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The Flaw In Happy Endings According To “Bojack Horseman”

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The world can be a harsh, unforgiving place. The extent of that harshness often depends on circumstances, attitude, and even blind luck. Most people, no matter how rich or successful they are, learn that lesson at some point in their lives. It’s rarely pleasant and often leaves scars that don’t heal.

Even with those scars, many cling to a hopeful, wide-eyed idealism about how much better the world could be. Moreover, that world is worth pursuing at every turn. TV shows, movies, music, and literature convinces us that it can be done and still have plenty of room for commercials, ads, and movie trailers. Nearly every great narrative tries to sell us on some unique kind of world-healing happy ending.

Then, there’s the strange and exceedingly depressing world of “Bojack Horseman.” If ever there was a show that went out of its way to kill happy endings with the force of a billion gut punches, it’s this one. Think of all our most cherished ideals from popular media, social movements, and ideology, in general. “Bojack Horseman” finds a way to crush it all while still being funny, albeit in its own dark way.

I promise it’s funnier than you think.

I say that as someone who has watched “Bojack Horseman” since the first season, but I find myself appreciating its dark themes more and more lately. However, it’s not just because the harshness of the real world is a lot harder to hide in the era of the internet and social media.

Recently, I had a chance to re-watch the past couple seasons. In doing so, I noticed just how much our collective worldview is built around our hope for a happy ending. Almost every character on the show, from Bojack Horseman to Diane Nguyen to Princess Caroline to Mr. Peanutbutter, is driven to achieve some idealized ending for themselves.

For Diane, she seeks to become a successful writer who exacts meaningful change through her work.

For Princess Caroline, she seeks to be an accomplished, independent woman who has it all, both in terms of career and family.

For Mr. Peanutbutter, he seeks to make everyone around him happy and pursue every new project with wide-eyed passion.

For the titular character, Bojack Horseman, pursuing that ending is more complicated. Through him, the harshness of reality seems to hit everyone and everything he comes across. It’s not always through his actions, which are often selfish, reckless, and downright deplorable. His story, which helps drive the show from the beginning, reveals how pursuing idealism can leave us vulnerable at best and destroyed at worst.

To understand how the show does this, it’s necessary to understand what makes this show both unique and appealing. If you only watch the first few episodes, then “Bojack Horseman” doesn’t come off as all that deep. It just seems like a story about a narcissistic washed-up actor who happens to be an anthropomorphic horse in a world full of various human/animal hybrids.

After a while, though, you start to appreciate how Bojack reflects the ugly reality of self-centered celebrities. Whether they’re at the height of their popularity or have been out of work for years, they live in a world that basically requires them to be utterly self-absorbed and completely detached from reality. Living in that world tends to obscure what reality is and provides one too many mechanisms for escaping it.

In the show that made him famous, “Horsin’ Around,” everything was skewed. Every problem was solved within a half-hour. Everyone was happy by the end of the episode. Bojack seems at his happiest and most fulfilled when the cameras are rolling and the show is on. Behind the scenes, which is where most of the show takes place, the ugliness of his reality takes hold.

Without the show, that ugliness consumes him. Over time, it wears on him, causing him to seek that idealized ending that his show often espoused. Throughout multiple seasons, it leads him down many paths. At the same time, others like Diane, Princess Carolyn, and Todd Chavez attempt paths of their own.

From this foundation, any number of ideals can take hold. In Hollywood, or “Hollywoo” as it comes to be called in the show for hilarious reasons, an entire industry is built around telling stories or crafting media that either champion those ideals or distract people from reality. For someone like Bojack, who gets crushed by reality harder than most, it’s the worst place for him to be.

Bojack, and his colorful cast of supporting characters, either embrace or get sucked into this fanciful world. Throughout the show, they get put into positions where they can pursue their dreams, achieve what they think will make them happy, and even are allowed to succeed in some instance. If this were any other show, then that would be the happy ending that both the characters and the audience expect.

Bojack Horseman” is different in that it goes out of its way to expose the flaws in those idealized endings. The creator of the show, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, has even gone on record as saying that he doesn’t believe in “endings,” at least in the way that TV, movies, and popular media present it. In a 2015 interview, he said this about endings.

