Next Friday, the third season of Netflix’s animated comedy Bojack Horseman will be available everywhere. Thus, I decided to write this sort of “review of the first two seasons/commentary/encouragement to start watching.” Mild spoilers ahead (a couple of general plot points & jokes).
Bojack Horseman premiered in 2014. Its universe is grounded in a reality in which humans cohabit the world along with anthropomorphic animals (kind of like Zootopia, but not really, because most animals in adult form are all the same size-ish). Characters from different species interact in casual instances and they can actually date — this was only brought up as an “issue” on the pilot episode, most likely for the audience to get accustomed to the concept given that the character who brings it up was fully aware that this is possible and happens all the time. A good part of the comedy of the show circles animal puns and things that they normally would do, like the way cats jump vertically or how birds sit atop electric wires, but with the differences it would carry given the universe they are in. For instance, the cat, who was standing up in one moment, jumps as quadruped in the other, and then goes back to standing up.
This could be your average cartoon to watch and forget about your issues in a similar fashion to most tv animations, but it’s not. It is not as innocent and light-hearted as Bob’s Burgers or as unapologetically offensive like Family Guy (although, in the instances that it is a bit offensive, it is also of aware of it). Bojack Horseman, with its 12 episodes released at the same time, has the opportunity to have season long arcs that allow some sort of development for their main characters – some more than others.
Bojack Horseman, the character (from here on now referred to as BJ), is a fifty-ish year old horse who had a career in his adulthood as the leading man/horse of the family sitcom “Horsin’ Around”. The premise of said sitcom revolves around a horse who took in three children to raise as his own; it is very happy-ending-the-power-of-love-and-family oriented and it is also the complete reverse of the reality BJ lived/ lives in. The show was created by BJ’s friend Herb Kazzaz, who is featured in a couple of episodes as his relationship with BJ is broken and a huge part of his arc.
The main point is that BJ is a severely depressed and unhappy person/horse. He lives his life in a Charlie Sheen-esque manner, in a mansion in Hollywood (later on “Hollywoo”), drinks to the point of blackouts often, uses drugs, and sleeps around. However, his heart’s desire is really to be loved by the people in a similar way to when he was in Horsin’ Around and to be both professionally & personally fulfilled. The most prominent people/animals in his life are his manager, the pink cat Princess Carolyn, and his “friend” Todd Chavez, a virtual hobo with no job or special meaning in life, who BJ has allowed to sleep on his couch for the past five years.
One of the season one arcs is BJ’s memoir. Unable to do it himself, he finally says yes to hiring a ghostwriter: Diane Nguyen.
Things start slow in that front because BJ wants the book to paint a perfect, heroic, and completely untrue picture of him. However, as his relationship with Diane progresses, she is able to capture the gritty and sad reality that BJ tried to hide – the man with both Daddy and Mommy Issues given his terrible, mistreated, and abused childhood, his relationship with Herb, his years on Horsin’ Around, the deep hatred of himself, desire to not be alone, and etc. Eventually, BJ develops feelings for Diane which is complicated by the fact that she is dating Mr. Peanutbutter (PB). a perky, glass half full kind of dog who starred in a sitcom about a dog that adopted some kids and raised them. It was an unabashed copy of Horsin’ Around. BJ has a frenemy relationship with PB because, unlike BJ, he truly is secure with himself, confident and most of all, happy. BJ is deeply envious of those qualities. He yearns to be a good person “deep down”. He is eager for confidence and self-acceptance, but he never reaches that point because he always ends up fucking things up in colossal ways.
His path on season one ends with (SPOILERS) him trying to be forgiven by Herb, who is dying from cancer. However, BJ is never given forgiveness. As Herb says, “you have to live with the shitty thing you did for the rest of your life”. This really shows the soul of the cartoon: despite the funny puns, running gags, and very unusual world building, it doesn’t shy away from true heartbreak. Herb and BJ were true friends in the 80s when Herb helped BJ with stand-up comedy and then, when he developed Horsin’Around, he helped BJ get the role that would jump-start his career. However, down the road, when the network was threatening to fire Herb because of his sexual orientation, BJ didn’t stand with him (not out of homophobia, I feel I need to add) and that still haunts both of them.
