BoJack Horseman is the best of all of Netflix's original series, and one of the best shows on television. In its third season, which was released on Friday, the series about an incredibly rich, famous, and depressed acting horse somehow became even darker and more experimental, and the season's fourth installment – which I discussed at length with BoJack creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg – may turn out to be the best episode of TV anyone will make this year(*).
(*) Hey, other streaming shows: BoJack should be an object lesson in how to tell a deeply serialized story across an entire season while still making individual episodes stand out as more than just pieces of the whole.
Now that the season's out there, and many of you have had a chance to watch the whole thing, I'm going to do miniature reviews of each episode – with full spoilers for the whole season – coming up just as soon as your dad writes a poem about Lena Horne's nipples and makes you read it out loud…
EPISODE 1: START SPREADING THE NEWS
BoJack's quest to win an Academy Award forms the narrative spine of season 3, starting here with him doing the junket for Secretariat, trying to endure the repetitive and/or stupid questions (which felt painfully familiar, having been on the other side of many junket and press conference environments) and letting slip to a reporter that his performance was replaced by a digital version of himself. Angela Bassett's Ana Spanikopita, introduced at the end of last season, immediately becomes a huge part of the story as the woman working damn hard to protect BoJack from his own worst impulses, and I appreciate that the show left ambiguous exactly how she handled the issue with the manatee.
The introduction of Jill Pill begins our look back at BoJack's other TV series, but more importantly gives us The Tragedy of Greg King Lear, with Lear playing himself, and though I was sad to say goodbye to J.D. Salinger and Hollywoo Stars and Celebrities: What Do They Know? Do They Know Things?? Let's Find Out!, I was glad the show slipped in the terrible “What's Updike?” joke before he left. Plus, we got the return of Jake Johnson as Mr. Peanutbutter's miserable accountant (who was at the center of one of my favorite scenes from season 2), who is torn away from his son before he can play him “Cats in the Cradle,” warning the poor kid not to listen to it without him because “The lyrics are too relevant!”
Throw in the hard-boiled detective drama that was Todd getting repeatedly lost in the hotel hallway, and you've got a strong start to the season.
EPISODE 2: THE BOJACK HORSEMAN SHOW
The first of several conceptually different episodes, this flashback outing had fun finding different ways to keep reminding us that it's 2007, and of the passage of time, and gave us a great alt-version of the catchy closing theme (“Back in '07, I was in an unsuccessful TV show…”). The idea of Mr. Peanutbutter doing a series exclusively for Blockbuster, where you get one disc at a time, was a nice riff on how different the business was even 9 years ago, and Todd being responsible for the infamous Sopranos ending would have been funny enough on its own, but when you add in the idea that the missing footage was supposed to be Tony and Dr. Melfi getting married? Bravo.
Jessica Biel's cameo as herself was even more self-lacerating than Kinnear's, to the point I was surprised to see her name in the closing credits, and Jeffrey Wright's stentorian tones made a wonderful contrast to Cuddly Whiskers' adorable appearance. The introduction of The BoJack Horseman Show as a previous failed comeback makes sense – the odds that BoJack wouldn't have done anything between the end of Horsin' Around and the arrival of Diane aren't impossible, but a guy this desperate for attention would have tried something at some point – and also speaks nicely to his present-day desire to prove that he's a better actor than he ever got to show on the project that made him famous.
EPISODE 3: BOJACK KILLS
Fred Savage, who knows a thing or two about life after being a child actor, was an excellent choice to play former Horsin' Around recurring character Goober, who here sucks BoJack and Diane into a murder mystery thanks to his designer drug named after BoJack. On the whole, this episode was a bit thinner (or, at least, more focused on comedy at the expense of the tougher emotional stuff) than much of the season, but it brought back Officer Meow Meow Fuzzyface, introduced the idea of orcas as exotic dancers, told a funny Mr. Ed joke likely to go over the head of 90% of its target audience, and had BoJack attend a bat bat mitzvah, so I'm good with it. And BoJack probably would have been smart to pay more attention to what Cuddly Whiskers warned him about how meaningless he found his own Oscar win.
EPISODE 4: FISH OUT OF WATER
Bob-Waksberg told me that the episode came out of two separate problems the show had never been able to crack – director Matt Hollingsworth's desire to show more of what it's like to be a fish in the BoJack universe, and Bob-Waksberg's own desire to do a silent episode, but have a reason for the lack of dialogue – and it's serendipity that they came together so perfectly.
Since I started praising this episode on Twitter, a few people asked me if they could appreciate it without having watched the rest of the series. I think on a technical level, there's so much to marvel at here – the gorgeous sequence where BoJack and the baby seahorse bouncing off the plants that light up, for instance – and the episode does a nice job of conveying BoJack's loneliness and difficulty connecting. But so much of it is informed by what we already know about him, his strained relationship with Kelsey, his capacity for self-sabotage, etc., that I think it does the viewer a disservice to not watch this one with the full background.
