“BoJack Horseman” and the way fiction can help peopleFeb 9, 2020
Back in December of 2017, I was suicidally depressed. Depression had been a big part of my life for a while, but by that point all I could think about was my way out. I couldn’t help but come up with a plan, a date, and a list of conditions that, if not met by that date, I’d execute the plan. One night, for some reason, I had a strange moment of clarity about what was happening to me and I called the suicide hotline.
I felt like such a fraud on the phone. If I was calling a suicide hotline, that meant I wanted help, which meant I didn’t really want to die; at best, I didn’t want to live, which isn’t the same as wanting to die. I can see how silly that is now, but at the time, I was scared of being called out for my hypocrisy. Regardless, I called and, on their advice, drove to my local psychiatric hospital’s emergency room and spent most of the day there, being interviewed by various nurses and doctors. They told me they considered admitting me for a few weeks, which I would have agreed to, but ultimately decided I should be part of the outpatient program. They set me up with a psychiatrist, started me off with a prescription for new antidepressants and encouraged me to find another therapist. I’d been on various antidepressants for years and tried a lot of different therapists, but I felt like I needed to approach this optimistically. At the very least, I’d now done my due diligence. If I could walk away from the suicide hotline’s advice, the last line of defence, and still want to off myself, I knew I’d be able to rest peacefully, content in the knowledge that I hadn’t half-assed the decision.
But it worked. Probably because they came from a psychiatrist rather than a GP like my other meds, the new antidepressants were far and away the most effective I’ve ever had and, whether it’s because of the benefits of my new meds or just the luck of the draw, I connected instantly with my new therapist. The last two years have been good to me. I’ve got a long ways to go and I’ve run into some setbacks, but I can honestly say this is the happiest I’ve been in my whole life. I owe that, of course, to the wonderful mental health professionals who helped me, but, a part of me wants to give some credit to BoJack Horseman.
When I was in the depths of my depression, BoJack helped me understand myself in ways I don’t think I would have without it. For example, I remember thinking one day about how BoJack has a tendency to overthink the consequences of his actions, and assume that the worst possible thing will happen, and I was trying to figure out why. Until I realized that I do the same thing. I think depressives are filled with such self-loathing, and consequently spend so much time thinking about themselves, they develop a weird sort of narcissism. Whereas people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder tend to think of themselves as exceptionally talented or gifted, depressives tend to think of themselves as exceptionally bad, so any bad actions they take must lead to catastrophic events, and even innocuous actions will probably manage to fuck something up anyway. It’s an odd thing to spend so much of your life in self-loathing and then decide you need to work on managing your own self-importance, but I’ve been trying to keep in mind lately that most of my actions aren’t even memorable, let alone disastrous or capable of making multiple people hate me. Other people just don’t think about me as much or as critically as I do, so I don’t need to walk on eggshells around them. It’s still hard for me to know when I genuinely screw up and when my shitty brain is making me think that what I did is worse than it really was, but that’s something I’ll have to keep working on.
Now that I’m more emotionally stable, BoJack Horseman mainly serves as a reminder of how far I’ve come and, sometimes, how far I still have to go. In the final batch of episodes, released last Friday, a character makes an offhand remark about how he had been suicidal but held off from committing the act because the Knicks were having a good season. When asked what he would have done if they’d been having a bad season, he nonchalantly responds, “I don’t know. Gotten into baseball?” It’s a funny line, and the scene moves on quickly without dwelling on it, but it resonated with me in a way the show hadn’t for the last two years. I don’t think, before hearing that line, I’d realized how tightly I’d held on to my insecurity over calling the suicide hotline. At the root of it is something that the show touches on elsewhere in this recent half-season: people’s insecurity over whether their damage is sufficient enough to justify the ways it’s affected them. A part of me still believed that the fact that I reached out for help meant I wasn’t properly depressed enough to need that help, and all the improvements I’ve made over the last two years were predicated on a lie. But that brief moment, that acknowledgement that even people in the darkest pits of depression can and should latch on to any reason to keep living, made me feel better. It comforted me on an insecurity I’d otherwise be too scared to mention to anyone, and made me feel less alone, because if these writers were able to pinpoint exactly what I’d been feeling, then I can’t have been the only one feeling it. It was a feeling that the show had managed to stir in me many times before, but I was amazed at its ability to still do so when I was out of the deepest parts of my depression. It’s such an insignificant, throwaway line, but it’s a perfect distillation of what BoJack Horseman is to me: funny, comforting, and deeply insightful.
