Film

Five Reasons to Enter the Silly, Sad World of Netflix’s ‘BoJack Horseman’

by

BoJack Horseman lurched out of the gate last year with a whole lotta animal puns and one uncomplicated thesis: Old sitcoms suck. An aggressively stupid and mawkish show from the late Eighties called Horsin’ Around, about an equine-human hybrid in Cosby sweaters who adopts three adorable orphans, made its star, BoJack (voiced by Will Arnett), incredibly rich and incredibly miserable. Fame is rumored to arrest the development of its beneficiaries at the life stage when they make it big, which suggests that BoJack will never age out of the easy entitlement and existential malaise that have set him early on a path to slow but steady self-ruin.

After indulging its protagonist’s asshole behavior for a little too long during the middling first half of the debut season, creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg made his show one of Netflix’s sharpest and silliest original series — and one of the best animated programs for adults anywhere — by course-correcting it toward a merciless media satire and a surprisingly affecting doomed romance between BoJack and his autobiography ghostwriter Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), an equally lost soul. Diane has since married a dog-man aptly named Mr. Peanutbutter, voiced by Paul F. Tompkins, a happy-go-lucky has-been who used to be BoJack’s ratings rival. (The world-building is detailed enough that you get used to the human-animal hookups pretty fast.)

Season 2, available in full as of July 17, has found this gorgeous, absurdist, melancholic, occasionally bawdy show reach its potential. After the commercial and critical success of his memoir — in which Diane exposes more of her client/friend/would-be lover’s secrets than he was comfortable with — BoJack gets to prove himself a real actor by starring in a warts-and-all biopic of his personal hero, Secretariat. (In this version of the sprinting champion, Secretariat throws himself off a bridge when it’s discovered that he’d been betting on his own races.) A perfectly structured season-long arc finds BoJack struggling to channel his own sadness on camera while dealing with a too-demanding director (Maria Bamford), as well as the chaos of Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter’s fragile marriage, his feline agent Princess Carolyn’s (Amy Sedaris) ever disastrous love life, and his unemployed housemate Todd’s (Aaron Paul) crazy schemes to finally make something of his life — which is all that BoJack wants, too.

‘BoJack Horseman’ is one of the best animated programs for adults anywhere.

Since the show’s best watched serially from the start, here are five reasons to tough out the handful of mediocre episodes at the beginning (if you haven’t already done so) to get at what makes BoJack Horseman one of the most distinctive and creatively unflinching experiments on TV.

5. It’s one of the most beautiful and ambitious animated shows on the air.

BoJack Horseman looks like few other shows, with its blend of the attractively garish palette of network favorites like The Simpsons and Bob’s Burgers and the deliberately awkward lines of the indie-comic world, which tend to accentuate, rather than smooth over, facial features. The two-legged animal characters in people clothes have visual charm to spare, while, more importantly, the humans somehow don’t look bizarre sidling up next to them. Every scene packs in a huge amount of character detail and nested jokes that might require a second viewing to catch — laudable accomplishments from production designer Lisa Hanawalt. Just as noteworthy are the confident strokes of darkness and gloom — it could be argued that BoJack, like Amazon’s Transparent, is more a half-hour drama than a comedy — one that arguably hits harder because of the show’s sunny look, like sad lyrics sung to a cheery melody.

4. It rewards our love of, and nurses its own affection for, television and celebrity culture.

In the season premiere, Herb Kazzaz (Stanley Tucci), the amiable but practical creator of Horsin’ Around, tells BoJack in a flashback, “No one watches this show to feel feelings. Life is depressing enough already.” But we see in the very first scene of that same episode how wrong Herb is. While his parents tear each other down, a foal version of BoJack inches closer to the TV set to tune out the screaming from the next room. Horsin’ Around may have been a disaster for all involved with the production — the child actors are definitely screwed up forever — but there’s still hope that BoJack did some good with his sitcom, even if it wasn’t Hamlet, which is the way TV often works, especially for young viewers. BoJack feeds that sitcom nostalgia, albeit with a drop of surreal hilarity, by occasionally re-enacting hacky story lines, like the goofy Todd believing himself to be bad boy Toad in a Steve Urkel/Stefan Urquelle flip, by playing up the ridiculousness of those familiar plots. And the sprawling, A- and B-list cast — which includes Lisa Kudrow, Amy Schumer, Stephen Colbert, Anjelica Huston, Keegan-Michael Key, Patton Oswalt, J.K. Simmons, Alan Arkin as a still-alive J.D. Salinger, and Paul McCartney as himself, among numerous others — makes an irresistible game out of identifying the recognizable voices of the actors and comedians, several of whom play off their personas. This is a show made by pop-culture obsessives for pop-culture obsessives.

