First season only on Netflix
Shortly before I came to University I attended a party at which I met a published author. He’s not very famous, I’m not going to name drop him. Regardless, he was one of those people we might broadly term a “TV hipster” of sorts. Not quite the same thing as critics or – and I say this with all the scorn I can physically muster – “experts”. These are a rather odd, loose faction who almost exclusively and obsessively watch a certain sort of TV show, traditionally niche, off-centre sitcoms with deadpan snark coming out of the wazoo. Excited by the news that I watched Parks and Recreation, he proceeded to make me watch a show with him which appeared to have been animated using the old Half Life game engine and was about an Aborigine with a snake for a hand.
That aside, I think my author acquaintance might have another show to add to his list of faves, that of Netflix’s new animated series BoJack Horseman.
BoJack Horseman is – in a pun so obvious a child could write it – Netflix’s horse in the animated, adult comedy race. Now this is an extremely congested market, you’ve got the old pros of The Simpsons – which I think is now approaching its one billionth episode or something ridiculous – and the new kids on the block led by Seth McFarlane, whose vast output is – I think – slightly more popular than Christianity amongst the 16-25 demographic.
So how does the new entry stack up against such esteemed competition? Well Adult cartoons are always a touch peculiar but BoJack Horseman is in a whole new dimension of weird, narrowly behind the Aboriginal snake arm show I mentioned earlier. It’s set in some kind of deeply spooky, alternate universe Los Angeles populated by both humans and anthropomorphic animals, and depicts the titular BoJack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett), a washed up actor from a 90s sitcom about a horse who adopts three human children. Eighteen years on, his career has tanked and he has become a miserable, paunchy drunk sharing his Hollywood mansion with a human lodger, Todd, (voiced by Aaron Paul) a feckless slacker with self-esteem issues who BoJack mercilessly bullies.
The series opens with our anti-hero getting dumped by his on-off girlfriend and agent Princess Carolyn (voiced by Amy Sedaris) – a pink Persian cat, in case you were wondering – and struggling to write a memoir which BoJack hopes will catapult him back to fame. After having little success on his own (or more accurately, failing to write a single word) he employs a ghost writer in the shape of the faintly awkward intellectual Diane Nguyen, who is also the girlfriend of his frenemy Mr. Peanutbutter (voiced by Paul F. Tompkins) a gregarious but largely witless yellow dog and star of another 90s sitcom with virtually the same plot as BoJack’s. The main arc of the series portrays BoJack’s slow development of romantic feelings for Dianne as she probes deeper and deeper into his profoundly dysfunctional existence.
It’s quite an encouraging premise for sure, and in case you haven’t gathered from the names I just rattled off, the show has got a cast which would cause many people – me being one of them – to virtually pee their pants with excitement, which is a good start.
BoJack Horseman is more of a focused, conventional satire than The Simpsons or Family Guy, but one which seems to be layered and multi-faceted beyond all belief. Like Arnett’s other show Arrested Development, it bumble’s along tossing ideas around in a way which is equal parts brave and reckless, but with a certain irreverent, wacky charm which means it just about manages to pull it off. Superficially, it’s a lampoon of Hollywood culture and the general circus of low celebrity, but really it’s more like an eclectic labyrinth of nods. It’s got nods to itself, nods to its genre, nods to politics, society, the concept of television itself. It’s got so many nods – many of which appear to be deliciously subtle – that it makes you question whether or not you imagined some of them.
For example, there’s a real continuity to the series – it’s practically a serial – which makes it totally unique within the genre. But its continuity seems to almost intentionally asinine, like it’s just rewarding you for paying attention. For example, in one of the episodes BoJack’s ottoman is set on fire, and from then on we are constantly treated to lingering and seemingly deliberate shots of it – still burnt out – for little or no reason. In another episode BoJack steals the D from the Hollywood sign in a drunken stupor and everyone refers to Hollywood as “Hollywoo” for the remainder of the season.
Now there are a few takes you could have on these sorts of jokes. You could argue – convincingly I might add – that they’re just trying to show off – as if you weren’t already aware that this is a fairly clever show. But on another level, could it not be seen to be a delicate satire of animated comedy – which so often remains static and unchanging despite the often ludicrous events of an episode, by wryly remarking on how every action in the BoJack Horseman universe does have consequences, no matter how slight.
Or maybe, it’s just supposed to be funny, it’s hard to tell. This is the thing about BoJack Horseman; it’s got a hell of a lot going on, managing to be both subtly intelligent and curiously in your face. It’s got both straight faced political statements and a joke where a Navy Seal is an actual seal (quite a lot of jokes like that actually).
So do you want a summary? Well BoJack Horseman is sharp, irreverent and admirably anti-populist in style. An improvement on the usual stale fare for naughty cartoons, but still – ultimately – as is so often the case with these kinds of shows, a bit too cynical and bitterly derisive to have any real heart at its core.
Or that would be my summary, if the show ended after 6 episodes. But what happens in the second half of the season really makes BoJack Horseman something both deranged and yet truly special.
From episode 7 onwards, and really starting with episode 8, the show takes a spectacularly dark turn. It goes from being a nihilistic, snickering romp about the vacuity of celebrity to a genuinely profound journey into the depths of the human condition, played out – eerily and in a way which contributes tenfold to the already crippling pathos – using anthropomorphized cartoon animals.
BoJack stops being merely a loveable, jackass screwup and turns – seamlessly – into what he truly is, a pitiful – but not entirely pitiable – figure on a path to certain self-destruction, wracked with guilt, self-loathing and a lingering feeling that it’s too late for him to change. All the characters go through similar transformations, until you realize that perhaps you’ve been played. This is the reality of who these people are, it was our own knowledge of TV convention – particularly within this genre, where characters are normally deeply flawed and troubled but portrayed in purely one dimensional terms as comedic sock-puppet anti-heroes – which masked the truth from us. The twelfth episode in particular has a protracted LSD dream sequence which is genuinely difficult to watch, but throughout all of this the jokes keep firing, because that’s what BoJack would do, and indeed continued to do throughout the whole season, hide the reality of his life and emotions behind jokes, and good ones at that.
So I suppose the question we started with was whether or not BoJack Horseman was going to be able to keep pace with the titans of Family Guy and The Simpsons. The answer is a resounding no. You can’t even begin to compare the show to Family Guy, because BoJack Horseman is so, so much better than that.