Your guide to two TV gems

Streaming in quarantine: ‘BoJack Horseman’ vs. ‘The Good Place’

5 minute read
BoJack helps us look honestly at ourselves. (Image courtesy of Netflix.)
BoJack helps us look honestly at ourselves. (Image courtesy of Netflix.)

Now that the official order from Philly is out and we’ve all got to stay in, we’re firing up more TV streams than ever before. There are plenty of great options, but two critically acclaimed shows, BoJack Horseman and The Good Place, aired their final episodes earlier this year, so it’s a perfect time to tackle these fan favorites. Which one’s right for you?

The man, the horse, the legend

Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s BoJack Horseman is an animated series set in an alternative world in which humans and anthropomorphized nonhuman animals coexist. This Netflix original, which premiered in 2014, chronicles the journey of a washed-up, disillusioned ‘90s sitcom star (who is, yes, a horse) attempting to stay relevant decades later. The show’s six seasons follow the titular character back into the limelight, as well as in and out of the lives of his species-diverse friends. It balances satirical commentary on the absurdities of celebrity and Los Angeles culture with a compassionate yet unflinchingly raw and honest depiction of the tunnels of depression, trauma, alcoholism, and addiction.

It’s bleak—but so is life

While it features the zany misadventures you might expect from animation for grownups, I won’t lie: BoJack can be bleak. The show repeatedly denies us the catharsis of neatly wrapped-up storylines or, in some cases, the sympathetic qualities that make us root for protagonists. Behind the clever wordplay, frequent celebrity cameos, and skewering of its “Hollywoo” setting is the existential nihilism that attracts viewers, many of whom struggle with trauma and mental health problems of their own.

It can be frustrating to watch BoJack refuse to change for season upon season, only to fail and hurt his friends when he does try to do better, but that’s exactly the appeal. Life isn’t easy, and you don’t have the TV-standard assurances that someone will improve, so seeing this portrayed onscreen can be incredibly validating.

An absurd and eminently relatable world, where people come in every shape. (Image courtesy of Netflix.)
An absurd and eminently relatable world, where people come in every shape. (Image courtesy of Netflix.)

What no one else is talking about

That’s not all there is to it, though. The show frankly addresses a number of other relevant topics that you’ll scarcely see on TV: asexuality, infertility, adoption, abortion, psychiatric treatment, trauma, and the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements appear in various ways, but always treated with empathy and compassion. It allows its characters to be complex, flawed people who (sometimes) learn from their mistakes, while also holding them responsible for their actions and the way they affect others. And it does all this while also being incredibly clever and funny. If you like your media to be cynical and satirical but also (deep down inside) a vulnerable reflection on the human condition, BoJack Horseman should be your quarantine pick.

Welcome! Everything is fine.

NBC’s The Good Place (the first three of four total seasons are now streaming on Netflix, and all four seasons are available on Hulu), follows Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) after her death. Michael (Ted Danson) welcomes her to the Good Place, an afterlife reserved only for a select few who lived the best possible lives. Quickly realizing she’s been placed there by mistake, she enlists her assigned soulmate, moral philosophy professor Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), to help her become a better person, and avoid a one-way trip to the Bad Place.

There are too many twists and turns in this series for me to safely divulge much information, even about the other main characters. Fans of other projects from Good Place creator Michael Shur (also known for his work on The Office and for cocreating Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine) will enjoy another character-driven, diverse, kind, and goofy TV romp.

Repeats recommended

As brightly colored as it is optimistic, the show is a magnet for fans who love its wholesome, uplifting content—and, shockingly for primetime TV, its lessons on moral philosophy. The cheerful world, timely humor, and earnest, compassionate ways the characters interact define this series. As they learn to deal with their trauma and shortcomings, to take responsibility for their actions and personal growth, they also support each other with unwavering devotion. The Good Place is a show about a woman doomed to an eternity of torture who somehow helps to save humanity. It manages to be a fun, funny, lighthearted romp through an ethics course, complete with a bloody live-action “trolley problem.”

An absurd and eminently relatable world, where people come in every shape. (Image courtesy of Netflix.)
An absurd and eminently relatable world, where people come in every shape. (Image courtesy of Netflix.)

The show’s playful yet comforting tone means a high repeat-viewing value. I rewatch it when I need help believing that, given the opportunity, people can grow and change and improve; to reassure me that there is a light at the end of the tunnel if we are caretakers of our communities, supporting each other and working to be better people than we were the day before. In other words, perfect pandemic viewing.

Same world, two journeys

Both The Good Place and BoJack Horseman take different paths to explore character growth and questions of morality, ethics, and existence itself. BoJack reflects the unfair and often cruel world we live in, full of flawed people who are trying to do the best with what they’re given; The Good Place shows us who we could be if given the resources and support to flourish. These two TV realms validate different aspects of the same worldview: that life can be unknowably, viciously difficult; that we must be held responsible for our actions and their consequences; and that no matter how many times we fail, we can always try again.

Whichever show you decide to stream (or restream) while the pandemic has you at home (and why not try both?), each of these TV gems provides complex, engaging experiences worthy of discussion and the enormous fan followings they’ve both amassed.

What, When, Where

All seasons of BoJack Horseman and three seasons of The Good Place are available to stream on Netflix.

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