I'm not sure the physics of the undersea world ever really make sense, and even Bob-Waksberg admits they didn't want to think too much about that part of it, but the storytelling is so clever and profound that I ultimately didn't care that BoJack only seemed able to float and swim after he fell off the factory window ledge. For a few hours, BoJack gets to play father figure, and does well with it, but the moment he brings the seahorse back to its dad, he again fits in nowhere. Incredibly lovely work from the writers and animators.
But honestly, if the rest of the episode had just been a boring set-up for the punchline about the helmets having speakers… dayenu.
EPISODE 5: LOVE AND/OR MARRIAGE
It's not a structural mirror of the relationship triptych episode from last season where Princess Carolyn dumped Vincent Adultman (whose absence from this season came up in the interview), but felt tonally and thematically similar, as BoJack, Diane, and Princess Carolyn have separate after-hours adventures that, as usual, lead them to question the choices they've made about their lives.
As the leader of the “Snatch Batch,” Dave Franco was another of this season's great guest voices, and Diane becoming pregnant set things up nicely for episode 6. BoJack for once manages to easily mend a situation (the couple's engagement) he inadvertently tore apart – BoJack realizing that it's no good being in a place where “everybody loves you, but nobody likes you” is among his more self-aware moments to date – but then appears on the verge of making a far worse mistake with Todd's friend Emily.
Princess Carolyn's night of serial dating again helped illustrate how much she's sacrificed for a career she doesn't even enjoy most of the time, and as a parent who reads his kids a lot of Geronimo Stilton and Ralph S. Mouse books, I couldn't help smiling at her new love interest (voiced by Raul Esparza) being named Ralph Stilton.
EPISODE 6: BRRAP BRRAP PEW PEW
This one opens with perhaps the most Netflix-y moment in the history of Netflix originals: it picks right up with the conclusion of Diane's “motherfucker!” that the previous episode's credits interrupted, assuming that many viewers will just let one episode play into the next.
In many ways, this is a spiritual sequel to last year's episode where Diane spoke out against the crimes of Hank Hippopopalous, and also to the season 1 episode where BoJack offended the military. The show seems to enjoy doing at least one episode a season where one of the characters kicks over a hornet's nest of public opinion, and the return of shallow pop sensation Sextina Aquafina (now voiced by Daniele Gaither instead of Aisha Tyler) was a very funny spoof of the way celebrities so often misunderstand and/or exploit real issues to further their careers, here including Sextina (in the midst of pretending to be getting an abortion) writing a smash hit song with the hook “Get Dat Fetus Kill Dat Fetus.”
I didn't have time to ask Bob-Waksberg about when and how the writers decide to use fake celeb names versus real ones, but the phrase “Jurj Clooners” makes me laugh each time, as do the titles of the movies he (“The Nazi Who Played Yahtzee”) and BoJack's other rivals have been submitting for awards consideration.
EPISODE 7: STOP THE PRESSES
Another episode with a clear and smart structure, with the story being told out of order as BoJack has a surprisingly involved phone conversation with Candice Bergen as the mysterious Closer, who somehow talks him into not canceling his newspaper subscription. (As a former ink-stained wretch myself, I both laughed and sobbed at the imagery of the mostly abandoned newsroom.)
The return of Character Actress Margo Martindale is always welcome, and I like how her career is largely the same as the real one's, with her stint on The Good Wife somehow part of her recent fugitive activities. Cabracadabra (Uber-style rides for women, with cars driven by women) is actually a good idea, and the kind I wouldn't be surprised to hear about in real life at some point, while the mirrored “You are Secretariat” billboards are an instantly terrible idea. But BoJack and Emily's tryst turns the whole house into a ticking emotional time bomb.
EPISODE 8: OLD ACQUAINTANCE
Note that the opening credits change here, with BoJack's previously empty living room now full of Cabracadabra employees. This won't last, because Cabracadabra's business model very quickly gets subverted as they start allowing male passengers who only want hot drivers, meaning the original staffers all get replaced by orcas.
The idea of Bradley Hitler-Smith trying to get an Ethan Around spin-off off the ground doesn't seem outlandish in a universe where Netflix has Fuller House, and where we've seen actors from old series like Richard Hatch from the original Battlestar Galactica spend years trying to get revivals launched. Plus, it allowed BoJack to speak the phrase “Horsin' Around Extended Cinematic Universe.”
Of course the Labrador Peninsula in the BoJack world would be the place where actual Labradors come from, and Mr. Peanutbutter and Diane's trip there nicely exploited the tension between Peanutbutter's always upbeat demeanor and the fact that life is sometimes a lot more difficult than he wants it to be. Plus, Weird Al! I'm mostly shocked Weird Al wasn't a guest star on the show before this.
EPISODE 9: BEST THING THAT EVER HAPPENED
The credits change again, this time with the new Cabracadabra orcas filling BoJack's living room.
