“Well that was another in a series of increasingly poor life choices.”
For Netflix to get into the adult animated comedy business all of a sudden (an area that’s certainly already bloated as it is), it would have to be with a property that’s something weird, different, and important. A relative newcomer, Raphael Bobs-Waksberg’s, BoJack Horseman, is a worthy answer to that question.
The series focuses on the present, lackluster years of the titular BoJack Horseman, a has-been, former star of the popular, nine-season hit sitcom, “Horsin’ Around” which chronicles the adventures of a young bachelor horse who decides to shift his priorities when he raises three human kids.
“Horsin’ Around” is as bottom-of-the-barrel as they come, complete with Uncle Buck-esque poster and BoJack spouting catchphrases like, “Nay way, Jose!” Now BoJack is set to reclaim his fame in the form of a telling, compelling autobiography that of course, is being written by someone else. The series is smart to adopt the structure of typically taking an event from BoJack’s past, if not right from his sitcom directly, and having it return in some form in the present times, as he tries to deal with it.
Part of what helps sell all of this so successfully are the incredibly lucid boundaries in place, as the show is set in a hybrid world where anthropomorphic animals and humans intermingle, with it never being questioned or addressed, even with a single line of exposition. This is the perfect tone and entry point for the series.
In fact, what I found myself thinking about more and more through my watchings was the short-lived animated series, Ugly Americans, a show that exhibited similar free-floating creature-based humor. A surprising amount of humor is extracted from this idea as a homeless anthropomorphic raccoon may be seen rummaging through a dumpster before another raccoon sticks his head out as he tries to get some sleep; an editor from Penguin Books is appropriately enough, a penguin; a funeral home is run by a maggot. It all works, even when it’s on the nose.
There’s a moment in one of the earlier episodes of BoJack Horseman where it’s revealed that BoJack has orchestrated an elaborate ruse involving Margo Martindale, a popular violent video game, and a space rock opera where you’re kind of just like, “Yeah, this is a pretty wonderful animated series we’re getting here. This is some weird, brilliant, innovation in motion.” And that’s not even necessarily the strangest of the storylines.
If the concept alone wasn’t enough to hook you, there’s really a murderer’s row of excellence when it comes to the voice cast. Will Arnett commands Bojack, and it’s interesting that his signature voice doesn’t exactly match BoJack in the way that Arnett’s other roles have, but it still works and adds to the surrealism of it all. He continues to get increasingly comfortable in the role too, and the further you get, you can definitely see him infusing more into the character.
Rounding out the rest of the cast is Aaron Paul as Todd, BoJack’s freeloading roommate and one of the few humans we encounter. Amy Sedaris plays Princess Carolyn, a cat as well as BoJack’s ex-flame and current agent, with precision. Paul F. Tompkins does boundlessly enthusiastic work as Mr. PeanutButter, a hapless golden retriever who stared in “Mr. PeanutButter’s House” which had an identical plotline to BoJack’s, with a pinch of Sister, Sister. Tompkins’ joy in Mr. PeanutButter’s oblivious lines are a highlight of any episode that features him. Alison Brie completes the ensemble as BoJack’s ghostwriter, Diane, with Brie doing very different work here as she offers a pretty fresh performance, whereas everyone else seems to be pushing out the voice and character that you’d expect from them.
BoJack Horseman is fairly fearless in the stories it wants to tell, and the humor that it’s presenting. There’s very smart wordplay going on here amidst a sea of puns, either through “Horsin’ Around” clips or jokes centered around the animals themselves. It’s cutaway heavy, but of a motivated, smart variety, in spite of the show still indulging in them a lot…particularly in the pilot, where there’s maybe six separate “Ten Minutes Later” cutaways. The show’s tendency to deconstruct and dig into these cutaways, explaining their absurdity also feels like American Dad’s want to focus on the minutiae on the fringe of it all.
There’s a more than eager attitude to lampoon sitcoms, media, and celebrity and the heaps of narcissism that come with it; an anecdote about Brady Bunch sitcom dad, Robert Reed is used as a bonding, inspiring moment of catharsis in the pilot; another is ended with inspiring, revelatory voiceover using Tia and Tamara-esque character types to show someone the type of person they really are and illicit change; and a large digression in the fifth episode all about David Boreanaz and the excess of shows like Castle, Bones, Burn Notice, Person of Interest… is seen in one of my favorite plotlines that sees Todd making a tourist trap scam called “Boreanaz House.”
There’s a manic speed and energy catapulting itself from one joke and setup to the next, propelling new humor forward while still dragging runners and callbacks with it along the way. There is continuity in play here, but in an understated fashion. A random line about having tickets to a Gloria Steinem roast will end up being the setting for the next episode. There’s a connectedness that gives all of this more weight and meaning. Every episode even features a character shouting, “Eat a dick, dumb shits!” before storming out of a room.
The laser sharp editing makes all of this stronger, and it’s shocking how quickly the rhythm settles in only a few episodes into the series. By the halfway point, it’s all flowing seamlessly with strong confidence, like Secretariat bounding towards the finish line.
But underneath all of the laughs and craziness, there’s some genuine darkness and devastation that’s bubbling near the surface of it all providing all of this with a richer core. Even the opening title sequence seems to be lampooning things like Mean Streets, Requiem for a Dream, Sunset Blvd., or any of the other wealth of self-reflective deep dramas that are around as BoJack stares dead eyed at us as his life moves around in the background, escaping him. This is different. Your lead may be a former sitcom star talking horse, but this is more concerned about talking about addictions, downfalls, the void inside of us all; BoJack just happens to be a talking horse. Herzog would be all over this, as BoJack gets drunk and sadly watches reruns of his show while singing the theme song out of tune. “Family is a sinkhole” almost becomes a mantra to the show, even.
While the narcissistic, self-obsessed character angle is hardly original, the animal filter helps give it some new life. But alongside the darkness hiding under this shiny horse veneer, there’s also a real heart beneath it all, too. BoJack is very much designed as a joke machine, but it’s built on the foundation of a well of insecurity and depression; life is an endless series of singing and dancing to please your fans, where the soles of your feet bleeding only means you’re getting it right.
Like most series, there are moments of BoJack Horseman that feel reductive or overdone, but they’re few and far between the moments of insanity and originality that are being offered to you, with one of the most refined voice casts assembled, and a strong comedic voice and premise behind it to keep this show running for years before it even begins to feel stale. This should absolutely be a show that you make the time to check out (and with it being available all at once on Netflix, the addictive comedy is perfect for binging), if only for the end credits song by Grouplove that is so damn infectious and hauntingly beautiful.
And if you don’t like it, well then you can all just eat a dick, dumb shits!
Editor’s Note: This review was based on the first six, twenty-five minutes episodes of the season.