I don’t want this blog to come across as too sad sack-y. Like I said before, I’m doing well these days. But the show ending has, admittedly, put me in a very melancholic mood, so I wanted to take a minute to reflect on what it’s meant to me, and say goodbye. I’m really gonna miss this stupid horse show.
My Thoughts on Dead Rising 2, 3 & 4Dec 26, 2019
This is a companion piece to my GBAtemp Recommends article on Dead Rising. I wanted to talk about each game in the series but that article would have been too long, so I decided to move that discussion over here in case anyone was curious.
Dead Rising 2 (and Spinoffs)
For Dead Rising 2, development shifted from Capcom’s internal Japan studio to Blue Castle Games (bought out and renamed Capcom Vancouver after Dead Rising 2’s successful launch). The influence of a Western developer is clear here, but Keiji Inafune and the core Japan team stayed in constant contact with Blue Castle throughout development, allowing it to retain the gameplay’s quirky humour. The script, however, seems to be mostly Blue Castle’s work and its unevenness slows down the momentum considerably.
The biggest difference between the two games are their protagonists. Frank West never had the strongest personality, but he always felt like a real person, which made it all the funnier to see him in a cutscene dressed as Mega Man. Dead Rising 2’s protagonist, Chuck Greene, is a more traditional American action hero, no-nonsense and hard-faced. The rest of the world around Chuck has its ridiculousness amped up to 11, which does create some fun moments, but since it’s contrasted with Chuck’s severely nonplussed reactions to everything, there’s nothing grounded to make the absurdity pop. Worse yet it is the one-note and immature humour of some of the characters, such as the scantily-clad, breathy twins whose every line of dialogue is an attack on Chuck’s sexuality or masculinity. There’s nothing inherently wrong with jokes like that, especially in a series like Dead Rising, but the relentlessness and sophomoric nature of it makes the gag wear out its welcome quickly.
Dead Rising 2 still nails the humour in its smaller moments, however. There are some fun survivors out there, like the warring stand-up comedians who won’t return to the safe house with you until you award one of them with a comedy trophy (the loser will take some convincing, or even payment, to follow you to safety) and you’re once more supplied with a litany of ridiculous weapons and costumes (though, again, the fun of the silly costumes is diminished somewhat by the cutscenes already being so aggressively silly). It’s really just more of what worked in Dead Rising.
Aside from the combo weapons, gameplay changes in Dead Rising 2 are mainly relegated to fixing problems from the first one. Thankfully, the survivor AI has been drastically improved, perhaps teetering towards being so easy to care for that they can be pretty much ignored, but it’s hard to complain about given the disastrous AI in the original. Getting mission-related calls no longer stops you from acting, and it’s easier to check the time and your quest log. The map isn’t as effective as the Willamette Mall (Dead Rising 2 is set in a casino resort and too many of the areas are dominated by rows upon rows of slot machines), but this is mitigated somewhat later in the game by the inclusion of vehicles in certain areas that make it easier to get around. Online co-op was also added in a very straightforward, simple way. The second player just plays another Chuck, they don’t appear in cutscenes and don’t keep any progress, just latching on to the story file of the main player. Still, for a game where a lot of the enjoyment comes from exploring and making your own fun, it’s always nice to have someone else there to show off to.
The other spinoff was Dead Rising 2: Off the Record, a “What If?” scenario imagining what would happen if Frank West was the star of Dead Rising 2. Blue Castle’s version of Frank is more egotistical and wisecrack-y than Capcom’s, more annoyed than terrified by the outbreak, but it works given the character’s history. T.J. Rotolo is always welcome in the role, and giving the main character an energy that’s closer to the manic world helps the comedy play a little better. Besides that, there are a few new survivors and psychopaths, some quality of life improvements, the re-introduction of the photography system and a new space theme park area. It’s the superior version of Dead Rising 2, but not enough has changed to make playing both versions worth it.