Well, I don’t believe in endings. I think you can fall in love and get married and you can have a wonderful wedding, but then you still have to wake up the next morning and you’re still you. Like, you can have the worst day of your life, but then the next day won’t be the worst day of your life. And I think it works in a positive and a negative, that all these things that happen are moments in time. And that because of the narrative we’ve experienced, we’ve kind of internalized this idea that we’re working toward some great ending, and that if we put all our ducks in a row we’ll be rewarded, and everything will finally make sense. But the answer is that everything doesn’t make sense, at least as far as I’ve found. Maybe you’ll interview someone else today who’s like “I’ve figured it out, here’s the answer!” But I don’t know the answer, and so I think it would be disingenuous to tell our audience “Here’s the answer!” It’s a struggle, and we’re all trying to figure it out, and these characters are trying to figure it out for themselves.

This sentiment plays out time and again over the course of the show. On more than one occasion, Bojack seems like he’s on the verge of achieving that happy ending and turning those ideals into reality.

He thinks getting cast in his dream role as Secretariat will give him that ending, but it doesn’t.

He thinks being nominated for an Oscar will give him that ending, but it doesn’t.

He thinks being cast in a new TV show will give him that ending, but that only makes things much worse.

At every turn, reality catches up to him. Whether it’s his many vices, his habitual selfishness, or his terrible choices, it always comes back to haunt him. Even when that happy ending seems achievable, it always becomes mired in complications that Bojack can’t always control. The same complications often impact other characters seeking their own happy endings, as well. For some, it ends up being downright tragic.

At times, the show paints a grim picture about even attempting to pursue a happy ending. Even when Bojack has insights into the process, it’s never as easy as his old TV show makes it out to be. However, the fact he and others around him keep pursuing that ending says a lot about everyone’s need to achieve something greater.

Even in a world without talking horsemen, that’s something a lot of people can relate to. Most of us build our lives around hopes and aspirations that we’ll forge our own happy ending. There may even be moments when we feel like we achieve it, whether it’s graduating high school, getting married, having children, or finally beating level 147 in Candy Crush.

However, even after those moments, the credits don’t roll. Things don’t end. The things that led you to that moment only work to the extent that they led you to that one singular moment. Life still continues and the happiness fades. Bojack experiences this at greater extremes, some of which are downright absurd, but people in the real world experience it too throughout their lives.

I can personally attest to this. When I finally finished high school, I thought that was like slaying the final boss in an impossibly hard video game. I felt the same way after graduating college, getting my first girlfriend, or publishing my first book. If the credits started rolling at that moment, it would’ve made for a great ending.

Unfortunately, life just doesn’t work like that. “Bojack Horseman” belabors that every chance it gets while still managing to inject some meaningful comedy along the way. It’s a lesson worth learning, especially for Bojack. It’s one he’ll probably keep learning in future seasons. Chances are, we’ll all learn with him along the way.

In many respects, the one who best summed up this sentiment isn’t Bojack himself. In Season 3, it’s Diane who lays out the harsh reality that everyone in the real and fictional world struggles to accept.

“It’s not about being happy, that is the thing. I’m just trying to get through each day. I can’t keep asking myself ‘Am I happy?’ It just makes me more miserable. I don’t know If I believe in it, real lasting happiness. All those perky, well-adjusted people you see in movies and TV shows? I don’t think they exist.”

It sounds depressing, but that’s par for the course with “Bojack Horseman.” Reality is often depressing, but it’s not utterly untenable because happy endings are impossible. There are many points in the show that try to make that case. Even Bojack himself tries to make that case, albeit in his own twisted way.

I would even argue that the show’s brutal attack on the very concept of idealized happy endings is uplifting, in and of itself. By making the case that all the happy endings we see in the idealized versions of fiction are flawed, it shows how futile and counterproductive it is to pursue them. The real world is harsh and brutal, but you can find moments of happiness along the way. They’re not endings. They’re just part of life.

