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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Too Much Horseman: The Reset Button vs Continuity in BoJack Horseman

You enter the pub, as you always do, and find that, as always, Sam Keeper is sitting in your chair. They've been sitting in your chair rambling at you for years now about everything under the sun, but mostly media studies. Criticism may be a conversation but it's hard to get a word in edge-wise!

Nevertheless, that's the status quo, and the status quo doesn't change.

Well, except for the fact that there's a bunch of other freaks here now, including the infamous Lord Humongous, and a couple of unicorns. Oh and everyone's wearing horse masks today, that's new.





Not the unicorns, they just look like that. You think they... live here now?

Still. When you get right down to it, everything around here stays pretty much the same and oh, hey, Keeper has started talking about that very subject.

BoJack Horseman, the show that we're all dressed as because it's the 10th of Halloween, is fundamentally a sitcom, and as such it's characterized by stasis. It's a show that is really about things remaining the same over time, returning to their starting points. But unlike similar shows which might hang a lampshade on their constant use of a reset button at the end of every episode, this is a show where cyclicality is welded deep into the narrative skeleton.

The premise of BoJack Horseman is that there's people, and there's also people with animal heads. Like in the video for Blow! It's sorta... post-furry.

Within that very strange context, the actual premise of BoJack Horseman is to follow the attempts of a middle-aged washed up former sitcom star, the titular BoJack, to move forward with his career and interpersonal relationships. Much of the show focuses on his search for meaning in his hollow and decadent existence, as his life and the lives of everyone around him continually are propelled back into old habits and self-destructive behaviors.

It's a comedy!

So this is a show characterized fundamentally by a consistent return to the status quo. This causes problems in the final episode of season 3, due to the problem of continuity.

Ghost Sam Coper: Hah, of course an underdeveloped version of myself would think continuity is the big problem here. I remember when I was so naive!

Sam Keeper: Wow what the heck? You're supposed to be dead!



Oh, yeah, you guess this person IS supposed to be dead. This alternate reality version of Keeper tried to take over the blog and then was murdered by the original, much less well adjusted Sam Keeper. You really didn't expect that continuity to be relevant again.

Sam Keeper: I really didn't expect this continuity to be relevant again! Who could possibly have predicted that there might be consequences to my long series of disastrous decisions!

Ghost Sam Coper: See because unlike me, a person who constantly rises above my past faults, you're constantly bogged down by your unacknowledged mistakes! Just like the characters in BoJack Horseman, actually. See this is REALLY a show characterized most strongly by continuity, and it's primarily continuity that allows the final episode of season 3 to succeed! If anything, it's an over-reliance on the reset button that bogs it down.

Sam Keeper: Well that's just ridiculous.

Oh great. They're clearly going to hash this all out, with you as a captive audience.

Ghost Sam Coper: Clearly we need to hash this all out, since we've got a captive audience!

Sam Keeper: Absolutely. Let's start by digging into the main arc of Season 3.









The third season largely follows BoJack's abortive quest for an Oscar nomination, for a film about Secretariat one Who in this world is basically just a track star, but with a horse head which BoJack starred intwo until they decided to just use a CGI model based on him instead . Much of the season involves his and his publicist's attempts to convince the hoi palloi that he deserves the award.

He doesn't get nominated.

There's a pretty incredible episode after the point where he doesn't get the nomination where BoJack is paired with ancillary cast member Sarah Lynn, a former child star from Horsing Around, BoJack's 90s sitcom. Sarah Lynn has gone on to become an ultra-famous pop star, which totally screwed her up as, like, a person. BoJack at this point is totally isolated, basically, and the two of them go on an epic bender, at the end of which she dies.

Ghost Sam Coper: It's a comedy!

Sam Keeper: Quite.

This episode would be fascinating enough for how emotionally affecting it is, but it's also structurally fascinating as well. BoJack continually blacks out during the episode, resulting in a structure that involves continual jump cuts and missing information. This lets the creators do stuff like having BoJack show up four times at his publicist's house to ask her why, after failing to secure the award for him, she drops him entirely. Each time he almost gets an explanation we cut away, and he realizes that he's blacked out again. So we get a kind of cyclicality, which is so good as a metaphor for the consistent failure of BoJack to actually progress in his life.

Later in the episode BoJack is following someone and he decides that he needs to write on his hands "Do Not Follow" so that he remembers his decision to give up this fool's errand, and we get a jump cut midway through to him still following her, donut in hand. He wrote "donut follow" instead and got confused. I mean it's kind of a cheesy joke, it's not Oscar Wilde, but it's a pretty great representation of his constant failure to follow through on the changes he ostensibly wants to make. His own past decisions constantly get in his own way. This is the Reset Button of sitcoms integrated into the fabric of a single episode!

