Jerks, antiheroes and failed adulthood in You’re The Worst and BoJack Horseman
Originally published as Kill Your Darlings TV Column.
Watching two new US comedies – You’re The Worst and BoJack Horseman – I married them in my mind. It may seem a strange coupling: the former, a live action anti-romcom; the latter, an adult cartoon series about anthropomorphic animals coexisting with humans. But in addition to both being really funny, they also speak to a widely-held fear about what, exactly, constitutes ‘adulthood’
These characters are no Van Wilder. They generally sit between the thirty-something and middle-aged demographics, and struggle with their careers (or lack thereof) and the emotional demands of interpersonal relationships. They drink and dabble to excess at all times, and don’t cook or clean. With attitudes and behaviour that some may describe as immature (but which I describe as ‘I feel ya’), we witness them grappling with deeply confused motivations, and being increasingly stifled by what society dictates they should be doing in order to grow up.
Released in August this year, BoJack Horseman is an animated Netflix original. As with many cartoon series for adults like Bob’s Burgers or Archer, it’s simultaneously a study of pathos and a series of dry, witty in-jokes. Despite starring Will Arnett as the eponymous BoJack (a washed up ‘90s sitcom star horse living in Hollywood) and Amy Sedaris as his agent, Princess Caroline (a cat), it takes a while to really find its feet (or hooves or paws or claws). It’s worth sticking with for the bleak laughs, as middle-aged BoJack half-heartedly writes a book, attempts a comeback and self-sabotages with booze and birds (meaning young women and literal birds – his publisher is ‘Penguin’).
Meanwhile, You’re The Worst follows two misanthropic souls and their burgeoning (anti)relationship. Jimmy (Jimmy Shive-Overly) is a self-obsessed British writer. Gretchen (Aya Cash) is a self-destructive PR exec based in LA. Their meet cute sums them up nicely: they run into each other outside the wedding of a mutual acquaintance, where Jimmy has been expelled for ‘bad behaviour’ and Gretchen has stolen a gift. They spend the rest of the season reluctantly navigating the fact that their respective brutal personalities and individual toxicity are an explosive but alluring combination. It sounds kinda cheeseball, and essentially, it is a romcom (albeit one which inverts the standard trajectory of a fictional relationship – see the movie date scene). But it’s incredibly amusing, with some real laugh out loud moments and a seriously dark undertow.
There are obvious parallels between BoJack and You’re The Worst: both shows are set in LA, affording them the chance to bitingly satirise show business and fame. They’re darkly comedic studies of contemporary hubris, commonly accepted notions of success, and failed attempts at being a modern ‘adult’. The central characters are mean-spirited, unforgiving jerks. But the wormhole that connects them is more than superficial narrative or thematic similarities; the universe these shows cohabit is a reflection of our own world: a late-capitalist society in which the rules about ‘adult life’ have shifted.
Since A.O. Scott proclaimed the death of adulthood in American culture last month, the topic has well and truly been revived. Scott argues that the prevalence of masculine crisis narratives – those focusing on revered, ubiquitous anti-heroes from the likes of Mad Men’s Don Draper to Breaking Bad’s Walter White – proves that, ‘in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grown-ups’. It’s an interesting argument, but he overreaches in his attempts to broadly incorporate the arts and culture into his thesis. He also overlooks the fact that, as Andrew O’Hehir argues in response, popular culture hasn’t brought about this declining maturity in isolation. Fundamentally, ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’
In his piece for Salon, O’Hehir writes, ‘Scott’s essay appears to treat “culture” as a sealed and self-referential system, one that shapes and reflects human consciousness but has only an incidental relationship with economic, political and social factors that lie outside its purview.’ Essentially, the changing ideology around adulthood has come about in direct response to the current socio-economic climate: the structures and strictures that formulate the conditions of modern life have altered, and the spate of failed-adult narratives are a reflection of this. I don’t just mean the oft-celebrated, seemingly ubiquitous anti-heroes of the great modern TV dramas. Comedy series are just as integral to the historical development of the medium as dramas, and BoJack Horseman and You’re The Worst are examples of how the current economic climate is shaping cultural representation.
Yes, I know I’m talking about a talking horse and a couple who pass out nude in their driveway, but bear with me.
BoJack and Gretchen and Jimmy aren’t good characters or nice people (they’re ‘the worst’), but they resist becoming anti-heroes in the dramatic tradition. Firstly, Gretchen (pictured right, with Jimmy) is female, and while female anti-heroes exist in this dialogue, they generally come second to dominant demigods like Tony Soprano or Walter White (You’re The Worstcreator Stephen Falk was also responsible forWeeds, a show lead by a female anti-hero). Secondly, these characters are not solely working within the parameters of a capitalist institution, and failing as they fade out (like Don Draper). Rather, they are products of a system that is failing them. BoJack and the cast ofYou’re The Worst are almost a sub-classification of the modern day TV antihero: they’re jerks.
The characters in BoJack and You’re The Worst are caustic and dejected jerks rejecting (and being rejected by) ‘adulthood’ in a world that is rejecting them. There is no escape: they hate the world that made them as much as they do themselves. Their shared malaise is dank and seemingly unavoidable, and the absurdist humour of their situation extends beyond the cheap pleasures of schadenfreude to true, pitiful sympathy. When BoJack crumbles while revisiting the emotional abuse of his privileged upbringing as he writes his biography, we feel sorry for him. As he recedes into his depression and struggles against failure, the world around him becomes increasingly absurd and threatens to leave him behind altogether. Like the reruns of his fictional sitcom, Horsin’ Around, the character of BoJack is stuck in an inevitable cycle of arrested development.
You’re The Worst’s secondary characters are similarly unable to function within crippling societal structures and institutions. Gretchen’s incredibly amusing best friend Lindsay (Kether Donohue) feels claustrophobic and unsatisfied in her failing marriage to a safe every-guy. And even more explicitly, Jimmy’s housemate Edgar (Desmin Borges) – a war veteran suffering from PTSD –presents a direct example of failed adulthood at the hands of the institutional monster that created him.
Times have changed since the classic jerk era of Seinfeld’s George Costanza and Elaine Benes in the late-80s to mid-90s. George and Elaine may have been immature arseholes, but they were still adults capable of holding down legitimate, semi-impressive jobs and seeking to progress within capitalist structures. Conversely, BoJack Horseman and You’re The Worst are indicative of our altered climate. As former markers of adulthood (success in fundamentally capitalist arenas) shift, so do measures of failure and success. The situations that BoJack and Gretchen and Jimmy (et al) encounter are amusing because these characters are pretty lousy people – but they’re not the worst. After all, it’s the economy, stupid – and that’s not exactly the best.