Dead Rising 3 & 4
Shortly after Dead Rising 2’s launch, series producer Keiji Inafune quit Capcom. It’s unclear how much guidance there was from Capcom’s internal Japan team moving forward, but Dead Rising 3 feels remarkably different than previous entries, and Inafune’s absence is felt. (Inafune himself said, very diplomatically, in a 2013 interview that Dead Rising 3 was “not the game [he] would have made.”). Immediately upon its reveal as an Xbox One launch title in 2013, there was fan outcry over the dismal brown and grey aesthetic, both for not being Dead Rising and for seeming like a relic of the previous generation.
Reactions softened after release, but ultimately this wasn’t the game Dead Rising fans were looking for. Between its drearier tone, near-removal of the timer, and unintuitive map, most of Dead Rising’s identity had been stripped. Set in the town of Los Perdidos, players are faced with a larger map and none of the landmarks that made the first two maps so memorable. Due to the burned-out husks of cars, dilapidated buildings and fires raging throughout the city, everything looks the same and with its constant turns and narrow streets, it’s impossible to get any sense of direction or know where you’re going without constantly checking your map. Vehicles are given a bigger emphasis this time to accommodate the bigger space, but you’re under little threat while driving so moving from point A to point B becomes tedious rather than a tense survival experience.
The game would be a total slog to get through if it weren’t for the combo vehicles. Dead Rising 3 lets you weld together vehicles if you can get them back to garages found around the city. It’s similar to the combo weapon system in that some are only good for the one-time novelty of it, but also in that once you find one that works, the simple joy of mowing down zombies with it never goes away. Combo vehicles were the only meaningful addition this time around and it seems much of the game was designed around them, but the joys of ploughing through a horde of zombies on a motorbike with a steamroller attached to the front doesn’t quite make up for the shortcomings in almost every other department. It’s not just that Dead Rising 3 doesn’t feel like Dead Rising; it feels so watered down that it could almost be anything.
It’s an odd move to return to the beginning of the series’ roots while also fundamentally changing the series, and it ends up feeling like a hollow gesture to appease longtime fans (just look at the way the advertising blared “FRANK IS BACK” to hype up series loyalists). Frank doesn’t look much like himself and, worst of all, T.J. Rotolo wasn’t asked to return to voice Frank, rendering him completely unrecognizable. The new actor does a fine job but if you’re trying to bank on your fan’s love for the character, replacing the actor is complete self-sabotage. It’s a shame because the script actually serves Frank quite well. He’s suffering from PTSD and uses an abrasive sense of humour to keep people at a distance, but the façade breaks whenever he’s forced to confront what happened to him at Willamette. It’s a clever way of reconciling the relatable, human Frank of Dead Rising with the boisterous Frank of Dead Rising 2: Off the Record, even if it’s not terribly original for horror-comedy protagonists. A lot of the comedy suffers from the immaturity that’s always been a part of Blue Castle’s writing with the series, but grounding Frank’s jokes in something so human produces real laughs and as such, Dead Rising 4 is probably the most successful of any of Blue Castle’s scripts.
Where Dead Rising 4 falls apart is the gameplay. Again being set in a whole city, it suffers from the same map issues as its predecessor, but without the freshness of combo vehicles to soften the blow. New this time around are robotic exo-suits Frank can pilot, offering easy transportation and mass zombie slaying abilities. They’re fun, but the issue is that they’re just found in the map rather than being assembled, robbing you of the sense of improv that comes from building a combo vehicle from materials on-hand. The combat and inventory systems were also overhauled, becoming more complicated with the goal of allowing you to switch between items more fluidly, but in tense situations it can leave you scrambling to find what you’re looking for, especially given the way the combo weapon system trains you to load your inventory with items that might be useless on their own but useful later on.
With the shuttering of Capcom Vancouver in 2018, the future of the Dead Rising series isn’t looking good. We’ve seen Capcom revive dormant series before (Devil May Cry V from earlier this year stands out), but the question is if Dead Rising has the fan backing for a revival to make sense. Even at its most popular, the series was highly divisive, with plenty of people respecting the premise and openness but being completely unable to get past the restrictive timer. Fans haven’t been excited by the series since Inafune left (they also likely wouldn’t be excited if he returned given the way his reputation has tanked since going independent) and attempts to broaden the series’ appeal only upset existing fans rather than creating new ones. As much as I hate to say it, Dead Rising got more chances than it probably deserved, and it might be best if it stayed dead.