So we've got a pretty great structure here that lets them play overtly with ideas of cyclicality, culminating in Sarah Lynn's death, which seems to come at the end of a life lived without real hope. She really doesn't seem to have any interest in trying to move forward in a healthy way and the episode plays out like one long suicide attempt, which just makes the ending more effective.

Ghost Sam Coper: It's even more affecting once you're already dead! See how I'm taking this with such good grace?

But what really makes this episode interesting is the way it is the culmination of a whole character arc. The best part of the Sarah Lynn episode is the ironic recurrence of her sitcom catchphrase: "That's too much, man!" This takes on a new significance in the episode, meaning both the massive substance abuse leading to an overdose, and also just the sense the characters have of being totally overwhelmed by their stardom, to a point where they're incapable of functioning anymore.

This kind of stuff is where the show really excels. For all that it's a Zany Adult Comedy Series, it's pretty bleak in its outlook, and a lot of that comes from the way that the show engages continuity in the context of what is ostensibly kinda like a sitcom--not a genre well known for its deep continuity.

A lot of this comes from the medium that it's televised on. Netflix is a fundamentally different viewing environment than other cartoons like this have traditionally been shown on. Netflix shows can assume that viewers will access the shows in the correct order, possibly all at once in a big rush--something other syndicated shows like the Simpsons, Futurama, South Park, or Family guy, or even actual relevant contemporary shows like Bob's Burgers, couldn't depend on.

Sam Keeper: At the same time though, for all that the series is probably best understood as a continuous whole like so many Netflix shows, and as much as each season has a throughline that is developed continuously, some of the best episodes are weird little stand alone formal experiments.

I've already talked about the second to last episode in the season, the bender episode--

Ghost Sam Coper: Which draws on a whole lot of continuity!

Sam Keeper: And yet it exists as sort of its own thing because of those circumstances, as its own formal experiment. The continuity serves as a tool to allow for something very self contained.

We get some similar things in an earlier episode in the season where BoJack goes to a convention underwater (because fish people, because sure) which is one of his attempts to drum up interest in his film on the award circuit. Throughout the episode neither he nor the viewer can understand what the fish people are saying, and he can't speak, either.

So a major part of the episode is his repeated attempts to communicate to the first (fired) director of Secretariat. He wants to tell her that he wants to work with her again, and feels shitty about what happened to her, but he repeatedly fails due to ludicrous cartoon reasons.

Due to those ludicrous cartoon reasons he ends up helping a seahorse to give birth (just roll with it), and one of the surprisingly fully functional seahorse babies gets separated from their father. Most of the episode is spent with him getting the seahorse baby back home. Shenanigans ensue.

Ghost Sam Coper: It's a comedy sh- oh wait, that's actually not ironic.

Sam Keeper: But the point of these shenanigans is to show attempts and failures to communicate. Ultimately, despite feeling a bond with the baby seahorse, BoJack is unable to make a full connection to anyone else in the episode, including the director.

At the end of the episode he discovers that he could've been talking clearly the whole time, he just didn't realize he had a button on his swim helmet capable of projecting sound underwater. So the whole episode is a silent episode entirely about failure to communicate.

I'm not gonna call this the second coming of Tarkovsky or whatever, but it's a clever little experiment. Their ability to take a single episode and make it into some sort of formal experiment makes for really compelling television. And to some extent I think it's something they can manage by keeping certain aspects of character and staging more constant.

The other episode that is a sort of self-contained formal experiment is one early on in the season where BoJack ends up relaying the entire narrative as a series of anecdotes to someone trying to sell him a newspaper subscription. It's a back and forth where he's just wasting this person's time by explaining everything going on in his life, but it has this nested recursive structure where he's telling the story then other people within his stories are telling stories, so it becomes this twisting narrative.

Ghost Sam Coper: This is, interestingly, an episode where we get a huge amount of setup for future episodes.

Sam Keeper: True, it does a lot of setup. But rather than being just exposition, its circuitous structure adds a layer of interest due to the sheer absurdity of the situation, and it actually relies heavily on the familiar structure of the show, starting at BoJack's house, with the regular cast occupying space there.

The show almost does a better job with these focused formal experiments than even the more traditional sitcom A Plot/B Plot structure. Its in the moments when the structure goes weird that the show really shines. Well that, and moments of sustained high-speed Airplane- or Marx Brothers-style comedic exchanges.

Ghost Sam Coper: I, being better adjusted and all around superior, actually don't disagree! 

In fact, this is where we kind of come to what I think is a tension in the show between a sitcom reset button, and the ability to create bottle episodes, and the protracted continuity of the series its medium of release makes possible. These two work together but they also present a contradiction: a movement forward to self contained, sustained ideas, but also the return to the past and an interest in drawing particular threads through an entire season.

