BoJack Horseman: Bolder, Darker, Better Than Ever in Season 3

BoJack, stop. You are everything that’s wrong with you. — Todd Chavez

Last year, I wrote quite a bit about BoJack Horseman, talking of its brilliant voice cast and the darkness that helped differentiate it from so many others. While it’s impossible not to speak to the somber tones yet again, I won’t waste your time with too much of what’s under the hood. I encourage you to read the 2015 piece as an introduction to the series, and if you’re already familiar, you should be ready to jump into the Season 3 review, in which our animated antihero returns in his most daring and engulfing chapters yet.

As Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s story has taken shape, the quality has increased exponentially. The first season started slowly, but became a different animal (no pun intended) altogether in its back half. Season 2 was magnificent stuff, and tackled issues in the final few episodes that most shows wouldn’t have even attempted, much less pulled off. When last we left BoJack Horseman, he was set for the release of Secretariat, where he was the lead. But, the movie the public would see isn’t the one he remembered, as he was replaced in every scene with a digitized version of himself after disappearing during shooting on a misguided quest for love and connection.

With his professional life unfulfilling at best, BoJack began to look toward actual companionship, but glamorized a brief friendship, thinking it was a whirlwind romance, and it all blew up in his face. In the process, he almost slept with his fantasy’s daughter. Yeah, like I said it was dark. If anyone was curious whether Raphael might lighten his tale up in some form or fashion, no such luck. With the exceptions of O.J.: Made in America and The Night Of, nothing is as relentlessly willing to go negative as Season 3 of BoJack Horseman. It’s on par with The Americans, though unlike all three of those efforts, it’s also consistently hilarious when necessary.

And, along with those three projects, it’s one of the best television shows of the year, just as Season 2 was. Triumph can be an overused term, including by me, but here, there’s no other word that connotes the proper level of respect I have for the material and the sheer balls it takes to do some of the things BoJack Horseman takes on with gusto in its latest bundle of episodes.

What we’ve come to know and expect from BoJack as a lead character is internal turmoil, which leads to horrific decision-making and self-destruction. In the past, the problems have manifested themselves in alcohol, occasional drug use, promiscuous “make me feel better” sex, and arguments with friends and colleagues.

None of that changes in Season 3, but all of it enhances, or perhaps it’s better to describe it as devolution of the BoJack Horseman character to a level that is within range of suicidal. He’s destroying himself, and he’s also both purposefully and accidentally decimating all of the important relationships in his life. He’s never been at a lower point than we find him at the end of these 12 episodes, and it’s not an outlandish opinion to start believing he’s going to jump off a bridge whenever the series comes to a close.

I think Raphael knows the audience could almost see that conclusion coming, so it won’t happen, but BoJack is self-injurious to a very real and frightening degree this season. He and Princess Carolyn have always had a complicated partnership, but the random sex of the past has only made things more difficult and, when it comes time for another temporary professional break between the two, the episode that tells that story does so beautifully. It’s tough to watch, as is much of the season, but it’s riveting. Anytime BoJack Horseman delves into personal questions of the meaning of life or why everything goes to shit, it’s completely in its element.

It takes a long time to realize how truly miserable you are, and even longer to see that it doesn’t have to be that way. Only after you give up everything, can you begin to find a way to be happy. – Cuddlywhiskers

The season’s best episode this time around was one that featured virtually no dialogue and took place in an unfamiliar locale. “Fish Out of Water” tells the tale of BoJack’s visit to an underwater film festival, where Secretariat will premiere, and, along with it, Horseman’s Oscar campaign really begins. As with everything in the world of BoJack Horseman, Raphael Bob-Waksberg doesn’t spend much time on the festival, instead quickly getting his antihero lost on a bus ride, forced to help a male seahorse give birth, and then having him play dad for about ten minutes after one of the babies is inadvertently left behind.

It’s so much fun to watch BoJack in a world where his stardom and his troubles don’t exist, where his only concern is keeping this small creature alive and treating it with love. He isn’t drunk, he’s not speaking, and he’s just doing his best. It’s a glimpse from the writers into an answer to Horseman’s entire pathetic life, and as it ends, we know he won’t remember it.

This was a time when BoJack wouldn’t admit or even recognize happiness, but he was quietly, subtly enjoying his life. Was it being a father figure, being carefree, or just being lost? We don’t know, but it’s queries like these that make the story so brilliant. It’s easily one of the top five episodes, maybe number one, of any scripted television program this year.