My Top 10 TV Shows of the DecadeDec 20, 2019
So I’ve been reflecting on the decade and, I don’t think I’m the first person to make this observation, there’s been a lot of good TV lately, so I wanted to take some time to talk about my favourite shows and hopefully spread the word if you haven’t heard of some of these shows.
Two quick notes before we begin: every show on my list is a comedy. Comedy is particularly hard to talk about since it’s so subjective, so I’ve mostly focused on the aspects outside of the comedy that make these shows work, while also hopefully giving a sense of the humour by including a clip or discussing the character dynamics. But, in case I don’t mention it in my review of the show, I’ll make a blanket statement here: these shows are very funny, each and every one of them having doubled me over in laughter and forcing me to pause so I can compose myself at one point or another.
Most of the shows on my list have also concluded their runs. It wasn’t a rule or anything, but it’s much easier to connect with a show that’s been around longer and been able to tell its entire story. So while I might think the first two seasons of, say, Succession are better than the first two seasons of Silicon Valley, I have a much more immediate connection to Silicon Valley right now because it’s been with me longer and I have some closure on it that I don’t with Succession.
Honorable Mentions: Ash vs. Evil Dead, Barry, Baskets, Better Call Saul, Big Mouth, Breaking Bad, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Corporate, Fargo, The Good Place, The Jinx, Joe Pera Talks With You, Louie, Rick and Morty, Succession, Under the Dome, Veep
10. Catastrophe [Channel 4; 4 seasons; 2015-2019]
Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s unassuming little romantic comedy works because of its brutal honesty. After a one night stand leads to an accidental pregnancy, Rob and Sharon decide to get engaged and see if they can make their family work. There’s never any pretence that this is love at first sight or that what they’re doing isn’t crazy, even from Rob and Sharon, who are constantly joking about how little they know each other. But they’re also not just miserable and chained together; they’re two people who love each other, even if they’re not comfortable saying it yet, who have their own reasons for wanting to do their best at starting a family. It’s a romantic comedy freed from the tropes that so often hold the genre back, like the misunderstandings or contrived circumstances that get in the way of the relationship. Instead, Catastrophe draws a realistic, three-dimensional portrait of two people and shows how they complement each other, how they don’t, how they work through the times they aren’t compatible and why their relationship is worth fighting for.
9. Vice Principals [HBO; 2 seasons; 2016-2017]
I love a good villain, and Walton Goggins’s Lee Russell is a goddamn great one. Vice Principals does a lot of things right, but the credit for taking it from a good show to a great show rests squarely on the shoulders of this manipulative, cowardly, sadistic little man. He’s the kind of guy that will offer to get you a coffee so he can spit in it; the kind of guy who’ll call the cops on an annoying neighbour, then not being able to stop himself from watching from the window, singing to himself with pride about how tough he is for handling the situation. Goggings brings such a passion to the character, playing every emotion as big as he can without chewing the scenery. Because that’s the thing: Lee never feels one-dimensional or fake. What we know of his upbringing explains how he became the way he is, and depictions of his home life show a man who feels powerless and put-upon, regardless of how valid those feelings are. None of it comes close to redeeming him, but it grounds the character and stops his bigger moments from breaking the reality of the show’s world. He’s such a perfect role for a character actor like Goggins to play. He’s quick-witted and manipulative, very performative, always trying to win people over with superficial charm, and just the right combination of pathetic, cowardly and depraved that he stays fun to hate, instead of just hateful.
8. Silicon Valley [HBO; 6 seasons; 2014-2019]
The tech industry is fertile ground for parody, so it’s surprising not many shows have jumped in with both feet to tackle the subject like Silicon Valley has. What’s unsurprising is that the show is co-created by Mike Judge, who already tackled similar subject matter back in Office Space. It won’t win any points for subtlety, but Silicon Valley’s satire is cutting and vicious, while still allowing room for character work and story. Focusing on a small start-up with a revolutionary compression algorithm, it’s a rare show that can make computer programming and start-up businesses exciting, but Silicon Valley employs various corporate capers as the team tackles various legal and inter-personal issues that threaten their company time and time again.