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Filed under Bojack Horseman, Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, human nature, nihilism, philosophy, psychology, television

Why Sadism Is Necessary For Both Heaven And Hell

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Imagine there’s this big, beautiful house on the top of a hill. It’s opulent, luxurious, and full of every comfort you can imagine. Inside, there are servants and guests that cater to every conceivable whim. There’s no suffering, whatsoever. The people who live there are as happy and content as can be.

In that same house, however, there’s a dungeon in the basement. Within that dungeon, people are being horribly and endlessly tortured. They’re repeatedly beaten, burned, and mutilated without mercy. The suffering is constant and the pain is unbearable. Every day, more and more people are forced into that dungeon and never let out. They constantly cry and scream for mercy, but it never comes.

Everyone in that house knows the dungeon is there. They’re constantly reminded of it. At times, they can even hear the tortured screams of those trapped inside. Some of the people there might even be friends and loved ones. However, they don’t do anything about it. They don’t show an ounce of sorrow or concern. They just continue enjoying the joys and comforts the rest of the house has to offer.

With this scenario in mind, how would you judge the people who weren’t in the dungeon? How would you judge anyone who is perfectly happy when others nearby are suffering horribly? It would be one thing if they didn’t know the torture was happening, but the people in that house have always known, even before they arrived. To still be happy in that house requires more than just an immense lack of empathy.

This is just one of many fundamental disconnects in traditional concepts of Heaven and Hell. While it’s not the first flaw I’ve pointed out, it’s one that I believe is incredibly relevant because it subverts core aspects of our humanity. Regardless of whether you believe humans evolved or were magically created, it’s a biological fact that humans are a very social species. Empathy is a key component of that dynamic.

Empathy doesn’t just allow us to coordinate, cooperate, and relate to one another. It’s at the core of our understanding of right and wrong. You could even argue that empathy is the core ingredient within the Golden Rule that so many religions preach in some form or another, including those that incorporate some form of Hell.

It’s also the foundation on which our innate sense of justice and fairness is built. Both foundations crack once Heaven and Hell enter the picture. However, when eternity enters the picture, which is common in various Judeo-Christian traditions, those foundations shatter.

It’s in that context where simply being callous to the suffering of others, even if you feel they deserve it, becomes unavoidably sadistic. As soon as eternity enters the equation, any sense of proportional justice becomes impossible. Even for the most monstrous individuals who spent every moment of their lives hurting others, a punishment without end eventually becomes unjust.

At that point, the pain and suffering someone endures is no longer about punishment or justice. It becomes part of a sadistic act that only becomes more sadistic the longer it goes on. If Hell is truly eternal, as many devout believers espouse, then its very existence is an act of infinite sadism.

That’s a major problem for any theology that includes an all-knowing, all-loving deity. By definition, a deity cannot be all-loving while exercising infinitely sadistic acts. If that same deity is all-powerful, then that only makes things worse because it means the deity has the power to both stop those acts and prevent them from ever happening. By not doing so, the deity becomes even more sadistic.

Now, there are plenty of traditions that include sadistic gods. The god of the Old Testament certainly qualifies in many respects. If a deity of that power opts to use it for sadistic acts, it doesn’t carry as much weight in terms of how humans approach morality and justice. Granted, it means the people who worship that deity must do so out of fear on some levels, but their approach in that context is understandable.

It’s less understandable when Hell and the concept eternal punishment becomes part of a larger theology because it means adherents must participate in sadistic activities, even if it just means ignoring the torture inflicted by someone else. Everyone in Heaven, no matter how wonderful it is, has to remain numb to the infinite suffering going on below them.

Considering how threats of Hell has been a common tool for proselytizing, the sadism gets compounded even more, both from a human and theological perspective. More than one adherent had used the threat of Hell to warn others about believing in something other than their preferred religion. They likely do so out of genuine compassion and concern for those who don’t believe.

However, once that same person goes to Heaven, they have to become a sadist on some levels. They must now exist in a domain where others they tried to save from eternal damnation are doomed to endless suffering. They know it’s happening at every waking moment. It doesn’t matter if time works differently in the afterlife. Eternity is still eternity.