3. It’s necessarily cynical as hell about the entertainment industry. 

One of the most promising signs of the show’s turnaround in season 1 was a speech by Diane about her conflicting feelings about “taking back” one’s sexuality as a female performer. She monologues about BoJack’s onetime co-star, who was briefly a Britney/Miley-like pop tart: 

I’m a fan of her early work, which both satirized and celebrated youth culture’s obsession with sex. But I do wonder as a third-wave feminist if it’s even possible for women to “reclaim” their sexuality in this deeply entrenched patriarchal society. Or if claiming to do so is just a lie we tell ourselves to more comfortably cater to the male gaze. On the other hand, I worry conversations like this one often dismiss her as a mere puppet of the industry, incapable of engaging in this discussion herself, an infantilization which is itself a product of the deeply misogynistic society we live in.

Like I said, the show’s writers have thought a lot about the media and its meanings.

But it’s also a show that wants everyone to be smarter, more conscientious consumers of it, too. Which is why it satirizes all the ways the movies and TV shows and even books make us dumber, from self-help piffle (voiced to perfection by George Takei) to celebrity game shows, like the Mr. Peanutbutter–hosted Hollywoo Stars and Celebrities: What Do They Know? Do They Know Things? Let’s Find Out! (BoJack stole the D from the Hollywood sign in the first season as a gift for Diane.) More bitingly, episode 7 name-checks Mike Tyson, Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Christian Slater, Woody Allen, and Bill Murray as celebrities we’ve forgiven for abuse and assault in an episode where Diane attempts to speak out against a pre-scandal Cosby-esque comedy legend (voiced by Philip Baker Hall, of course). Suffice to say, speaking out on behalf of girls’ and women’s dignity does not go well for Diane.

2. It’s a rare sympathetic but unsentimental portrait of depression and desperate acting-out.

Depression is a difficult disease to compellingly convey onscreen, and it doesn’t rain enough in L.A. for BoJack to stare out the window at gray skies for days on end. But the show compassionately chronicles how BoJack’s inescapable misery alienates him from everyone around him, to the point where he marvels, “It’s amazing to me that people wake up every morning and say, ‘Yeah! Another day! Let’s do it!’ ” It’s something of an emotional revelation when he finally admits his inability to be happy to himself later this season, even though it’s something anybody can tell from knowing the character’s broadest strokes. But, of course, the show is at its most interesting when it shows how BoJack’s desperation to connect — and his deep fear of actually doing so — results in (usually funny-sad) self-immolating behavior. The loopiest expression of this has to be in episode 6, which begins with the stock sitcom trope of BoJack feeling embarrassed that he told his girlfriend, Wanda the owl (Kudrow), that he loves her. Being a horse’s ass, he then takes it back, and then, to test whether Wanda’s telling the truth when she says she doesn’t love him either, he spends the rest of the episode building a highly elaborate autoerotic-asphyxiation machine — since if she really didn’t care for him, she’d be OK with him practicing the “blue-face blastoff.” Yeah, he’s got problems.

1. It’s a rare blend of the silly and sad, the surreal and the sardonic.

There’s plenty of emotional desolation in BoJack, but most of the time, it’s as silly as silly gets. Episode 5 finds Todd hiding a slaughterhouse-chicken (as opposed to the civilized society-chickens), and when a cop questions him and his fugitive friend, who’s only capable of saying variations of bawk-bawk!, Todd spins this into some punny gold: Her name is Becca, she loves books and Bach, she uses a Bic pen to book Beck (for gigs). At a skating center, BoJack quips, “You can bring a horse to roller, but you can’t make him rink.” Much of this isn’t funny, per se, but it is amusingly clever, and adds up to a show that knows that the entertainment industry isn’t all coked-up kids and selling out to the highest bidder — which is what a self-serious, grimdark version of this show might be — but rather a lot of hard work by people who think a lot about what they’re putting out into the world.

Sometimes you need to relate to the rest of the world through extreme detachment. And sometimes you need to reach out by making a joke about how your favorite berry is Barry Bostwick. BoJack Horseman understands the value of both, preferably at the same time.

***

Inkoo Kang is the TV critic for the Village Voice. She publishes widely on film and television. Follow her on Twitter at @thinkovision.