Sunday, July 24, 2016

"BoJack Horseman" Just Aired the Best Episode About Abortion in TV History

Some thoughts on BoJack Horseman's sixth episode ("Brrap Brrap Pew Pew") after the jump. Spoilers, obviously:

One of the things you'll find if you start to dig into the history of abortion on TV is that it's not actually shied away from as often as you'd think. There's some truth to the notion that certain shows work to avoid it, but another truth is that many of the people who make TV self-identify as progressives, and they want to feel as though they're doing their part to break down those sorts of barriers. With these individuals often in charge, countless well-meaning, sensitive, and in many respects quite good portrayals of abortion have emerged on television over the past few decades. Abortion has become, if not nearly as common as it is in real life, something the average TV viewer is likely to come across at one point or another. (Those of us who watch at least 40-50 different shows a year, meanwhile, are likely to observe it even more.) What they will see tends to be a highly solemn affair involving clear signals of distress, an attempt at explanation/justification ("Here's why I need to get this abortion"), and a fair bit of emotional hand-holding.

Joking about their characters having an abortion, though? These shows wouldn't dare. (Though Six Feet Under's Claire does get in a pretty funny comment about hers when she's dating a Republican a few years down the road.)

Jokes about abortion as a general concept on TV comedies are a different story. You can find plenty of examples of those, many of which are extremely funny. Arrested Development cracked quite a few good ones back in its heyday. The Simpsons' eloquent summation of the modern American climate—"Abortions for some, miniature American flags for all"—continues to be a highly accurate description of the country's mood. The great sketch series Mr Show once made reference to "Mr. Pickle's Fun Time Abortion Clinics" in a mock advertisement, informing any interested parties that "we'll bring out the kid in you!" Late-night comedy hosts love to skewer the relatively easy target for humor that is the pro-life movement. And recently, You're the Worst had Gretchen Cutler refer to them as "abobos" several times, suggesting the casual, matter-of-fact, and entirely unapologetic view she has of them.

BoJack Horseman, whose sixth episode this season ("Brrap Brrap Pew Pew") is both the funniest and the best episode about abortion I've ever seen, does a whole lot more than that. It doesn't start out seeming like it's going to, though. When Diane, a human woman married to the dog Mr. Peanutbutter (if you're unfamiliar with the show . . . just go with me here), goes to see about getting an abortion, she's informed that under state law, she is required not only to get an ultrasound but is also informed that "at one month, your puppies have a favorite color, and that color may be blue." She's then told she also has to watch 20 hours of cute puppy videos while listening to a Sarah McLaughlin song. When her husband says he'll help her get through all these hoops, the doctor replies that, no, she has to do it all alone.

This is some biting, beautiful satire. It's very funny. It's also not too far from what you'd probably expect when you hear that an irreverent animated comedy about a talking horse is doing an episode about abortion. Verbal jabs at pro-life politicians and their bad laws? Check. Jokes about animal babies being aborted? Check. Yep. Not too much new to see here so far. 

The rest of "Brrap Brrap Pew Pew" moves to a much different tune. When showrunner Raphael Bob-Waksberg was interviewed about this episode, he remarked about how he wanted to avoid the usual trope of an abortion being seen as some sort major event in Diane's life. BoJack succeeds in doing just that; both Diane and her husband are firm on not wanting kids, and there is no conflict—either internal or external—over her decision at all. She wants it. She gets it. End of story. As she's recuperating afterward, she tells her friend and boss Princess Carolyn that the only thing bothering her is some physical discomfort. She also remarks on how old she felt compared to some of the younger women she saw—a line that strikes me as a highly intentional choice by episode writer Joanna Calo that's meant to call out the prevailing notion that abortion is almost solely the purview of younger women. (I mean, just look at the most famous examples on other shows. Almost all are teenagers. News flash: Many non-teenagers get abortions, too.)

So Diane's abortion is, in and of itself, already a pretty remarkable departure from the traditional television template for depicting abortion. I haven't even gotten to the real meat of the episode yet, though. For that, we must turn to Sextina Aquafina, a teenage dolphin pop star who is not actually pregnant, but who Diane has unintentionally tweeted is getting an abortion. She's furious at first, but lo and behold, the tweet is a hit, and Sextina quickly becomes one of the most popular celebrity advocates in the pro-choice movement. Diane is somewhat uncomfortable with all this, but hey, she's also no longer fired for her major screw-up, and a popular pop culture figure shouting her abortion—fake though it may be—might even do some good for the cause. 

Sextina, though, isn't about to stay on message in the way Diane wants, and she soon releases a single entitled . . . wait for it . . . "Get Dat Fetus, Kill Dat Fetus," complete with a music video that features depictions of a fetus on an ultrasound monitor about to be hit by a targeted missile and a giant baby suspended in space getting destroyed by lasers. It's one of the funniest things I've seen on TV in recent years, and it's also the moment where this episode starts getting really smart about the notion of abortion as a potential source of amusement, as opposed to something that always needs to be handled with the utmost grace and seriousness, if not outright sadness.

Diane is, of course, outraged by what she sees as a mockery of an issue she's always cared deeply about, even before she became unexpectedly pregnant. She seems to have this notion in her head of how to properly react to an abortion: stoically, matter-of-factly, and neither particularly proud nor particularly ashamed of it. Levity just doesn't enter into the equation, and when she sees Sextina treating her fake abortion as though it's some sort of big joke (as well as an opportunity to cash in on her newfound political fame by releasing a catchy pop single), she immediately gets all holier than thou, especially when Sextina later comes up with the idea to turn her abortion into a television event. It's just not dignified enough for her.

She is, in a nutshell, totally full of it. And BoJack knows this, which leads to a simply wonderful scene where she heads to a clinic for her abortion and meets a young woman who asks her if she knows Sextina Aquafina. She then goes on to tell Diane that these sorts of jokes and songs can make a procedure that—thanks to protestors, ongoing stigma, and so many other burdens placed upon the women getting it—is often really scary just a little bit easier. It's a scene that the otherwise joke-filled episode takes utterly seriously, but the seriousness is not at all related to the decision to get an abortion. Both these women are getting abortions. That's settled. Instead, the whole scene is about the ways in which abortion rhetoric centered on the oft-cited doctrine of "safe, legal, and rare" can affect people by making abortion seem like something shameful that deserves to be hidden away. In the process, it makes a convincing argument for the human value of laughter as being deserving of a more prominent place at the table, so as to partially counter that potential sense of shame.

It's appropriate, then, that the episode does not end on this note, as thoughtful as it is. Instead, it wraps up with a magnificent final punchline, as Sextina reveals she's now pregnant for real and wants to keep it. "Everyone loves a baby," Diane says to Princess Carolyn as they start planning how to spin and/or cover up the situation. Cue the credits, and Sextina's song immediately starts up again. At that point, I just started laughing giddily. It was so perfect, and such a welcome antidote to the usual cliches of all those other episodes, however strongly written some of them are. TV has needed an episode like "Brrap Brrap Pew Pew" for a long time, and it pleases me so much to know it's now out there in the world. I think it's too high a burden to place on any piece of art that it provide comfort, but I hope this one can become—if only for a few people—the funny, comforting Sextina Aquafina pop hit they deserve. It wouldn't be much in the grand scheme of things, but it'd be swell.

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