Even if that same person convinced every person they met to embrace their theology, there’s still the countless others that they never reached. That doesn’t even begin to account for all the other hapless souls that have lived throughout history, practicing other religious traditions with every bit as much devotion and piety. Even if they committed no egregious crimes, they could be damned to Hell.

While many religious traditions offer some recourse for righteous individuals who follow a different faith or lived before those traditions began, the concept is still flawed because it requires some tolerance of injustice. When people are judged by actions or inactions for which they had no opportunity to react, tolerating the results means tolerating injustice.

It doesn’t even work if the deity involved only sends the worst of the worst people to Hell. No matter how bad somebody’s crimes were, they were finite in nature because humans are finite beings. The issues surrounding infinite punishment for finite sins is subject to its own set of theological and moral debates, but the implications are unavoidable.

Think of the most brutally sadistic person who lived 6,000 years ago, a time that even the most conservative Christians agree that humans walked the planet. Over the course of their life, they committed every possible crime and sin. They murdered, raped, tortured, and blasphemed with unrepentant glee. The scars of their crimes lasted years after their death.

However, after a certain amount of time, their deeds cease to have a real impact. The victims and the descendants of those victims move on. The world moves on. Eventually, the memory of the person’s crimes fade. The finite transgression become nothing more than a faded memory. At that point, what’s the purpose of continuing the punishment?

Moreover, what happens to that purpose if and when that monstrous individual seeks to repent? Given enough time and punishment, at least one damned soul would see the light and wish to atone in a way beyond suffering. In most civilized societies, we give those individuals that chance. Hell, if it is truly eternal, offers no such opportunity.

At that point, the punishment is no longer punishment. It’s just sadistic torture. It ceases being a measure of justice and becomes an act of injustice. Even if it takes a trillion years deliver a proportional punishment for a finite person’s egregious behavior, they’ll still be subject to trillions of more years of torment.

All the while, everyone in Heaven has to be okay with this. If part of being a righteous soul means compassion for victims and proportional punishment for transgressors, then nobody in Heaven can remain righteous. Even if the all-powerful deity demands it and they are powerless to change anything, they still have to temper the very empathy that made them righteous in the first place.

Heaven and Hell are difficult, distressing concepts. Whether you’re devoutly religious or a lifelong atheist, it’s never pleasant imaging an afterlife that involves horrendous punishment, even if it’s reserved for the worst of humanity. Not every religious tradition involves an afterlife or traditions of an eternal Hell, but the concept reveals more about our innate sense of humanity than it does any religious doctrine.

Human beings are at their best when they can empathize, appreciate, and understand one another. There will certainly be instances when people commit gross injustices. How we deal with them is critical in terms of how we structure our societies and survive in an ever-changing world. Anything that attempts subverts it or requires that we suspend our humanity will only make every gross injustice infinitely worse.

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Is Democracy The Best Way To Ensure Basic Rights?

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When it comes to ensuring the happiness, advancement, and general prosperity of humanity, it’s not unreasonable to say that basic human rights are a core ingredient. Most know the basics of these rights as life, liberty, and property. Some even throw in the pursuit of happiness, which denotes all kinds of freedom, including the sexy kinds.

Beyond just sounding great on paper, human rights are a major guiding force. History has shown, time and again, that societies that value these rights tend to prosper more that only exist to glorify a despot. The contrast between the two Koreas is proof enough of that.

However, the preservation and promotion of basic human rights is no easy task. The world is full of corrupt, cruel, and power-hungry people who would scoff at the very concept the same way they would anyone who claims trees have souls. The fact that some of them manage to get elected in countries with democratic institutions says a lot about just how hard it can be to protect human rights.

It’s that vulnerability in one the most cherished modern institutions, which some claim took a major hit in 2016, that leads me to ask a question that I’m sure is going to draw me some level of ire. However, in wake of recent news and a particular Hollywood movie that indirectly touches on this concept, I think it’s worth asking.

Is democracy the best way of preserving basic human rights in a society?

