How the sad but silly ‘BoJack Horseman’ became one of TV’s very best shows

It's difficult to describe Netflix's “BoJack Horseman” – and, more importantly, the show's genius – without sounding high at best, insane at worst. It's a surreal cartoon series set in a universe where humans mingle with (and frequently date and marry) anthropomorphized animals like the title character, voiced by Will Arnett, who's still living off the fame and fortune from his stint as a '90s family sitcom star. It's an absurd Hollywood satire, but also a deep character study of a profoundly depressed (horse)man, and it may be one of the saddest shows in all of television.

And also one of the very best.

Like many of this era's most striking series, “BoJack” is so fundamentally different from anything that's come before it that its brilliance took a while to become fully clear. The opening episodes of its first season (season 2 debuts Friday at 12:01 a.m. Pacific) had their amusing moments, particularly in the deployment of the animal characters – say, the harried Penguin Publishing editor of BoJack's memoir being an actual penguin, voice by Patton Oswalt – but felt largely like a familiar blend of Seth MacFarlane and Adult Swim takes on showbiz.

But the initial references to BoJack's depression at the state of his life and career weren't throwaways, or attempts to ground the show's odd sense of humor: they were the whole point of the story. “BoJack Horseman” is a comedy, but it's also an unblinking, incredibly empathetic portrait of middle-aged melancholy – not just for BoJack, but for all the people in his circle, no matter how ridiculous they may seem at first.

The new season, for instance, works wonders with BoJack's rival, the gregarious dog Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), who late in season 1 married BoJack's ghostwriter and crush Diane (Alison Brie). Underneath all his boundless yellow Lab enthusiasm, Mr. Peanutbutter is revealed to have his own fears and neuroses about his life, career, and marriage. Similarly, the show takes seriously the overwhelming loneliness of BoJack's ex Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) even as she's dating Vincent Adultman (Brie again), whom only BoJack seems to recognize is three little kids standing on each other's shoulders inside a trench coat. This season's fourth episode presents a quartet of time-fractured stories about the harsh realities of love – for a few minutes, it's practically a Vincent Adultman spotlight – while not letting go of the show's usual strange comic touches.

“BoJack” creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg has clearly thought through the rules of this strange world, including the ways in which the hybrid characters so often let their animal natures take over. When Diane tries to assure Mr. Peanutbutter that she loves him, she tells him he's a good dog, and then repeats “yes you are” three times in a cutesie-poo voice to make sure the message filters through. The season's fifth episode, meanwhile, addresses the tricky question of where  poultry and pork come from in a world where all the animals wear clothes and drive cars. (Like “Hannibal,” it may make you pause a moment the next time you're served meat. Also, it breathes new life into the “Why did the chicken cross the road?” joke.) And there continue to be amusing references to animalized celebrities from our world, like Goose Van Sant(*) and Maggot Gyllenhaal, along with smart pieces of guest casting, like Alan Arkin as J.D. Salinger or a “SportsCenter” reunion between Craig Kilborn and Keith Olbermann (who has a recurring role as a whale of a TV news anchor).

(*) Princess Carolyn, upon learning that Goose may be backing out of a project with Emily VanCamp: “Are you saying the Van Sant camp wants to recant on VanCamp?”

Bob-Waksberg never loses sight of his central character, whose unhappiness runs much deeper, and older, than his status as a Hollywood has-been. Season 2 finds him theoretically at the top of his game: starring in a biopic about his beloved Secretariat, famous and celebrated for the memoir Diane wrote, and even dating Wanda (Lisa Kudrow, warm and slyly funny), an owl who emerged from a 30-year coma to run a broadcast network. (It says something about the show's view of the TV business that Wanda is so good at her job despite having missed three decades of pop culture.) But none of these things, nor a brief reunion with the grown-but-damaged co-stars from his sitcom “Horsing Around,” seem to do anything to pull his spirits out of the dark pit where they usually reside. The second season premiere brings back Wendie Malick as BoJack's cruelly candid mother, who even when she's trying to apologize to her son can't help but hurt him.

“You were born broken,” she tells him, her voice tinged with regret. “You're BoJack Horseman. There's no cure for that.”

These are crushing words for the main character of any show to hear, let alone on an animated comedy about a washed-up horse/man. But where the show's sadness and silliness shouldn't work together, instead they make each other stronger. The sadness hits harder because it's coming right from a cartoon horse's mouth, while the preposterous nature of the comedy – particularly anything involving Aaron Paul as BoJack's dim but sweet housemate Todd – feels even more welcome as a relief from the crippling despair of so many of the characters.

Even Todd's not immune from the heartache that grips so many of his friends. In one episode, he confesses to Diane, “Sometimes, I feel like my whole life is just a series of loosely related, wacky misadventures.”

“BoJack Horseman” is funny enough that it could get away with being exactly what Todd describes. But it wants to be so much more than that, and succeeds.

No show this ludicrous has any business being this poignant, and vice versa. The show's earworm of a closing theme has BoJack wondering if he's “more horse than a man” or “more man than a horse.” He's both those things, just as “BoJack Horseman” is somehow one of TV's funniest comedies and most affecting dramas all in one weird, addictive little package.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at