Creative Daring Meets Dark Comedy in BoJack Horseman Season 3

bojack21) I could write and/or talk about BoJack Horseman for days and still have more to say.
2) This will probably be my last piece on TV for a while, because it looks I’ll be focusing more on film next semester (which is totally cool with me).

Anyway…

With its cynical outlook, deeply flawed characters, and frequent engagement with dark themes, BoJack Horseman is not always the easiest show to love. Created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, this animated Netflix comedy/drama exudes an irreverence and an intensity that may alienate those looking for lighter fare. And yet, it remains one of the most unique and well-thought-out programs currently on television. Far from the most uplifting comedy, BoJack Horseman remains a complex, affecting, and inspired show that more than fairly rewards those willing to give it a chance.

BoJack Horseman is set in Hollywood—or, “Hollywoo” after BoJack steals the “D” from the sign in the first season—and takes place in a partially-fictionalized version of the present in which human people and anthropomorphized animals coexist, essentially as a single species. The show’s titular figure (a horse voiced by Will Arnett) was the star of a 90s sitcom called Horsin’ Around, but he hasn’t known success since its cancellation, and if he ever knew happiness, it has eluded him for decades.

When the third season begins, BoJack is promoting the film Secretariat in an effort to generate Oscar-buzz for his “performance” in its lead role. There are a few problems with this scenario however. For starters, those interviewing BoJack insist on belittling Horsin’ Around, which offends him greatly. Moreover, despite all the praise he receives for Secretariat, BoJack isn’t really in the movie. During filming, he freaked out (as he often does) and disappeared to New Mexico. While he was gone, the studio “digitally replaced” him with a CGI figure bearing his image. For the first time in nearly 20 years, BoJack is in the limelight, but any recognition he receives is for something he didn’t do; meanwhile, just about everyone he meets is keen on insulting a show he cherishes and the one thing that made him famous. Such cutting realities are all throughout the show, which blends the humorous with the upsetting wherever it can.

As Season 3 continues, BoJack Horseman depicts the various stages of BoJack’s attempts to win an Academy Award, but the show also devotes considerable attention to characters other than BoJack. Princess Carolyn (a bubblegum pink cat and BoJack’s agent), Todd (a young stoner who lives with BoJack), Mr. Peanutbutter (a bright yellow dog who was in his own popular sitcom), Diane (a writer and friend of BoJack’s who’s married to Mr. Peanutbutter), and Sarah Lynn (a former child star who was on Horsin’ Around) are all fleshed-out this season.

Bob-Waksberg also establishes several new characters, including publicist Ana Spanakopita (Angela Bassett), screenwriter (and hamster) Mr. Cuddlywhiskers (Jeffrey Wright), Princess Carolyn’s assistant Judah (Diedrich Bader), and Todd’s friend Emily (Abbi Jacobson). Even if these and other minor characters don’t matter in later seasons, Bob-Waksberg uses all of them to add meaningful dimension to those at the heart of the show. For instance, Emily’s presence enables Bob-Waksberg to gradually establish that Todd is asexual. Emily also allows viewers to observe Todd interacting in a different way; where BoJack dismisses and talks down to Todd, Emily takes his ideas seriously and treats him as an equal, which allows him flourish and to be himself much more than in Seasons One and Two.

BoJack Horseman’s deep commitment to continually developing its characters sets it apart from lesser shows. The world BoJack navigates is well-populated, and the show’s emotional and narrative possibilities are both greater for it. Where some network sitcoms and other “adult” animated shows let their characters remain static across seasons, BoJack Horseman continues to reveal more of the figures driving its story. Instead of treating BoJack and other central characters as mere vehicles for telling jokes, Bob-Waksberg takes care to ensure that that they have pasts, that they have rich interiors, and that viewers never stop getting to know them.

In line with its admixture of light and dark, BoJack Horseman also reminds viewers that getting to know someone isn’t the same as growing to like them. As BoJack declares, “When you see someone as they really are, it ruins them.” Whether such a negative statement is always true, it can be true, as the show demonstrates with its eponymous horse.

Through BoJack, Bob-Waksberg and his team of writers and directors put their own spin on the anti-hero. Today’s televisions are brimming with dark, imperfect, even immoral protagonists (Claire and Frank Underwood, Walter White, Gregory House, and about half the people on Game of Thrones are but a few examples). In the age of postmodern relativism, characters without disturbing flaws seem to grow scarcer by the day. While BoJack Horseman isn’t invested in reversing this trend, it does push it in new directions. BoJack doesn’t have any special skills that make up for his lack of moral fiber (as the show repeatedly establishes, he’s not even good at acting). He isn’t working toward anything larger than himself. He doesn’t make laws or save lives or do anything particularly important. At the same time, his flaws run deep. BoJack is a pessimistic, self-sabotaging narcissist to the highest degree. He’s a selfish addict, and he regularly damages other people—sometimes, beyond repair.

