Bojack Horseman

I think everyone has had the experience of getting so involved in a TV show that is takes over your life.  You know the symptoms – binge watching, missing meals, denying yourself sleep to watch just one more episode, eschewing social events to watch, and so on.  And the emotional effect too.   Where you dream about the characters, mull over plot points and future storylines in the time you aren’t watching, and that sick trembly feeling when you know it’s coming to an end and you somehow want it to go on forever but know it can’t.  And when the ending comes you know it has changed your life in a way you possibly can’t articulate yet, but somewhere inside something has crossed over and life will never quite be the same again.

Strong, heady stuff, and it doesn’t happen too often.  For me, with Buffy, Angel, Breaking Bad, The Wire off the top of my head.  And now, after a binge of 76 episodes in a fortnight, Bojack Horseman.

Funnily enough, the opening episodes of season one are pretty run-of-the-mill, and a bit of a drag to get through. Our eponymous hero is a washed-up anthropomorphic horse who hires a ghostwriter to pen his memoir, lives with a drop out kid who turned up at his house and never left, has a Persian cat agent/on-off girlfriend, and is friends with a smooth talking labrador named Mr Peanutbutter.  All ripe for the sort of anarchic comedy that Family Guy and The Simpsons do so well, and the first half of the season is not much more than a poor derivative of those.

But once the show hits its stride and gains some confidence, it turns into one of the most profound, moving, hard-hitting and emotional things I’ve ever seen.  What I love the most about the show is how it is not only unafraid to ask difficult questions, but also digs into the complexity of the answer, and is confident enough to say, I don’t know where I stand on this. Bojack is, in many ways, a difficult character to empathise with. He uses people to get to the top. He suffers from alcoholism and drug addiction.  He treats women like dirt.  Yet somehow we root for him.  That shows the sharpness of the scripts. They ask the most though-provoking of questions – is it possible to be redeemed after doing terrible things? Can people be forgiven for their misdemeanours? Should they be? And at the show’s heart, I think – can someone really ever escape their past?

Bojack had a shitty childhood. Terrible parents, no role models, and was influenced into the siren of alcohol and drugs at a young age. In Free Churro, one of the show’s greatest episodes, Bojack utters a 25 minute monologue at his mother’s funeral which lays bare their relationship and it’s devastating effect on his life. We sympathise, of course.  We understand, even.  But this is while some pretty awful events are taking place in his personal life that are ugly and squalid. We see the root of his issues through his childhood, but does that excuse his behaviour? Can an apology be enough? These questions come up time and again and really forces you to wrestle with them.

And all of this doesn’t even bring up the biting satire of the vacuousness of celebrity culture and the plethora of in-jokes that litter each episode. Or the razor sharp skewering of Hollywood (should be Hollywoo of course!) hypocrisy.  Episode Hank after Dark is one of the best commentaries on the #Metoo scandal anywhere, and in later seasons, as Bojack’s addictions tighten their grip, the thoughtful handling of his spiralling descent, consequent rehab, relapses and attempt to make amends is funny, heartbreaking and utterly real.  I guess the word I want is identifiable. All the characters are, in their own way, and it resonates on a higher plane then most other shows out there.

I’ve barely got into the other characters, or the quality of the story arcs, and how the episodes flow into one another perfectly, or the animation, which is superb, or the depths and nuances of the voice work, but you get the idea.  It’s a bona fide classic, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. A genuine masterpiece.

Big Bang

Health wise, 2019 hasn’t been a very good year for me so far. I had a couple of days off work for illness at the start of the year, while wrestling with alcohol issues, and last week I was hit with a severe gum infection. Whilst laid up in bed not being able to sleep I’ve been doing what seems to be everyone’s leisure pursuit of choice – watching crap on Netflix. Having exhausted the Line of Duty back catalogue (impeccable, writing perfection), I’ve been indulging in a comedy I used to love but now look upon with indifference. The Big Bang Theory.

The first three seasons of The Big Bang Theory are really quite brilliant. Like all great comedies, the premise is very simple. A bunch of scientific guys, obsessed with video games, comic books and film, and their attempts to understand and relate to girls. Endless comic potential there. The cute girl next door, Penny, and her relationship with Leonard is what the show hangs on. It’s a familiar comedic theme, the ‘will-they-won’t they’ story arc. Friends, Frasier, Cheers all run on it, and there are many more. And it’s brilliant and sweet and funny to watch as Leonard and Penny grow closer.  Whilst the guys make fools of themselves, they have a sweetness at heart (even rentagob Howard, in my opinion) and the writers never try to make fun of them or their lifestyle choices. They like what they like and are happy being so.

