Back in the 90s, I was in a very famous TV show…
It is an unfortunate side effect of my years of reviewing that I tend to make snap judgements about media. I’m not saying those judgements can’t be wrong, or that if they are wrong I won’t recant them, just that very few movies or TV shows surprise me these days, so I tend to assume that I know what’s coming based on trailers or promotional materials.
So when I first saw ads for BoJack Horseman, I may have dismissed it as being under the same ‘Trying too hard to be weird’ umbrella as a lot of Adult Swim’s lower level output. So it took me a little while to be willing to give it a chance. But once I finally managed to give it a shot, I was surprised to find out how wrong I’d been.
BoJack Horseman revolves around the titular BoJack (Will Arnett), a man-horse living in a world where half the people are normal people and the other half are people with various types of animal heads (just roll with it). As the theme states, in the 90s he was the star of a sitcom called Horsin’ Around, which manifests itself on screen as a broad parody of too saccharine 90s sitcoms like Full House. But as the show opens, he hasn’t been on TV or in movies for nearly 2 decades, is past 50 and a deeply depressed and lonely horseman, living in his Hollywood home with a mid-20s slacker, and his only friend, Todd (Aaron Paul).
At the end of the last season, his memoir, ghost-written by another recurring character Diane (Allison Brie), was published to critical and commercial acclaim, and BoJack managed to get his dream project, a biopic of Secretariat (who, in this world, was a famous runner who was kicked out of the sport for Michael Jordan-esque betting on his own races, then committed suicide) off the ground. But the realities of appearing in a real production are getting to him, and despite having his dream materializing, his depression doesn’t seem to be lifting.
That description leaves out the fairly pivotal characters of BoJack’s agent Princess Caroline (Amy Sedaris) and Diane’s husband/BoJack’s rival Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins) who appeared in an extremely similar sitcom to BoJack’s at the same time. I wanted to include them in the main part, but couldn’t find space so…here they are!
BoJack Horseman is a show walking an extremely fine line throughout it’s entire runtime. It seems to be balancing between pitch dark character comedy, broad satire on show business in general and Hollywood in particular and absurdist comedy when the animal-people stuff starts kicking in. This is an incredibly dangerous balancing act, with each element always threatening to overwhelm the others, but it’s one the show pulls off admirably.
The most important element is, of course, the character work. Trust me when I say, regardless of how positive this review is, if you don’t like dark comedy, avoid this show. When I say the character work is pitch dark, I mean it. I thought last season’s penultimate episode (appropriately titled Downer Ending) was as dark as the show could get, but season 2 set out to prove me wrong, with episodes like Hank After Dark, Let’s Find Out and ESPECIALLY Escape From LA providing some of the darkest moments I’ve ever seen in a comedy.
While not all of the darkness relates directly to BoJack, I will say that the moments that do make him an incredibly hard character to root for, which provides yet another tightrope walk for the writers to walk. This is yet another place where the writing shines, as they’re always keenly aware of how to keep BoJack relatable and sympathetic without necessarily excusing some of the horrible things he does.
In a lot of ways, especially towards the latter half of this season, BoJack is one of the most realistic depictions of depression in modern media. Speaking from…shall we say, personal experience, some of the things BoJack says to other characters about the way he feels, about himself and the world, sound extremely authentic and raw. And while the show uses that to explain or justify some of the things he does, it also never uses his personal demons as an excuse when he crosses a line (and he will).
It’s all still funny, mind you. This level of darkness and nihilism is hard to maintain in comedy without it proving wearying. BoJack understands that, and that’s where the other parts come in. I worry that a lot of the showbiz satire is a little too in-joke to the majority of the public, but even if you don’t necessarily get all the jokes, the ones you get will still be screamingly funny.
And even if you don’t, some of the more absurd humor involving the animals (personal favorite: A sign reading “Home Depot, but Like, the Animal Version”) will always amuse. Even the darker stuff still finds moments of levity and comedy. It’s a masterwork of dark comedy fused with absurdism that I don’t think we’ve seen in years.
All of this is held together by a fantastic voice cast and a simple, but incredibly used, animation style. Will Arnett hasn’t been this on the ball with his timing and delivery since Arrested Development ended, Amy Sedaris and Allison Brie are both incredible, and even the under-utilized (by the show) has some real chances to give a good voice performance. And while all of the secondary cast is great, special mention must go to Kristen Schaal, who brings a special kind of insanity to her character (you’ll see) and, believe it or not, Olivia Wilde who managed to give me chills in one scene (again; You’ll see).
If I had to come up with complaints, and I do, it would be that the filler episodes and subplot always feel like filler episodes and subplots. One mid season episode devoted to trying to sort out of the mechanics of a world partially populated by animals doesn’t do much more than confuse things, and while Todd’s late season subplot involving him joining a cult-like Improv group is funny, it never really amounts to much, and it feels underdeveloped.
Still, those are minor issues compared with how much BoJack Horseman gets right. It was through the tireless recommendations of my friends and my girlfriend that I finally got around to watching this show, and now that I have, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Despite it’s oddness, BoJack Horseman is one of the best comedy TV shows out there right now, and it deserves your attention.
Elessar is a 25 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he’s pretty sure the show is intentionally keeping Aaron Paul from saying “Bitch.”
– fantastic script and voice acting
– some of the best dark comedy I’ve seen in years
– great, if simple, animation
– filler subplots feel like it
– Todd/Aaron Paul feels underused
– seriously, if you can’t handle dark comedy, stay away