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 Complexities of Story

There are occasions in my life where I become completely immersed in a book or a TV show to the extent where I’m almost drowning in it – I think about the storylines between episodes or chapters, dream about the characters, and so on. I remember Stephen King saying about a favourite novel of his that the feeling was akin to being married to the book, which I can relate to.

Currently, I’m feeling this with Breaking Bad. I’m currently midway through Season 4 and I’m stunned by the quality of the writing and the constant edge-of-the-seat cliffhangers that happen in every episode.  My girlfriend and I spend more time discussing theories on future developments in the show than we do about important stuff like bills and in my case, finding employment!

And we rarely find common ground in our conversations, either. Which I think highlights the sheer complexity of the plotlines in the show. I marvel at how the writer on Breaking Bad manage to keep a handle on what’s going on, where the stories have developed from and how they are going to be resolved.  I felt the same when watching The Wire, too.  The creative stimulation that these shows give me is like a shot of adrenalin. And it does help to inspire.  But the overriding feeling I get is that this type of complex storylines are beyond me as a writer. Such feelings should act as a spur to try, but for me it isn’t currently working that way. I don’t think my imagination could cope with multiple storylines that criss-cross each other constantly. Just having to remember who said what 50,000 words earlier. Or having to sort out what a character knows at a certain point in time, and what they think they know. Juggling so many balls in the air is something I’ve never felt I’ve been able to do in my own writing, which is another segment of the fear that stops me putting pen to paper again.

I know I shouldn’t let it dishearten me. It has been said that Raymond Chandler, a master of fiendish and labyrinthine plots, once forgot about an entire character when writing The Big Sleep. He admitted that he forgot about the butler (although Chandler was a fan of the sauce which may explain things). Another story I read somewhere concerning Alfred Hitchcock: After the first private screening of Psycho, Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville said to him, ‘You can’t send it out like that’.  There was stunned silence. When Hitch asked why not, she responded, ‘Janet Leigh swallows when she is supposed to be dead.’ And it was true.

So it can happen to the best of them. And if I’m being honest, there is more than one writing voice on a show like Breaking Bad. Having a team of writers all contributing ideas to the show must make it easy to spark the creative juices and come up with imaginative storyboards for future episodes.  Besides, big holes in the plot of a manuscript is what the rewrite is for. Once I had a character send a text message in 1985! And I never saw it until the rewrite.

So I know that anyone, even the greatest writers, can have problems with the complexities of story.  But it’s another layer that is holding me back.

Oh well, might be time to watch another episode…

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!