It’s got some major issues that hold it back. It hits the reset button about halfway through its third season, and again about halfway through the fourth season, which kill pretty much all the momentum it’s built up to that point. The fifth season shows some progress, but not any further than we’ve already been before the first reboot, so it isn’t until the sixth and final season that they can resolve this issue. To its credit, the sixth season is very good, opening with the start-up’s CEO testifying in front of congress about data privacy and corporate overreach, signifying that the scrappy start-up is big enough that the show can now more comfortably parody corruption by large corporations like Facebook or Google. It also has a clever storyline that addresses the show’s over-reliance on two particular character pairings, then doesn’t pair those characters together again until the finale, and also addresses the underuse of the female characters on the show, although it’s a little too close to the finish line (especially when season six is the shortest season) for it to have much impact.
Despite how much the show stays in its comfort zone, it never compromises on its humour. It’s a master of the creative vulgarity loved by so many HBO shows, and is endlessly quotable as a result. It also has one of the strongest comedy casts on TV, with Zach Woods deserving particular attention for his work as Jared Dunn, one of the funniest and most strangely compelling characters of the last decade.
7. Brockmire [IFC; 3 seasons; 2017-present]
Brockmire started life as a Funny or Die sketch, casting Hank Azaria as a disgraced baseball announcer who goes on an expletive-filled tirade in the booth after finding out his wife is cheating on him. The series picks up several years after that incident as Brockmire decides it’s time to re-start his announcing career, starting at a small local stadium and working his way up from there, while struggling to fight off the stigma from the incident and keep his substance abuse in check. It’s the kind of show that’s been done before, certainly, but what makes the show stand out is its pragmatic optimism without becoming saccharine or underplaying the dark path its protagonist went down during his exile.
Brockmire is fundamentally a decent guy who’s genuinely tested by his demons, rather than an asshole who also has addiction issues on top of everything else, which can often feel like the case in stories like this. That’s not to say he doesn’t do bad things, of course, but it’s easier to get invested in his redemption when we care about him because he’s a good person, not just because he’s a funny dickhead (see: Danny McBride in Eastbound & Down). Brockmire’s guiding star throughout the series is baseball, the game he’s dedicated his life to. Giving him such a clear, strong passion helps define his character and make him much more likeable. His love for the game is infectious, as his eloquent soliloquies convey why it's so important to Brockmire for him to get back in the booth. Brockmire, while unafraid to look at the dark corners of life, has a real passion and joie de vivre that’s so often absent from the cynical TV comedy landscape.
6. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend [The CW; 4 seasons; 2015-2019]
Just as Catastrophe is a subversion of romantic-comedy tropes, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a full-on deconstruction of them. The series focuses on Rebecca Bunch, a miserable corporate lawyer in New York who quits her job and moves to a small town in California to follow the man of her dreams, Josh Chan. Upon discovering he’s already in a relationship, Rebecca arms herself with her knowledge of romantic-comedies and assures herself that this is just a trial before she and Josh can start their relationship. The joke being that Rebecca (and by extension, most rom-com leads) is only pursuing Josh to suppress her deep-seated psychological issues, pinning all her hopes and dreams on him and telling herself that if she can just get the love of a good man, she can finally be happy. It sounds like a cheap gag to take shots at a silly genre, but the show uses this premise to pull you in before shifting to a harrowing, truthful depiction of mental illness and commentary on the ways people use stories and pop culture to inoculate themselves from the real world.
It’s also a showy, unabashedly theatrical musical. Each episode has at least two songs in them, accompanied with either full-on music videos or impressive dance choreography. The songs are clever and well-written, effective style parodies of a diverse range of music genres, though the show most comfortably settles into showtune territory when it needs to. The fact that the same episode contains “It Was a Shit Show”, a sorrowful post-mortem on an ill-advised relationship, and “We Tapped That Ass”, a vulgar rumination on the memories of past relationships that haunt Rebecca, shows the versatility and humour of not only the songs, but Crazy Ex-Girlfriend in general.
