Spoiler Warning for ALL of BoJack Horseman
“Don’t sit so close to the TV. It’ll make you cruel.” Beatrice Horseman utters this line to child BoJack Horseman during the episode “Brand New Couch” in BoJack Horseman. This line intrigued and baffled me upon my rewatch of the show. The line subverts expectations. We’ve all heard some variant of “don’t watch so much TV; it’ll hurt your eyesight.” Regardless of how true any variant of that sentiment is; Beatrice subverting the expectation of actual advice gives some flavor to her poor parenting. What did Beatrice actually mean, and on a grander scale, what did the creators actually mean when they included this line in BoJack Horseman?
Let’s explore the line in the context of the individual scene. BoJack initially does not sit so close to the television set. When his parents start fighting, he inches himself closer to try and escape that reality. In this way, the line could be Beatrice’s way of saying that he needs his parents inclusion to lead a kind life. Obviously BoJack’s parents scarred him immensely, but from Beatrice’s point of view, she’s doing the best she can. She doesn’t want BoJack growing up taught to be human through the corrupted lens of television, but that’s exactly what happens. She later ends up putting massive expectations on BoJack and subsequently compliments her own parenting. This furthers the idea that she thinks she’s a good parent, despite that not at all being the case. BoJack was stuck between a rock and hard place.
BoJack Horseman shows how bad only perceiving the world through television is through the titular character. In the episode “Xerox of a Xerox,” BoJack describes how his how life is an acting job where he models his behavior off of the people he saw on television. This claim is in regards to the “old” BoJack who committed many, many heinous acts during and before the coarse of the show. That BoJack was extremely cruel, and later in the episode he rightfully faces some consequences for his treatment of women. We still see “new” BoJack make mistakes and do bad things, but the scale is incomparable. The “new” BoJack is one built on a foundation of his own life events viewed through therapy. He acts decidedly less cruel, and he is finally able to start facing consequences of his action and becoming a better person. He’s not finished facing the consequences of his action at the end of the show, and for what he’s done, he’ll likely never finish. Despite “new” BoJack building his foundation on his own horrible actions, learning from his mistakes made him a better person than only learning lessons through television.
BoJack Horseman‘s fifth season takes a very meta look at how people use television to justify their own cruelty. Season 5 sees the cast filming the in-universe show “Philbert.” The show takes place at BoJack’s house, sees BoJack playing the titular character, sees the titular character have many of the same traits and perform many of the same horrifying acts that BoJack himself has and does. This snowballs into BoJack nearly choking his co-star Gina to death when he cannot separate the show from reality. “Philbert” is a not-so-subtle metaphor for BoJack Horseman itself. The creators realized that people might misconstrue the show as justifying BoJack’s actions and behaviors because of the pain they cause him. In the episode “Head in the Clouds,” we see BoJack do exactly that but with “Philbert.” During the premiere, BoJack states “that’s what this show says […] ‘We’re all terrible, so, therefore, we’re all okay.'” Diane Nguyen rightfully outrages over this and demands the staff pull the show. She worries that a show she wrote for will let “assholes rationalize their own awful behavior.” BoJack Horseman needs to be so explicit about itself because the creators know how TV affects people. People should not mold their behavior off of BoJack. Viewers relate to BoJack’s character because he is sympathetic, but we can never forget he’s a horrible person who’s done and continues to horrible things. The main point of BoJack Horseman isn’t to “watch it and feel okay” as Diane says about “Philbert.” The main point is to learn that feeling bad over what one has done is not facing consequences or doing better, and feeling bad does not make up for what one did. BoJack Horseman shows with clarity how television can make people worse through viewers modeling their own behavior off of flawed characters.
We’ve sat close to the TV and became cruel, but what if we could sit even closer? Beatrice’s line mentions closeness as a variable and not as a binary “watch.” BoJack continues to sit closer and closer to the TV as times marches on until he becomes the star of the in-universe show “Horsin’ Around.” BoJack’s cruelty exponentially increases once he enters the TV. BoJack Horseman declares that the television and film industry create cruel people.
Through many flashbacks, we see BoJack transform from a naive, jolly, stand-up comedian into his current character through the show. Throughout his time in the industry, people above him task him with cruelty in order to maintain his job and advance in the world. Higher-ups ask BoJack to remain on “Horsin’ Around” twice: for Herb and Sharona. The executives coerce BoJack into believing that not quitting the show is the best option through a “trolley problem” style scenario. They basically make BoJack chose between one person getting fired or everyone. They make BoJack do horrible things under the guise of what is right. BoJack wouldn’t find out until the episode “Angela” that he actually held the power to keep Herb on the show and that the threat of canceling everything was a lie. This situation arises again during the filming of the in-universe movie “Secretariat.” When Lenny Turtletaub fires Kelsey Jannings for BoJack’s mistake, BoJack has already internalized his own inability to change anything and sadly accepts it. He believes he had no power in the situation, so he does nothing to change it. Every opportunity BoJack attempts to take to make things right after he benefits from the success of “Secretariat” ends up going wrong because of the situations the industry puts him in. BoJack still is responsible for these terrible things he did, but they are a direct result of the industry forcing people commit dreadful actions to succeed. This power also works both ways, as we see through Vance Waggoner’s character in “BoJack the Feminist.” Once the industry gives someone enough power, they get to do whatever they want with no repercussions. The industry doesn’t vet horrible people out; it normalizes their behavior. People like Vance get to do horrible things and remain big stars because they bring in money, and everyone else learns what he does is okay even if it’s not. These two forces of making people treat others heinously to succeed and not holding people accountable for their horrendous actions results in the industry creating cruel people.
“Don’t sit so close to the TV. It’ll make you cruel.” Season 2 Episode 1, BoJack Horseman understood it’s entire premise and delivered it succinctly in one line. I don’t think the show fully realized the weight of this line until it started sculpting the finishing touches on its thematic presentation in the latter seasons. The idea is a bit paradoxical: a television show trying to teach you to not model yourself after television. I don’t think anyone can really make a show that vehemently distastes the idea of its own medium teaching messages. We see, in the show, many times people benefit from watching television, such as Diane saying that watching “Horsin’ Around” every week “helped [her] survive” in the episode “That Went Well.” Television can teach people things and provide good for their lives. Television does not replace for a person’s character, but the right show can supplement the right person. It’s up to us to understand that television is television.