If BoJack were a live action series, this would be a bottle episode, set almost entirely at Elefante, focusing largely on the end of BoJack and Princess Carolyn's professional relationship, and his realization of how little he knows about her. As usual, the show smartly contrasts all the sad material with absurdity, like the waiter having to become the head chef and then forcing one of his customers to become a waitress (and she then orders one of her kids to make work calls for her), plus the worm restaurant critic, whose blog is of course an actual site.
Also, I think I would very much enjoy the adventures of Harriet Tub Man, steampunk superhero.
EPISODE 10: IT'S YOU
What BoJack gets up to in the next episode makes that one the season's darkest, but this is in many ways sadder, because of how frequently BoJack is confronted with his own failings and inadequacies.
As promised by Cuddly Whiskers, the Oscar nomination – when he thinks it's real, rather than a Mr. Peanutbutter improvisation – doesn't make him feel any different, and Ana understandably has little patience for his self-pity, warning him, “Don't fetishize your own sadness.” More powerful is Todd calling out BoJack for his very specific pattern of behavior – and, in a meta way, making it clear that BoJack the series probably needs to move on to a different kind of character arc – by telling him, “You can't keep doing shitty things and then feel bad about yourself like that makes it okay! You need to do better!” (Also, Todd saying, “You are all the things that are wrong with you” is the most brutally honest thing anyone's said to BoJack since his mother told him that he was born broken, and that there's no cure for being BoJack Horseman.)
The parallel story showing how Mr. Peanutbutter's day spiraled out of control until he and Todd had to make up the nominees list provided a welcome and hilarious comic contrast to that. Loved the idea of the Price Waterhouse accountants being creepy ancient clerics, but the whiteboard of nominees was loaded with great jokes for the freeze-framers, none better than this shot at the latest Project Greenlight winner:
– Libby Hill (@midwestspitfire) July 23, 2016
EPISODE 11: THAT'S TOO MUCH, MAN!
The credits change yet again, with the living room now trashed and empty, and the picture window shattered from where he backed the car through it.
Again, things get incredibly dark here, as BoJack talks Sarah Lynn into hurling herself off the wagon (though, admittedly, he doesn't have to work very hard to do it), sending them on an epic, weeks-long bender where they're constantly losing time and forgetting things, scaring or angering everyone they encounter, and – particularly in BoJack's attempt to apologize to Penny for their encounter last season – continually achieving the opposite of what they intended. Ana's second story about drowning proves tough but apt: at this stage of things, BoJack will drag down everyone around him, as we see when Sarah Lynn completely misses her chance to accept her own Oscar, and admits, “I don't like anything about me.”
It's a tough line to walk, in terms of letting their behavior be so outrageous that it's both funny and scary at the same time, but the episode pulls it off (with big assists from the voice work of Will Arnett and Kristen Schaal), while also featuring some incredible throwaway jokes, like the AA meeting featuring a flesh-and-blood version of the popular drinking bird toy, or that same meeting referencing Character Actress Ann Dowd getting into a parallel plot to the one that introduced BoJack to Character Actress Margo Martindale.
EPISODE 12: THAT WENT WELL
“I destroy everything I touch. That's my legacy. I have nothing to show for the life that I've lived, and nobody is better off for having known me.” -BoJack
Though Diane tries to argue the point with him, BoJack's not far off if you look at the wreckage he's created around himself, culminating here with Sarah Lynn's death at the end of their bender. That's a problem he can never fix, and one that understandably drives him out of town again once he realizes that doing Ethan Around would just be him repeating all his terrible old patterns. The flashback to BoJack and Sarah Lynn's awkward backstage encounter in '07 was so well drawn in how BoJack couldn't stop himself from ruining it, even after Sarah Lynn made clear how much she appreciated that he never tried to use her to help his own career.
After Mr. Peanutbutter spent much of the season promising a great payoff to the spaghetti strainer idea, the finale absolutely delivered, with the help of a crash at sea involving Character Actress Margo Martindale and a ship full of spaghetti owned by Cartindale Cargo, plus an assist by one of the “You are Secretariat” mirrored signs, this time on the side of a blimp.
There's some hitting of the reset button with Princess Carolyn going back to work, only now as a manager rather than an agent, and Todd instantly losing the $8 million he made from the Cabracadabra sale. (Aaron Paul's delivery of “Todd? As a millionaire? That'll lead to some interesting stories!” was, as usual, a delight.) But at the same time, we see how both of them have changed, with Princess Carolyn trying to keep things going with Ralph, and Todd confessing to Emily that he's not sure what his sexuality is.
I don't know that the ending – BoJack running his car off the road, but being struck by the sight of a group of horses running free across the open plains – entirely worked as a final image to this season, but since we're getting another one, I'm more than happy to wait and see if there's more to that story. And there will very clearly be more of that teen girl horse who tried to reach BoJack through Princess Carolyn – and who looks very much like our title character. Bob-Waksberg agrees that the show needs to move into another phase of its storytelling, and “Fish Out of Water” suggested BoJack might be non-terrible as a father figure, so that could be an interesting new direction when it returns.
Man, that was great.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org