The premise: Nathan Fielder stars in this reality series as a business strategist who visits struggling small businesses and comes up with bizarre ideas to solve their problems or draw attention to them. What makes the series work so well is the character Fielder’s created for himself: a walking embodiment of corporate culture, soft-spoken and polite while strictly toeing the company line and seeing no humour in his outlandish ideas. He also plays him as socially awkward and deeply lonely, such as in the episode where he hooks a mechanic up to a polygraph (to win over people who inherently distrust mechanics) and asks the mechanic, while he’s still hooked up to the polygraph, if he’d like to continue hanging out after they finish shooting for the day. His ideas also have a great comic escalation to them, like the idea for helping overweight people ride horses by tying helium balloons to them to alleviate the weight, which then requires two additional riders to follow with paddles to protect the balloons from branches and then a third rider to pilot a drone with a scarecrow attached to prevent birds from popping the balloons, as his narration insists that he’s done great work by helping promote inclusivity and letting overweight people escape the shame and embarrassment of not being able to ride a horse.
The show pushes believability with its pranks often and there are certainly moments I have doubts about the authenticity of, but it’s never really bothered me much. The funniest moments for me have always been Fielder’s absurd escalation, his commitment to the awkward act and his penchant for making ideas much more complicated than they need to be, not necessarily how people react to those things. Nathan for You may not always be real, but it’s inventive, daring, bizarre, and funny as hell.
4. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia [FX; 14 seasons; 2005-present]
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia started the 2010’s in its sixth season, so I’m going to restrict myself to just discussing later-era Sunny here. This is fairly easy, since many of my favourite episodes come from this era, as it might be the only show to ever make good use of Flanderization. At its outset, each member of The Gang was terrible, but they all felt pretty similar and not extreme enough in any one direction to have major distinctions from each other. Over the years each of them came to uniquely personify all the worst aspects of humanity. Mac is a raw and exposed nerve, desperate for any validation or acceptance he can get; Frank is hedonism and anarchy incarnate; Charlie is a rescue dog, overly trusting of anything in his comfort zone and prone to going feral when forced outside of it; Dee is unhinged and broken from years of abuse; and Dennis’s egotism and lust gives way to a thinly-veiled sociopathy and sexual deviance that can rival any of TV’s greatest monsters.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is the anti-sitcom. Rather than focusing on a group of people who, whether by choice or circumstance, spend all of their time together and grow to love each other, like a typical sitcom might, Sunny focuses on five people who are forced to spend all their time together because they’re the only five people in the world who can tolerate each other. Focusing a comedy on the worst parts of humanity forms a delicate balancing act, one that I think mainly works due to the focus on the ways The Gang tries to justify their actions (with Frank often acting as the standout who embraces his awfulness and only makes it all the more obvious how repugnant the rest of The Gang is) and by reinforcing their co-dependancy. Take, for example, the relationship between Mac and Dennis. Mac was raised by negligent parents, a fact which he is in denial about, forcing himself to believe that his parent’s abuse is how genuine love is expressed. He’s also a devout Christian and a deeply closeted homosexual. Dennis is a sociopath who sees himself as better than everybody else, believing himself to possess superior intelligence, charisma and sexual talents that raise him to a nearly Godly status. Mac needs Dennis around because Dennis’s open contempt for him mirrors his relationship with his parents, and having a “best friend” he’s so attracted to allows him a target for his sexual desires without ever having to admit his true orientation. Dennis needs Mac around because he needs someone that worships and hangs on him the way Mac does, and he needs someone he feels superior to. Dennis is of average intelligence, at best, but is still by far the smartest member of The Gang, and Mac usually holds the crown for least intelligent. Mac’s lack of dating success (for obvious reasons) also helps Dennis maintain his image of himself as God’s gift to women.
Now, take the clip below. Mac and Dennis have just bought a boat together, Dennis discloses what he plans to use it for, which he doesn’t realize is as disturbing as it sounds and tries to convince Mac that what he’s doing isn’t predatory. Dennis desperately needs Mac to believe him to maintain his image of himself as someone women enthusiastically (or at least willingly) glom onto; Mac desperately needs to believe Dennis so that he doesn’t have to confront the fact that his hero is a monster. But the clear abhorrence of Dennis’s plan stands in both of their ways. It turns what could have easily been a lame, edgy joke about a sexual predator into a multi-layered bit of character work that makes the butt of the joke these men and the flimsy excuses they trot out for their bad behaviour.