But after about season 4 I began to lose interest. This is because the show ran into a problem which has afflicted many others. How to keep the show entertaining once the characters got together. OK, so Leonard and Penny get together. Then what? Can they still be as funny as a couple? Hmm… maybe split them up then. But the audience knows and wants them to be together. So have them make up… and so on and so forth, in ever decreasing circles. It was even worse for Howard and Sheldon. Howard gets a girlfriend and his identity disappears. Sure, he was crude and annoying,  but at least he had some edge. Sheldon’s fate was worse – he got paired off with the female version of himself. This worked OK for a while and raised a few laughs, but then like the other relationships, it descended into boring sitcom stuff about marriage and kids and the show lost its way.

From a writing perspective, it feels like the writers were in an impossible bind. Moving the characters lives on meant losing what made them funny in the first place, and reduced the show to a tedious character driven comedy rather than the loose situation show of the early seasons. But, they would argue, the characters have to move somewhere, or the show stagnates. True. But what they should have done is nip the show in the bud before it got lost in a relationship morass rather than letting the self-indulgence spread to twelve seasons. Give the people what they want and get out. Sheldon getting married seems to me the antithesis of what the character was about, even allowing for the inevitable character development from being in a long-term relationship. Just comes across as terrifically dull.

I guess The Big Bang Theory is a victim of its own success. The ratings were so large they were never going to kill it off.  Once the guys had success with women the show’s central premise began to break down, and what laughs remained came from standard relationship mishap fare then has been mined hundreds of times before. That’s where writing fiction has an advantage – you can kill your darlings whenever you want, and always ensure you never outstay your welcome.

I watch the opening seasons with huge fondness, and it still has me in stitches. It has a beautiful heart behind it, an innocence that is impossible to fake, and really lovely interplay. Penny is a star in those seasons, Leonard has courage and bravery and Sheldon is brilliant, bemused and crotchety. It works so well it makes me a little sad to see where the show ended up. The downside of success, I guess.



The Chosen One

It was one of those quiet days between Christmas and New Year.  You know the type – friends are away with family, you are hungover in all senses of the word from overindulgence, and there’s not much to do but veg on the couch and watch TV.  And so it was that I sat down one evening and was flicking through the channels and found a programme just starting that caught my eye.  It went on to be one of the most popular shows of the 90s and early 2000s, and one that had an enormous and almost profound influence on me.  That show was of course Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which had its American premiere on this day 20 years ago, all the way back in 1997.

I have to admit, one of my initial reasons for sticking with the show was the women in it were so hot. (I was a teenager, what can I say?) But straightaway you could see that this was going to be something different. The very first scene of the pilot episode shows a male student being attacked and killed by a female vampire, completely subverting the tired narrative of the defenceless young girl at the mercy of a male demon, like all the horror movies that had gone before. And the hero, at the centre of all this mayhem and fighting to save the world from the vampires, is a teenage girl. In between maths homework, of course. Yeah, I think it’s safe to say that I was hooked from the off.

The real power of the show was that it showed real problems than teenagers face, using the demons and monsters as metaphor. One example – the Angel and Buffy romance, which was a masterpiece of romantic writing. After their first night together, Angel loses his soul and reverts to his vampire self.  Basically, the one night stand gone wrong. Instantly relatable to many.  And it did this sort of thing all the time, episode after episode. Buffy herself is the embodiment of teenage alienation, the perennial outsider standing against the rebellious vampires.  But all this was done with a light touch, the writing alluding to these metaphors without layering it on with a trowel.

It’s main and most obvious legacy is its feminism.  Name a show before or since with such strong female characters?  There probably isn’t one, and Buffy was groundbreaking for its time in its empowerment of women, flaws and all. The relationship between Willow and Tara was one of the first lesbian couplings on TV that I can remember, but it always felt like a natural progression of the story rather than an exercise in virtue-signalling. It was remarkable, but there was nothing so about their relationship.  It just seemed to fit.