Taken together, BoJack Horseman’s first three seasons declare that BoJack may not be capable of change, and that any admirable qualities he does have don’t make up for his larger issues. In what is an unusually heavy moment for his character, Todd says to Bojack, “You are all the things that are wrong with you. It’s not the alcohol or the drugs or any of the shitty things that happened to you in your career or when you were a kid. It’s you.” It takes a great deal to get the lovable Todd to turn on someone, but BoJack deserves every barb he throws at him. As Todd continues to insult him, BoJack doesn’t argue or make excuses as he usually would. As he tells Diane in the season finale, he knows he’s “poison,” and viewers know it too. BoJack is hard to like and even harder to respect, but Bob-Waksberg asks audiences to connect with him and to look on him with sympathy all the same.

As central as its well-rounded characters are to BoJack Horseman’s success, they are hardly all that places it in television’s top tier. For instance, like so much of the show, it’s visuals are bold and unique. BoJack Horseman’s distinct animation embraces the inherent strangeness of a world populated by animals walking upright; it also supports the show’s quirkier sensibilities and its offbeat tone. The show features a light and vivid color palette that contrasts with its near-constant depiction of depression and failure. BoJack Horseman is a balancing act between the silly and the sad, and it’s lively, upbeat visuals play an important role in keep the whole thing in the air. This somewhat unconventional show also experiments with different artistic styles whenever possible—no dream or drug-induced state is wasted.

Even as it features some of the richest comedic writing and some of brightest animation on TV, BoJack Horseman is also profoundly devastating. The show consistently tackles dark topics—including everything from suicide, war, and addiction to sexual assault, terminal illness, and the horrors of Sea World. Nothing is off limits for Bob-Waksberg and company, and the show repeatedly challenges audiences to confront and to carefully consider parts of life they might prefer to ignore. Importantly, when BoJack Horseman presents sensitive subjects, it doesn’t do so carelessly and its writers don’t merely exploit the taboo for a cheap laugh. Whether its depicting its mentally ill protagonist on a drunken rampage, delving into a character’s disappointing past, or structuring an entire episode around a pop star who has a hit song about killing fetuses, BoJack Horseman approaches every topic with a signature blend of intelligence, humor, and heart, and the show is as adept at moving people to tears as it is at splitting their sides.

Three seasons in, BoJack Horseman is far from mundane—one important way the show maintains a sense of novelty is through narrative experimentation. Many episodes are told in a conventionally linear manner, but many more break free from such molds to present something more interesting instead. Possibly the best installment of Season 3, “Fish Out of Water,” is a nearly silent episode that takes place underwater and almost completely ignores most of the show’s main characters. This whimsical episode is noticeably emotional, and its lack of dialogue highlights the strength of the show’s visual storytelling. Season 3 also interweaves a large number of flashbacks and features an entire episode set in 2007. Meanwhile, another episode is centered around a series of phone calls in which BoJack (unsuccessfully) attempts to cancel a newspaper subscription, and yet another has a “disjointed blackout structure” full of ellipses and “fourth-wall-breaking meta jokes.”

BoJack Horseman demands a great deal from its audiences. This heavily metatextual show constantly references popular culture, internet culture, and quite a bit else besides. Many of the show’s jokes require a certain amount of knowledge and assume that viewers are paying attention to current issues and media. The show is also overflowing with easy-to-miss visual details that defy distracted viewing. Someone who “watches” BoJack Horseman while looking their phone will miss a good portion of its comedy. No background surface or bit of text is wasted; all are maxed out to their full potential. Viewers can watch the show numerous times over and still find themselves being delighted by jokes they didn’t see before—a “Bat Bat Mitzah” sign that says “yes two bats because she is a bat” is just one example. The show never runs out of ways to induce a laugh (or an amused chuckle). And while it doesn’t call attention to many of its background jokes, they remain one of its most unique and endearing features.

If BoJack Horseman has high standards for those who watch it, it is even more exacting when it comes to those who make it. The show’s voice cast—which includes Will Arnett, Amy Sedaris, Paul F. Tompkins, Aaron Paul, and Alison Brie—give performances that are affecting and brimming with personality. Its animators pay attention to every detail and create a world that never feels dull or incomplete. And its writers continually think outside the box. Just about anything can happen in BoJack Horseman. Whether its poking fun at a Tumblr restaurant “critic,” depicting a devastating bender, or showing a giant mass of spaghetti descending on an underwater city, the show continually supports its creativity and madness with a winning combination of smarts and sincerity—one can’t ask for much more than that.

Until Next Time
If you haven’t watched BoJack Horseman, get on Netflix and give it a chance. The show gets better as it goes, and it does take a little getting used to, but it’s really fucking good if you ask me.

I’ll be finished with my first semester of grad school next week. The plan is to catch up on some movies and post about them over Christmas break. As you may have noticed, posting blogging during the second half of the semester didn’t really happen.

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