In the recently released, first part of the sixth season of Bojack Horseman, the titular washed-up former sitcom star battles his self-loathing, alcoholism, and depression in an attempt to make amends with the people he’s hurt in his life. While he tries to negotiate his present relationships and desires, he often continues to self-sabotage. Eventually, Bojack’s past catches up to him and shows that he will have to do more than change himself for his misdeeds to stop affecting people in the present. All in all, Bojack Horseman exposes the relations of cruel optimism that construct many of our experiences in today’s world.
What exactly do I mean by “cruel optimism?” The term comes from philosopher Lauren Berlant’s study of why people stay attached to conventional fantasies even when they reveal themselves to be less than ideal, as well as unable to manifest into reality. Berlant’s book, Cruel Optimism, considers a range of scenes from romantic love to upward mobility with a particular focus on the United States and Europe from the 1990s to the present. Berlant defines cruel optimism as a relation that exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your development. In this sense, optimism describes leaning towards the promises contained within meeting the object of your desire. For Berlant, a relation to an object of desire only becomes cruel once the thing you want actively impedes the ambition that draws you to it. What’s more is that someone can find themselves drawn to an object that sustains a huge threat to their livelihood and wellbeing but find it profoundly validating to their sense of self. Overall, Berlant wants to know what happens to us when things fall apart so disastrously that even adjusting to the wreck feels like an accomplishment.
Take the new season’s episode “Feel-Good Story,” which follows Diane as she works to expose the exploitative practices of a conglomerate that owns seemingly everything from oil refineries to major media outlets, all while negotiating a budding romance with her cameraman, Guy. The episode shows Diane going through the motions of her life overlayed with Bojack’s voice reading letters he’s writing to Diane from rehab. In this way, Bojack becomes Diane’s narrator for the episode. As Bojack talks about how easy it feels to live in a transient world where he lacks responsibilities, we see Diane feel the same way as she passes meals prepared by a hotel kitchen staff to her cameraman, who is both her lover and her coworker. After they eat, they pack up their bags and leave, as if they were never there at all. Either Diane can’t see how hidden factors construct her life, or she chooses not to see them, so she begins to disassociate from the means that construct her desires. Her work seeps into her life until the two become one and convenience is a mode of living rather than a quality to attain. To an extent, she’s aware that she can’t go on like this forever. But, she’ll do whatever she can to continue living this conveniently comfortable life in which external responsibilities do not exist. Since she wants this fantasy so badly, she’s prepared to take absurd actions that suppress her overall contentment.
The next time we hear Bojack’s voice narrate Diane’s actions, he talks about building up expectations to make himself feel superior to others. Bojack weaves a tale about how he felt annoyed when someone else unknowingly took something he had originally prepared for himself and then eclipsed him in popularity. As he explains what happened, Diane arrives at Guy’s house for the first time, only for his son to unexpectedly drop in for a surprise visit. Guy asks her to sneak out of the house without his son noticing because nor he nor Diane want to define their relationship. On her way to a hotel, Diane stops to stare at a coat in a shop window, shivering from the freezing temperature outside. Ultimately, she decides not to buy the coat, as it would represent a commitment to staying in Chicago with Guy. As Diane checks into a hotel room with two queen sized beds, Bojack reads, “the story of my life is that I never get anything nice. You’d think that I’d learn to adjust my expectations by now.” Both Bojack and Diane want to feel content with their circumstances, but find that their expectations of a comfortable fantasy undermine their ability to feel happy. At this point, their optimistic leanings towards the possibilities contained in their desires begin to turn sour. They sabotage their own personal development in order to uphold the sense of superiority and personal comfort needed to keep things how they want them.
In his last letter to Diane, Bojack reflects on the person who disrupted his sense of personal comfort. Thinking about how he might have undermined them, he writes, “…was it worth it for [them] to be happy for a little bit, even though it ended up sad? Or would it have been better if the whole thing never happened?…I wasted so many years being miserable because I assumed that was the only way to be. But I don’t wanna do that anymore.” Parallel to his reflection, Diane returns to her lonely, unkempt apartment in Los Angeles. Diane has spent so much of her time grinding away at exposing the cancerous practices of a mega-conglomerate, only to find that no one seems to really care. Her choice to drop the story also leaves her relationship with Guy unreconciled. She leaves Chicago wondering about what it is exactly that she wants, or needs, to feel truly happy. At first, Bojack’s words narrate Diane’s struggle with depression. But then, he also speaks to the experience of not understanding why her desires seem to come back and bite her. Diane’s desire to keep things easy and lighthearted with Guy became cruel to her as denying the responsibility of asserting labels on the relationship simultaneously keeps her from him. This desire makes sense to her because she believes she has to find happiness on her own, unreliant on help from others. Finding herself alone in her bleak L.A. apartment, it dawns on her that the extra effort of defining the terms of their attraction could at the very least, keep her from sliding back into the unhealthy patterns of her life before this trip.
In the end, Bojack’s words and Diane’s reckoning also serve as a reminder that remaining in relations of cruel optimism isn’t the only way to live, it’s just that cruel optimism makes it feel as if there’s no way out. As always, the end credits roll and Grouplove’s upbeat chorus of voices reminds us: “Back in the ‘90’s, I was in a very famous TV show…I’m trying to hold on to my past/It’s been so long/I don’t think I’m gonna last.”
In a 2012 interview with ROROTOKO, Berlant suggests a hopeful possibility for life without cruel optimism. She suggests:
The experience of watching Bojack Horseman often feels numbing since the show refuses to sugarcoat the experiences of its characters. At its most basic level, maybe seeing these relations play out on screen and getting some critical distance from our own experiences might allow us to reframe and reconsider the way we encounter objects, people, and the entire scope of our desires.