There’s a lot more to commend It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia on - like the committed and dynamic performances of the cast or its excellent continuity and world-building - but really, that clip says it all.
3. American Vandal [Netflix; 2 seasons; 2017-2018]
It would have been so easy for this show to turn out bad, or at least mediocre. The premise - a high-school parking lot is vandalized with spray painted penises and a student decides to make a true crime documentary about it - seems like a thin excuse to talk about dicks in a very serious tone while using filmmaking techniques to make the subject seem weightier than it is. And don’t get me wrong, that’s a big part of American Vandal’s appeal, but it does so much more as well. A genuinely engrossing mystery is crafted here and I found myself ludicrously absorbed into the politics of this high school, trying to suss out character motivations or see through alibis. Dylan Maxwell, the student accused of the vandalism, is a truly heartbreaking figure, the kind of high-school burnout archetype that isn’t often given a sympathetic eye in movies or TV. He’s the type of guy who falls in line just enough with people’s expectations of him that nobody gives him a second thought, and it takes a whole documentary being made about him for anyone to re-consider their opinion of him. There’s some interesting commentary on the true crime genre as well, particularly on people’s media literacy when it comes to drawing conclusions from them that seems to be inspired by the response to Making a Murderer.
The second season focuses on a new case at an affluent private school in Washington State. The satire of the justice system is more on-the-nose this time around, as there are actual criminal charges at stake, and I don’t think it’s as funny as the first season (though that might just be my preference for dick jokes over poop jokes), but it’s much more thematically rich. Much of the season revolves around the dual lives people are forced to live to get by, and how that isolates them. This takes a few different forms. DeMarcus Tillman is from a poor, mostly black neighbourhood who gets scouted by the school’s basketball program and has to act “whiter” to fit in around school. Kevin McClain was a normal kid until an unfortunate incident in sixth grade led to him becoming a target for bullying and he develops an eccentric persona to cope with the fact that nobody will associate with him, which only makes him more of an outsider.
Kevin’s story touches on the unique kind of bullying that exists in the social media age. Kevin’s antics often get posted on social media, spread around under the pretence of, at worst, some friendly teasing, even when Kevin knows the students are mocking him behind his back. But to stop doing it, especially when there’s no overt bullying, would mean admitting that he cares about the opinions of the people that have already rejected him, so he has no choice but to double down on his strange behaviour, pretend it’s all in good fun, and drive the wedge further between him and the rest of the world.
Stories about the isolating effects of social media often make me roll my eyes as they don’t go beyond surface-level observations, like someone ignoring the world around them because they’re too engrossed in their phone. But American Vandal has always had a great understanding of high school life. It uses that insight to look at the way social media affects young people, the first generation to be so over-exposed, with the nuance and empathy it deserves.
2. Review [Comedy Central; 3 seasons; 2014-2017]
Forrest MacNeil is a Life Reviewer. He takes commands from his audience, who supply him with bizarre experiences as he’s forced to pursue and review whatever thought comes into their head. As someone who writes and consumes a lot of media criticism, this show touches on a lot of things I find personally interesting. The arbitrariness of review scores; the folly of trying to review anything when every experience is subjective and the review will always be influenced by the reviewer’s unseen biases; and the pointlessness of trying to find deeper meaning in something that just isn’t there. I should probably take some personal offence from a show that has its main character trying to find a universal truth out of requests such as “What’s it like to eat 15 pancakes” or “What’s it like to be kicked in the balls,” but it’s hard to let that bother me given everything else this show manages to pull off.
The thing that really pulls me into this show is Forrest himself, and the way Andy Daly plays him. The show starts out seeming like a sort of sketch comedy show; Forrest runs through a few review requests with disastrous results, and they may callback to each other, but there’s no real consequences or build up. Then, in the third episode, Forrest is asked to review divorce. He bristles at the idea, but his ego and some manipulation from his producer Grant (played with terrifying coldness by James Urbaniak) convince him that his work is too important, that his show helps people and only he can create this objective document of the human experience. From here Forrest becomes a poster child for the harm caused by the sunk-cost fallacy, as he clings to Review (his show-within-the-show), allowing it to strip away everything else in his life, because leaving would mean admitting that the abandonment of his family was for nothing. We see Forrest’s life crumble in the margins of his reviews as he makes increasingly self-destructive decisions (because, as much as Forrest insists his life belongs to the viewers and he’s only doing what’s asked of him, they are of course his decisions), and Andy Daly imbues him with such blissful ignorance that it’s impossible not to sympathize with him a little. Forrest compartmentalizes his behaviour, refusing to see that reviewing life is stopping him from living it.