The way this plays out is that these two things both function thematically in different ways that are nevertheless deeply intertwined.

On the one hand, there's the idea of the sitcom reset button that we've already discussed. Now this isn't something the show employs too often-

Sam Keeper: -but there is a deep cyclicality to the show. We start the episodes largely knowing where the players area and what their relationships to each other are. There are changes but we tend to slide back to BoJack's house, with Todd sleeping on his couch, Princess Caroline calling him, Dianne lurking around, and so on. And this suggests a kind of stasis, a continuation of previous dynamics. Even though these characters try to move forward, they keep ending up back at the same place they started. Hell, it's how each episode's opening theme operates.

Ghost Sam Coper: On the other hand, there's continuity of damage, a continuity of decay. If the reset button hampers the ability of characters to move forward, continuity serves to pile up trauma upon them. Continuity is the past reaching into the present like a ghost. And it allows for formative traumas to keep recurring within a narrative.

If you drew the movement of the show, what you'd get is a line and a circle interacting. You've got a forward trajectory (continuity building up), and an orbital motion (reiteration and the Reset Button), which produces in aggregate a forward spiral.

Or a downward spiral.

I think this is basically the structure of the show, a structure where you always have a cycling around through the same paths even as the continuity explodes out behind the characters.

A lot of the interest in the show comes from the fact that they haven't resolved this looping path into something more straightforward. Sometimes the result is something that hums perfectly, and this tension provides a lot of thematic depth. 

But sometimes it runs into problems too, and I think that's what we get in the last episode of this season.

The first half of the episode is actually great. I'm... not even going to try to explain all the various plot threads that come together here, but it's practically every single b plot and several recurring gags in the entire damn season. They come together in a totally ludicrous way involving a cooked spaghetti apocalypse. But what's really important is that Mr Peanutbutter, a character who tends to succeed in life through sheer fucking dumb luck... saves the day through sheer fucking dumb luck.

So we have this amazing swerve between BoJack's failure to connect ultimately ending with Sarah Lynn's death, and this over the top cartoon nonsense. It's just fascinating to watch because you have this character who succeeds despite being kind of a cheery idiot, and BoJack who continually tries to be a better person and then falls back into self destructive habits when he fails. It's a fascinatingly bizarre choice because all these b plots are basically totally irrelevant to BoJack's current disastrous trauma. On the one hand this suggests a world outside BoJack's disaster of a life, and yet it also depends so much on everything being connected in totally absurd, arbitrary, meaningless ways.

Sam Keeper: Right. So this has almost the kind of very limited structure I like so much, one that depends on continuity but runs with what's been established in a self-contained way, riffing on a particular idea. In this case, riffing on the idea of every one-off gag in the entire season smashing together all at once.

Ghost Sam Coper: But we also have a whole bunch of stuff in the episode that to me doesn't quite cohere because it tries to juggle the whole extended cast.

For example, earlier in the season Princess Caroline, Bojack's agent, was fired by him. She seems to have, in the meantime started building a much happier life. But in this episode she decides that her real problem wasn't that the job made her miserable. Instead, she was an agent when she should've been a manager. And so, she starts over again, doing basically the same job with a slightly different spin. That's the reset button right there, forcing its way into the narrative.

Sam Keeper: And it works! Because this is about her inability to be happy and her inability to find an identity outside of managing the lives of the totally incompetent people that constantly surround her. So even though this is clearly not healthy for her, here we go again.

I like that. I think it works thematically and I don't think it's an un-earned reset button.

But the problem in this episode is that it feels swamped with future continuity, continuity for the next season, which dulls a lot of the impact of BoJack's own character arc. His time in this episode is weirdly compressed for a main character whose friend just literally died in his arms. His plotline in the episode is:

He contacts one of the other former child stars of his show to take him up on an offer from earlier in the season (which at the time he blew off) to attempt a revival/continuation of Horsein' Around, with the former child star as the new father and BoJack as the grandfather. He's come to the realization that Horsin' Around was meaningful to people and he doesn't want to continue denying that legacy. Strangely, though, we go from this conversation about attempting the show, to the show... successfully starting to shoot a pilot episode. It feels like in the process there's a whole bunch of lost information. And then we get this great concluding scene where BoJack starts talking to the child star they've hired. He asks her what she wants to do when she grows up, and she responds that she wants to be a star, like him. This propels BoJack into a massive panic attack (not unreasonably) and he rushes out of the set and gets in his car and just drives away. It's a really stunning and upsetting moment which plays into all the stuff we've been talking about: continuity, and recurrence.

Ghost Sam Coper: An endless spiral.

Sam Keeper: But I feel like this is undermined by the fact that he gets in his car and starts driving away... and then we cut to Mr Peanutbutter being asked by his ex-wife if he wants to run for governor of California. I get why they're doing this, setting stuff up for the next season... but did that really need to be there?

