Why you should be watching the great ‘BoJack Horseman’

BoJack Horseman is one of the very best shows on television. It was in its first two seasons (even if it took me a while to realize that in the first), and it still is in its third, which Netflix debuts tomorrow. I burned through all 12 episodes of the new season over a couple of days, loving all of them, yet also feeling at a bit of a loss for what to write in a traditional advance review of the series. BoJack Horseman is gonna BoJack Horseman at this point, and while the show has become more narratively and technically adventurous in some ways – the new season’s fourth episode, set at a film festival on the ocean floor, is a delight in both ways – it’s still fundamentally the same series it’s always been: an improbable blend of cartoon absurdity and profound melancholy that makes it a great comedy and drama at the same time.

So rather than find some new way to phrase all the things I’ve said about the show in seasons past (most notably in my advance review of season 2), I’m going to treat this like one of my Stream This In The Summer entries, and give a basic BoJack primer for newbies who aren’t sure if they should give this crazy show a try.

I did a long interview with BoJack creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg, going into a lot of the jokes and story ideas of the third season, and his storytelling philosophy in general, which I’ll publish early next week after everyone’s had a chance to binge it.

In the meantime, let’s do this…

What is it? An animated series set in a world where humans live side-by-side with anthropomorphised animals. The title character (voiced by Will Arnett) was the star of a bad but popular ’90s family sitcom called Horsin’ Around, but neither his money nor his fame has been able to cut through the feelings of despair and loneliness that have plagued him all his life. But his celebrity and wealth liberate him from the consequences of his actions, and allow him to mistreat everyone who cares for him: housemate Todd (Aaron Paul), agent/ex-girlfriend Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), memoir ghostwriter Diane (Alison Brie), his old sitcom rival Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), among others. Also, character actress Margo Martindale has a recurring role as Character Actress Margo Martindale, who’s a master criminal when she’s not busy impressing audience members who can never remember her name.

Where can I find it? The first two seasons – plus a Christmas special that’s basically a full episode of Horsin’ Around – are streaming on Netflix now. Season 3 debuts after midnight Pacific.

What are its strengths? The absurdity of its alternate reality actually makes the dramatic moments feel more powerful, just as the commitment to dealing with the consequences of BoJack’s depression and bad behavior puts the comedy into sharper relief.

So Princess Carolyn, for instance, can start dating “Vincent Adultman” (also voiced by Brie) – who appears to both the audience and BoJack to be three little kids standing on each other’s shoulders under a trenchcoat, always talking about how he has to go “do a business” – and it’s mostly played as farce, but then in a season 2 episode, the show turned on a dime and used the silly relationship as a way to illustrate how empty Princess Carolyn’s own life had become, such that Vincent would seem a good option to her. And the silliness of Mr. Peanutbutter’s many terrible business ideas (his accountant complains he once paid a group of kindergarteners $50,000 for the movie rights to the game of tag), or J.D. Salinger producing a game show called Hollywoo Stars and Celebrities: What Do They Know? Do They Know Things?? Let’s Find Out!, feels even more cathartic after we’ve been watching BoJack, Diane, and others grapple with their own sadness.

The vocal performances are all excellent, and the show has done an impressive job letting real celebrities play themselves in surprisingly self-deprecating ways. (There are a bunch of rough Jessica Biel jokes in an upcoming episode, to the point I was surprised to see Biel’s name in the guest credits at the end.) As a satire of the ridiculous ways the entertainment business works, it would be terrific in its own right, but perhaps tired after a while. The character work and performances take the show to another level.

What are its weaknesses? It takes a little while into the first season for BoJack’s depression to reveal itself as something more than an occasional throwaway line, and it may seem at first like a rehash of 17 different Adult Swim and Seth MacFarlane shows you’ve seen before. But by midway through that first year, the design of the show is apparent, and its elements are all in balance.

So where should I start? Just watch the whole thing. At most, you have to get through six imperfect episodes, which are still useful in establishing the characters and the world, and which still have enough funny material – particularly an early episode where BoJack offends a Navy SEAL (who is, of course, an actual seal) – to get you through to the genuinely great parts.

I’m still not entirely sold. What else can you tell me? If the above doesn’t make BoJack Horseman sound like a show for you, it probably isn’t. It can be very heavy at times, and plain stupid at others. But if you’re on the fence, here’s one of my favorite dumb gags from last season, from an episode explaining where meat comes from in a world of sentient animals, where Todd is hiding a chicken who’s otherwise headed for the slaughterhouse:

Like I said, back early next week with a whole lot from Bob-Waksberg about season 3, and BoJack as a whole.