of “Maude” with her just talking to a therapist for a full episode…and while writing [“Free Churro”], it was very helpful for me to think about it in terms of A/B/C stories so it’s not just this stream of consciousness thing. What are the reveals that I’m building to? What are the realizations that BoJack has? What’s changing in this episode? The most important thing for drama, as far as I’m concerned, is the idea of change. If the episode ends, and it feels like you could just play it again because the characters are all exactly where they were before, that to me feels like a wasted episode.
What gave me the confidence to do this episode was that I was writing a book of short stories at the time…and in the process, I’d done stage performances of readings by different actors, some of which were 20-25 minutes. So I knew I could write a 25 minute story that could hold the audience’s attention. But even then, we never quite knew if it was going to work, and had the backup plan of flashing back to some of the stories he’s describing “Drunk History” style…but then we did the table read, and Will read the whole thing, and it was like, “oh, we’re done.” We could’ve just filmed him doing the table read and had an incredibly compelling episode. He brought everything to life in such a beautiful way.
Season 6, Episode 8: “A Quick One, While He’s Away” (written by Raphael Bob Waksberg, dir. Amy Winfrey)
We check in with various women that BoJack’s affected over the years, including his sister Hollyhock (Aparna Nancherla), while a pair of reporters (Paget Brewster and Max Greenfield) chase down Penny, the teen he almost slept with.
RBW: Every time we talked about how we’d have reporters on the trail we were like, “this story is really heavy, there’s not a lot of comedy here.” Giving them this screwball comedy sheen, and the referential way their characters act, allows that storyline to be a little more buoyant. Paget Brewster is a delight in this episode, as is Max Greenfield. They bring a very different kind of energy to the show that was a blast to write.
[But] I think “collateral damage” is a great way to describe this episode about all the people hurt by BoJack, who he or the audience has maybe forgotten about. And again, I liked the challenge of doing an episode without any of our regulars in it, or even mentioned by name. At one point we had characters passing a poster for “Birthday Dad” and I asked if we could obscure Mr. Peanutbutter’s face.
So we kinda took a look back and thought, which characters do we want to revisit, which characters can we tell interesting stories about?
I always like setting up expectations, even subconscious ones, about how certain stories are going to resolve and what they’re even about. So with the Hollyhock story, we were playing with the idea of teasing if we were telling the story of her nervousness, her trepidation around drinking alcohol, and the reveal is that actually, it’s also a setup for this whole other conversation about the collateral damage of BoJack Horseman.
Season 6, Episode 11: “The View From Halfway Down” (written by Alison Tafel, dir. Amy Winfrey)
After relapsing and falling into his old pool, BoJack enters a comatose dream state.
RBW: Fun fact: The reason this episode is called “The View From Halfway Down” is because at the beginning of this season, I realized that we had an episode titles that began with every letter of the alphabet, except for six (G, K, N, Q, V, X). I wanted to hit every letter of the alphabet, for no other reason than it’s be a fun challenge, and the last one was V. So when we thought about what poem was going to be read in the episode, I mentioned to Alison that it should be called “The View From Halfway Down,” which became the idea for how we thought about this episode: what it means to have a view from halfway down and how your perspective changes. All because I wanted to use the letter V!
This episode started with the idea of BoJack having a dream of a dinner party with all the characters who had died, and just having a conversation…but as the story of the season came together and we realized that BoJack was going to relapse, we knew we could tell a much heavier story, and have it be about BoJack coming to terms with his own mortality. We could actually talk about death in a very serious way. And because the show was ending, there was some real danger there in a way that there wouldn’t have been if you knew the show had already been picked up; it would’ve taken the stakes out of it. Not knowing if BoJack was going to make it out alive seemed like a fun thing to play with — though maybe “fun” isn’t the right word.
It’s the penultimate episode, so we figured, let’s put our foot on the gas and ram it through the floor of the car. It does turn very scary, but I think it’s more existentially horrifying in the conversation about death.
I don’t remember considering the possibility that BoJack would be dead…I know that it’s something people are anticipating, and I do like going right up that idea and exploring it. But as a storyteller, I felt like ending the show there was never something that was interesting to me. Originally, we were even going to end this episode with him waking up so you’d know he wasn’t dead…but I didn’t want to break the reality of this episode, which has BoJack in this state.
There’s a risk that some people will watch this and think the finale is a retcon that’s leaning away from the bleakness. I anticipate that reaction, but I still feel like this is a more interesting way to tell the story than to resolve everything in this episode. I like leaving people with the thought of the emptiness before clicking “play” on the next episode.
Although, there are people who work on the show who have asked me if the final episode is real, and if he died. Which is not necessarily an ambiguity I was thinking about what when we were writing it, but people are going to interpret it the way they’re going to interpret it! If that’s what your takeaway is, well, alright. What does that mean for you?
The entire run of “BoJack Horseman” is now available to stream on Netflix.