The book is published and BJ sees this picture that Diane painted of him: depressed, a screw-up, but still as relatable ™ as one can get. He gets pissed, because he wanted people to love the image he wanted to have of him, but not the one he had. “One Trick Pony” ended up being a success, but BJ is still unhappy. He always is. He always thinks he knows what would make him happy, but when that thing happens, he still is very much unchanged. He is cast as his hero role, but that still doesn’t make him happy. What would? Is he destined to be depressed his whole life? Is BJ going to die alone?
In the Season 2 of the show, we get to see BJ as he is shooting his new film in an outstanding sequence of episodes. I say this again: this is an animated show that doesn’t shy away from their characters’ weaknesses even when they try to hide them. On an episode where they need to break into a museum to shoot a scene, we get to see BJ cry and it’s impossible to not feel for the guy. That does raise the question, why am I feeling so sorry for a horse crying? Good TV, that’s why. It wasn’t meant for shock value, but to aid to the representation of how fucked BJ is.
Perhaps the best word to describe a tv show like Bojack Horseman is “bittersweet”. It’s definitely not like “Horsin’ Around” (or even our world’s usual sitcoms) where, like mentioned in the series, you get closure and a good feeling in your heart by the end of thirty minutes, especially because of whole season being released at once resulting in multi-episode arcs.
Despite all the sadness around the characters, it also revels in puns so stupid you can fall off your chair laughing. The show uses every opportunity it gets to throw in some cheap animal humor (“we need to talk about the elephant in the room”, “Quentin Tarantulino”, a whole monologue involving Beyoncé with a shoehorning of several of her song titles, Naomi Watts being so tired of being pigeonholed in these complex three dimensional female characters that she accepts to be a “2D romcom woman”, purposeful & non-subtle ways to establish the time period…) in order to soften its tone, and it works wonders. Bojack Horseman is a show with an incredible amount of heart and that benefits incredibly from multiple viewings as it really holds under scrutiny.
The technicals: the animation of Bojack Horseman is solid and very detail-oriented. There are a number of inside jokes/gags/puns in written format – pay attention to brand names, t-shirts, banners, documents, tv screens (especially the journalistic ones). They really go full-out and try to make everything look good in the universe they’re in (you can imagine a human size maggot who owns a funeral house wearing a suit).
The tone: while this is an animated show, it also is developed by Netflix, which means there is liberty to go dark and edgy. You can expect cuss words, allusions of sex, adult language, and all that stuff. Think Archer, but a little more liberated on some restraints. Also worth mentioning again that this show makes you feel things – occasional sadness is unavoidable. There is drug and alcohol abuse and a little bit of violence (nothing too gory in my opinion). I’m not going to say that this is a non-offensive tv show, but I definitely feel like they aren’t TOO offensive, or merely reveling in their ability to “go there” (though I remember the word “fat” being used in a negative manner, the c-word being thrown around once or twice, and probably “bitch” too).
The Cast and Characters: there are a LOT of big names in the main, supporting and guest cast. Will Arnett lends his voice to BJ, Amy Sedaris voices Princess Carolyn (she is amazing!), Alison Brie voices Diane Nguyen (and several other minors), Paul F. Thompkins is Mr. Peanutbutter, and Aaron Paul is Todd Chavez. Among the guests, we can name drop so many: Tatiana Maslany, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale (where she plays herself as “Character Actress Margo Martindale” – inside joke!), Naomi Watts, John Krasinski, Joel McHale, Ken Jeong, Stanley Tucci, Patton Oswalt, Kristen Schaal, Lisa Kudrow, J.K. Simmons, Olivia Wilde, Aisha Tyler, Yvette Nicole Brown, Chris Parnell, Paul McCartney, and Daniel Radcliffe just to name a few/several.
In all seriousness, give this show a chance. It may confuse you at first (I for one pretty much only understood season one after rewatching it immediately after I watched season two), but it is completely worth it for the dark & silly plots, character development, and sincere depiction of depression as something that hangs on to you even after some good things happen. Season 3 is just a few days away and it looks amazing.