And we also get this very touching moment between Todd, the guy who sleeps on BoJack's couch, and a high school friend introduced partway through the season, which involves him coming out as asexualthree Though he doesn't use that word because you can't use words for things or else it's not Real anymore because Real People don't have their own vocabulary they just describe everything all the time. REALISM so that does work a little bit better, maybe, but there's all kinds of stuff like this going on in the background that, because they're cramming in stuff to move the cast forward (meaning, backward) the actual focus on BoJack and what's going on in his head is sort of lost in kind of a frustrating way. And the episode ends with a lovely scene of him driving in the desert, and he presses the gas to the floor and closes his eyes, and he happens to glance out and sees something that prompts him to hit the brakes, and you see uh...

I mean, ok it's kind of ridiculous actually, but it's a bunch of horse dudes running across the desert. And he sort of gazes out at these running horses. Uh. Horse... men. And some sort of expression passes over his face. I don't know that this ending is super clear to me, reading horse faces is pretty tough presumably even for people who don't already have trouble reading facial expressions, but it's an interesting ending, and I dig it. At the very least, BoJack seems to decide not to ram his car into a mesa, which is, you know, probably good.

But I just feel like in the tension of what they're trying to do, that push and pull between resets and continuity, they lost something of the impact of this episode.

Ghost Sam Coper: But at the same time it's those very tensions that allow the show to work so effectively. The episode is only able to function so well because it's in a show that is so deeply driven by that downward spiral or forward spiral where the two formal thrusts of the show intersect.

Sam Keeper: I guess I don't have a final definitive judgment on this and whether or not this final episode is "good" or not.

Ghost Sam Coper: For me it's more that there's interesting things going on here, there's places where the episode and the show as a whole hampers itself, but it also has a structure that lets them explore some pretty interesting territory thematically. 

Sam Keeper: I guess we can agree on that! Ultimately I--both of me?--do think that in exploring these tensions the creators of this show deserve to be commended for their engagement with these kinds of serial narrative complexities!

Wow. I'm glad we could work that out so comfortably. It's nice that on Storming the Ivory Tower, at least, things stay pretty normal and predictable, without too much weird continuity framing narrative baggage bogging things down! I'm sure that's why we have positively tens of supporters on Patreon.

Ghost Sam Coper: Ha ha yeeeeeah.

Anyway I'm taking over the blog again.

Sam Keeper: You what n-

Ghost Sam Coper: CHECK THIS SHIT OUT:


A Metroid And Its Human

What can 'Another Metroid 2 Remake' tell us about our engagement with game environments? And can an unsanctioned fan remake, attacked by Nintendo, open up an interpretation of a classic game not intended by its creators?

Horseman Falling To Pieces

Check out the draft version of this week's article here.

Return to AM2R (Draft)

In the second installment of Reload the Canons!, I take a step back from the close analysis of AM2R to ask the first major question of the project: just how much should a fan game take from the original's mechanics? How faithful should the reproduction be?

PodJack Castman

In this week's Storming the Ivory Tower Podcast, I ramble about BoJack Horseman and make jokes about Nine Inch Nails albums. This podcast was surprisingly coherent, which is why I had to turn the article into absolute nonsense!

I Can't Believe How Big My Sprite Library Is Getting

And I can't believe how useless most of the sprites are! When the heck am I gonna use these horse head sprites again? Why am I using them now?

If you want to check out the sprites for today's article, and how I composite these images, here's the original Krita file for them.

Lighter Than My Shadow

In this week's Review Highlight, yes "this week's," yes this is a thing I'm doing now, I talk about the structure of Katie Green's comic Lighter Than My Shadow and the way order and disorders are deeply interwoven into the panel structure.

A Horizon of Jostling Curiosities

This collection features four articles on Homestuck's experimentation with comics and hypercomics as a medium, and the uniquely experimental fandom that these experiments spawned, as well as an all new exclusive article on the wave of hypercomics that Homestuck inspired. This collection will be the first pop-academic look at Homestuck's place within a wider history of the comics medium, and will be available to $5 backers of the Storming the Ivory Tower Patreon.

A Bodyless and Timeless Persona

A Bodyless and Timeless Persona: Essays on Homestuck and Theme covers four previous essays from Storming the Ivory Tower exploring everything from Gnostic themes in Homestuck to the way the comic makes use of difficulty. Additionally, the collection features an exclusive triple-length article, "Is There A Text In This Classpect?," which explores all the different possible answers to the question "just what is a character in Homestuck?"

At the end of Homestuck's seven year journey, this collection aims to be a starting point for anyone interested in delving deeper into the meaning of the comic and its complex and rewarding mythology, symbolism, and narrative experimentation.


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