I ask that question as someone who loves and celebrates the freedoms that being an American has given me. I feel lucky and honored to live in a country where I get to participate in the democratic process. I make it a point to vote in every election, be it mid-term or a presidential election.

That said, I’m not among those hyper-patriot, Ron Swanson wannabes who willfully ignores the flaws of the democratic systems around me. Between the limited choices offered by a two-party system, the non-democratic nature of the electoral college, and misguided ballot initiatives, I see these flaws as much as anyone else with an internet connection.

To some extent, I recognize that not all of these flaws are fixable within a democracy. The essence of democracy is people electing their government. Unfortunately, people aren’t always rational and anyone who has read headlines from Florida knows that. People can also be whipped up into a hateful, mob-like frenzy. It’s one of the side-effects of being such a social species. We’ll often go with the crowd before we go with reason.

In a perfect democracy, every voter would be completely independent, completely informed, and only vote to elect the person they believe will best preserve basic human rights. Since there’s no such thing as a perfect democracy any more than there’s such a thing as a perfect autocracy, there are bound to be flaws in the system.

Some of those flaws can be mitigated with things like voter education. Others involve mixing democratic systems with that of a republic. That’s primarily what the founding fathers attempted to establish with the United States, a republic being the fixed body of laws to preserve our rights and using democratic systems to protect those rights.

Other western democracies utilize various methods to address these issues, but so long as people are involved, there will be human flaws in any system. The key is making sure that those flaws don’t end up undermining human rights. The results haven’t been perfect. Ask any number of minority communities for proof of that.

With these flaws in mind, I believe it’s worth thinking beyond democracy to imagine other ways of preserving and promoting human rights. Some of those concepts manifest in movies, comics, and TV shows. The “Black Panther” movie presented an enticing, albeit fanciful, idea of an all-around good king who believes in basic human rights and does what he can to promote it, at least for his own people.

I’ve also cited Dr. Doom in a previous article who, despite being the ultimate villain in the Marvel universe, is pretty much the perfect ruler for any system of government. Sure, people in his government fear his wrath, but that’s the only thing they fear. You could argue that such fear is inconsistent with basic human rights, but in terms of actually securing people, property, and what not, Doom has no equals.

Outside the world of superheroes, though, there are also instances where a great leader who deeply values human rights gets thrust into power. That’s the entire premise of “Designated Survivor,” a show where Kiefer Sutherland does more than just shoot and torture terrorists. The best possible leader for a government isn’t elected. They essentially find themselves in that position.

In a sense, that embodies the disconnect between the fictional world and the real world. The idea that a king with ultimate power in a secretive country or some low-level government appointee would turn out to be a perfect president assumes a lot of things that don’t play out in the real world. It essentially vindicates what Winston Churchill once said about democracy.

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Those bolded parts are my doing because those are the parts that most people recall. Considering the context in which Churchill said those words, having just fought a massive war against two leaders who had been democratically elected, it’s hard to blame him.

Even today, extremists who do not hold certain human rights in high regard do get elected to positions of power. It’s not a matter of people just throwing the concept away. People are still very tribal, last I checked. They’re going to vote or protest in accord with their own interests, even if it means undermining the interests of others.

That situation leaves basic human rights vulnerable. There are, as I write this, people living in functioning democracies whose basic rights are being undermined. While we have made a great deal of progress over the past century as democracies have spread, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

Going back to the original question I asked about democracy’s ability to preserve human rights, I don’t think there’s an easy answer. For now, I’m inclined to side with the wisdom of Winston Churchill. Democracy has it’s flaws, but it’s the best we’ve got thus far. We can definitely stand to do better and should work towards doing so.

Some of that may involve getting money out of politics to mitigate corruption. Some involve doing the opposite of what China just did and setting term limits for politicians. Some are taking an even more radical approach by integrating emerging technology into the democratic process.

These are all bold ideas, which are certainly worth pursuing in the future. Until we have a real life T’Challa to be king or a super-intelligent AI capable of running a government with perfect efficiency, democracy is our best bet for preserving human rights. We shouldn’t stop trying to improve, but we should still celebrate it’s merit.

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