Review is based off an Australian show with the same premise and that show, while funny, leans a bit too far into nihilism for my taste. The reviewer there thoughtlessly commits murder within the first few episodes, and makes a show of remorse, but it’s never taken seriously. What makes the American Review work so well is that the show clearly cares about Forrest and the people in his life, just as Forrest himself cares for the people around him. Forrest is aware of the damage he’s causing to himself and others, and does his best to mitigate it when he can, but ultimately he has to prioritize the security blanket of Review over everything else, because without the show, he has nothing left. Review certainly delights in the cruel, creative twists of fate that befall Forrest, but its best moments derive their comedy not from wantonly piling misery onto him, but from the cognitive dissonance that drives him to dismantle his own life, his mind and heart fighting the awful things he’s doing, but his body and actions being given over to the whims of the audience, again and again.
I’d be remiss not to mention that Review has one of the most genuinely unsettling finales I’ve ever seen, especially for a comedy. Without getting into specifics, Review pushes Forrest just to his breaking point, then cuts before we hear the snap. We see enough to leave little doubt that Forrest finally loses what’s left of his sanity after the credits roll, but we don’t see him come out of his state of denial, so we have no idea what form that break takes, or how far into the depths it drags him, and that’s what makes it so harrowing. The scariest monsters in horror movies are never fully shown. We see Forrest become a monster over the course of Review, but we never get to see him fully realize how monstrous he is, or what that knowledge might drive him to do.
1. BoJack Horseman [Netflix; 6 seasons; 2014-2020]
BoJack Horseman was roundly dismissed by critics in 2014, and for good reason; the first half of the first season is awful. Bob Raphael-Waksberg’s show about a drunken, washed-up star of a Full House-style sitcom seemed irreverent and nihilistic, touching on stereotypical behaviour of toxic celebrities as broad comic beats without going beyond surface level gags. At the halfway point of the season, however, something clicks. BoJack’s actions start to be treated with real consequence, and considerable time is spent on the root causes of his depression and alcoholism. More interestingly, the central question of the series isn’t whether BoJack can turn himself around and be redeemed, it’s whether redemption is something that’s even karmically possible for him. BoJack Horseman rejects the notion seen in other TV shows that love can be expressed by a grand gesture. You’ve got to do it every day, be supportive and loving and add more to someone’s life than you take away. How long does he need to do that before he’s considered “redeemed?” If the people he’s hurt want nothing to do with him anymore, how can he make it up to them? Even if he becomes a saint, does any of it matter if he’s still the same man horse that caused so much pain in the first place? “How do you make something right when you've made it so wrong you can never go back?” The final season, set to air January 31, 2020, looks like it’ll tackle those questions.
It’s hard for me to talk about this show without just listing and dissecting every amazing thing it’s done, so I’m going to make this highly personal appeal and hope it resonates with someone: BoJack Horseman is the most relatable show I’ve ever seen. There’s a long history of mental illness and addiction in my family; I’ve had a lot of first- and second-hand experience with many of the issues portrayed in the show, and I’ve never seen them done as realistically as they are here. Some of it surely has to do with the time in my life the show found me, but it’s had a profound impact on me, helping to shape the way I understand myself and the world around me. I see shades of myself in many of the other characters, like Todd’s struggles with his sexuality and identity or the way Mr. Peanutbutter stubbornly hides his feelings under a mask of optimism.
Maybe the show doesn’t work as well if you don’t have that deep connection to its themes. I browbeat a friend of mine into working through the first six episodes to get to the good part of the show, and while he was enthusiastic and thought it was really funny and interesting, I don’t know that I saw the same love that I have for the show until it reached a storyline concerning BoJack’s mother’s dementia, which mirrored an experience his family has been going through recently. Which, in fact, might be the key to BoJack Horseman’s success. It has such a keen insight into people and such a swath of experiences represented that it can often feel like a show made specifically for you at the exact moment you needed it.