As any comedy writer worth their weight will tell you, the best comedy is so often grounded in tragedy. Rarely, however, do television comedies, particularly cartoons, deal so heavily in tragedy as the Netflix original series BoJack Horseman.
It’s a series with a deceptively dumb-sounding premise: a washed-up sitcom star tries to reinvigorate his ailing Hollywood career — only it’s set in a wacky, pun-heavy version of Hollywood wherein humans and anthropomorphic animals live side by side. It’s easy to imagine the dead-end antics lesser writers might concoct with such a premise, but creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg and his team of writers use it to create a universe equal parts farcical and devastating.
BoJack Horseman may be in part about a fun-house mirror version of Hollywood, but thematically it’s more about depression. BoJack is drawn as a mess of a human being — I mean, horse. He strives to recapture his former glory and previous glimmers of happiness, just as much as he sabotages his own best interests out of compulsion and honest self-loathing. That doesn’t sound funny, but the writers find a way, mostly using a cast of jokey supporting characters, animal-related turns of phrase (an “elephant in the room” gag is one of the best of this season) and world-building that comments on our own celebrity-obsessed culture.
BoJack himself often functions as a brutally blunt straight man, but the show never lets its titular become dull or get lost in the mix. More impressively, it never dulls his rough edges. For proof, look no further than “Escape from LA,” the penultimate episode of the second season and the show’s most daring and devastating one to date. He isn’t exactly an antihero like, say, Don Draper, because we are supposed to root for BoJack (though the writers love to make it difficult sometimes) because his aims are pure. The truly affecting vocal performance from Will Arnett goes a long way in conveying the character’s wounded bitterness and cynicism.
Let’s talk about that jokey supporting cast for a moment though. The second season excels in almost every way, but one of its greatest strengths is in its treatment of secondary and even tertiary characters. There’s an all-too-unique understanding in BoJack Horseman that every character, no matter how minor, is human — or horse, or cat, or whatever — and has issues and reasons of their own. The lesser first season, which took some time to find its footing, showed only glimmers of this knack for perspective. The episode “Say Anything,” for example, saw Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) make the jump from a caricature of an enterprising Hollywood agent into another wounded character in a world full of them.
More characters make that same jump in the second season, including Mr. Peanutbutter, a B-list star version of a golden retriever voiced by Paul F. Tompkins. His marriage to writer Diane (Allison Brie) gives him the chance to acquire some much-needed depth as they both do their best to overcome the differences between them. Diane, once the most well put-together main character, suffers through crises of her own in the second season in a downward spiral that mirrors BoJack’s. Even Todd, BoJack’s responsibility-phobic roommate, gets a few chances to be serious in between his off-the-wall subplots, particularly in the season finale “Out to Sea,” which solidifies why he is important to BoJack’s world.
Unlike most American cartoons, even adult ones, BoJack doesn’t shirk continuity in favor of antics, nor does it totally rely on it like many hour-long shows do. It find its own groove somewhere in between, allowing for character development and multi-episode arcs to evolve in between whatever antics of the week may be happening in the foreground. Strangely enough, they compliment each other. Sometimes the laughs soften the heartbreak, and sometimes they just make it that much worse because the quirks and the jokes make the audience care so much about characters who can’t escape how broken they really are.
I’m still amazed that a series like this is allowed to exist, mostly thanks to Netflix’s evolving business model that can support a show like this, which would likely be discarded by a major network a few episodes in. On Netflix, it’s allowed to find its audience in binge-watchers like me who delight in the laughs and stinging pathos of another, all-too-short season of the addictive series.
It’s a strange feeling to watch a cartoon show about a talking horse, founded on cartoon puns and set in Hollywoo (no, that’s not a typo) and then to realize that it’s the most touchingly human television show airing today. Hollywoo may be a fictionalized version of our world, but it’s founded on real characters and real desires. This second season contains, among other things, depictions of depression, media bias, in-relationship arguments and confused adolescence more realistic than you’re likely to see anywhere else on television. And now we must wait for the third season — what will it bring? Will it be as great as the second? Let’s find out. [Update, 5/26/16: Netflix has announced that the third season of ‘BoJack Horseman’ will premiere on July 22, 2016.]
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