Throughout the show the viewer was never treated as dumb, never condescended to, and was dragged through the emotional wringer.  The shows creator Joss Whedon was never afraid to make sweeping, heartbreaking decisions about where the story would go.  The show wasn’t afraid to take massive risks, including killing off main characters abruptly mid-season. The death of Miss Calendar in my all-time favourite episode Passion was genuinely shocking.  Indeed, the whole making Angel bad thing was a hugely daring storyline – the Buffy and Angel romance had vast followers who wanted to see a happily-ever-after storyline, bu no, that would be too easy. And still the viewers stayed in their droves. My favourite character is Spike, the English rock’n’roll vampire. The story of his falling in love with Buffy and their violent and destructive relationship in season 6 would have outraged many, particularly  a close-to-the-wire attempted rape scene which I still find tough to watch. I respect Whedon enormously for taking the choice to bring the two together, knowing it could turn off large numbers of the audience but doing it anyway.

But audiences were treated with intelligence. After the show was greenlit for further seasons, it created long, sprawling story arcs that stretched across multiple seasons, something that had never really been done on such a scale in a TV show before. Indeed, the first episode of Season 2, When She was Bad, follows on almost directly from the last episode of the first season in its emotional structure.  The stand alone episode aspect of the series was over, and the viewer was on a journey with these characters now.  Later episodes would reference little plot points from years before, something which later shows like The Wire and Breaking Bad did so brilliantly. It felt immersive, a proper world with real consequences and decisions being played out further down the line.

I think the real power of the show was that it resonated far beyond its target audience. I will never forget the episode The Body, where Buffy finds her mother dead on the sofa after a long battle with a brain tumour. Here is a foe that Buffy was unable to fight, the death of the person she was closest to. The episode is brilliantly structured and written, with long takes and virtually all of the music stripped out, heightening the intensity.  It’s a very moving and hard-hitting to watch episode. I lost my mother as a teenager to the same horrible disease  and the vast range of emotions Buffy and her friends experience are absolutely bang on.  It’s an extraordinarily bold piece of TV for what was a mainstream show.

But Whedon revelled in challenging the viewer. One episode, Hush, takes place in virtual silence. Another, Once More With Feeling, in the form of a musical. Both could have been ridiculous, but actually are two of the show’s greatest moments. Again, down to a pitch-perfect script and a sheer confidence in its actors. Any accusations that they are nothing more than gimmicks are defeated from the get go, especially when you realise that both are pivotal episodes in the development of each particular season. Huge advancements in plot and character relationships take place in each, all done in a unique and hugely satisfying way.

I could go on and on about this show really, and I haven’t even mentioned how funny it was, the one-liners, the sarcastic humour. How you have moments of sheer comedy one moment, then fraught danger the next. It really gave me everything, laughter, the odd tear, monsters, big, sweeping storylines, complex relationships, warmth and heart. When I first became a fan I was a little embarrassed to say so in polite company, fearing that people saw it as a silly, trite show for the teenage girl market. The show transcended that sterotype and soared to something much more inclusive, that has had a huge impact on modern popular culture and me as both man and writer. I’m very grateful that on that December night, I paused and watched rather than flicked through to another channel. If I had, I’d have missed out on so much. Happy birthday Buffy!


A Message From Your Sponsor

Being an Englishman, the cricket summer here in Australia hasn’t been the most successful (master of understatement there!). As I’m currently unemployed and have a fair amount of time on my hands I have watched a lot of the cricket on TV in the last couple of months. And one thing that has caught my attention is the amount of advertising they have on there, particularly in the Big Bash League. Everything is sponsored. The drinks break – sponsored. The instant replays – sponsored. The graphics – sponsored.

Watch an instant replay. Buy a barbecue.

Why is it necessary for every fragment of the game to have a sponsor? I’m no expert but I find it hard to believe that this sort of blatant product placement works. Who watches a ‘Bunnings Warehouse instant replay’ and immediately decides to head to Bunnings and buy a trowel or whatever? I would imagine most people would be concentrating on the action rather than their next trip to the garden centre. The Gatorade sponsorship of the drinks break makes me laugh too. If I fancy a drink after any type of workout there isn’t really much of a choice. Gatorade or Powerade I would say. Now I doubt I would specifically buy a Gatorade just because they sponsored a drinks break in the BBL. You can tell the commentators find it a bit embarrassing. On a number of occasions Gilchrist or Fleming or whoever are in the middle of their analysis and then at the end have to quickly blurt out the name of the sponsor to save face. They must have the producers in their ear all the time reminding them that they must mention the sponsor, must mention the sponsor! It may just be me, but this sort of stuff puts me off using any of these companies in the future. Advertising for me should be low-key, non-intrusive and imaginative rather than constant and in your face. Still, once England have lost the last two T20 matches I won’t have to worry about it any more!