Doing an episode where almost everything is visual, with no words, is something many showrunners and shows, animated or live action, would never even consider. Those that did would feel gimmicky, but not here, because it’s emotionally beautiful, with the hint of tragedy that underlies almost any brief lighthearted BoJack sequence. He tries to do nice things, and out of guilt attempts to fix a broken relationship with the original woman behind “Secretariat.” The ink smearing on the note was such a smart way to spoil a heartfelt moment, and BoJack largely exists to spoil what an audience anticipates from a show about a cartoon horse or a Hollywood spoof.

Fans of the show know the Sarah Lynn character well, and I’ll admit I’ve never been a fan. It’s a satire (or a mild exaggeration, we hope) of the childhood actor gone wrong headline, and though the pairing with BoJack is sensible due to the two working together on the Horsin’ Around sitcom, it’s always felt a little lazy to me. Her fate in Season 3’s penultimate episode, however, is the best use we’ve seen of the character, and also Kristen Schaal’s best work voicing her.

Much of the 25 minutes focuses on a drug-fueled bender that comes after Horseman finds out Mr. Peanutbutter erroneously read his name during the Academy Award Nominations. Sarah Lynn, sober for nearly nine months, happily joins in, and we see BoJack blackout several times. We witness the jump cuts, matching his latest mistakes, and we know it’s not going to end well. The ultimate fate and the final scene aren’t shocking, but they’re jarring. The episode title, “That’s Too Much, Man,” doubles as the perfect reaction to an audience that’s seen some really ugly stuff in the lead-up to that uber-dramatic punch to the gut.

The animation and the usage of animals, as I said last year, allows for sight gags and jokes in the background that enable the writers to tell such a dark story. Princess Carolyn playing with tissue paper amidst a bad morning in bed works, as do all the clever names and the ways secondary characters can elicit laughs, even if they’re short-lived, wedged between the self-annihilation of BoJack Horseman and his friends.

We get less of Mr. Peanutbutter and Diane, but after some good turns for both last season, what we do get is very entertaining, and deeper than expected. Labrador Island leads to a health scare, the marriage therapy shows maturity from both husband and wife, and we get more of Todd’s bad ideas, but one that carries through the entire year for a reason. The spaghetti strainer angle becomes a finale payoff in the Character Actress Margo Martindale sea voyage arc, and though BoJack and Diane are usually at their best when used together, the one trip the two took to visit Cuddlywhiskers led to a fabulous last five minutes.

Todd had arguably his best season, as he dealt with romance and business success, but remained clueless, except when it came to his best friend, BoJack, who he understands better than Horseman understands himself. The serious included a stripper dead in a pool, a return to the saddest portion of Season 2, an entire episode about abortion that is deliberate in approach, and the ramifications of sleeping with the wrong people, which is something that happens more than once. It’s heavy, in a way Marty McFly would definitely appreciate.

As for the jokes, they range from throwaway gags about Todd’s travails searching for hotel ice, to Sarah Koenig and the Serial podcast, to the uses for large paper mache heads, to a news anchor tiring of his writers’ overuse of teases and clever language. There are digs at publicists, interviews, the vapidity of questions on a press tour, and the fictional world celebrities sometimes inhabit. But, I would absolutely watch Jurj Clooners in “The Nazi Who Played Yahtzee.”

It’s still awfully funny when it either wants or needs to be, but BoJack’s grandest value is in its ability to evade classification. To call it a drama isn’t accurate. To call it a sitcom is woefully erroneous. To call it a dramedy doesn’t offer full context of the other aspects outside those two genres. And, without the congruence of the main story, it’s everything its predecessors have already been for decades. That was the issue with the early stages of Season 1, but it changed. It went from innocuous to cutting edge, average to top of the mark. It’s something so strikingly one-of-a-kind. Transcending genres, eclipsing simple definitions, it’s inescapably BoJackian.

From the highs and lows of “Secretariat,” the mental breakdowns, the side stories, the flashbacks to 2007, which detailed the brief history of The BoJack Horseman Show, and the finality of the Sarah Lynn story, this was sublime television. I need to rewatch Season 2, to try and determine which I enjoyed more, but both are top ten shows. They’re both top five shows. The barrier to entry is higher than Game of Thrones or Scandal or anything else, because animated carries a connotation of childishness. I’m begging you to fight the urge to dismiss BoJack Horseman because of what you think it is, and the words you’ve consumed in this article are my case.   

Though its world and its characters center on the Hollywoo(d) existence few of us can even fathom, its problems, stories, and tales of inner demons and impending doom are all too familiar. It can hit close to home in a sequence depicting something beyond our understanding. It’s not preachy, it doesn’t believe in teaching lessons, and it definitely doesn’t worry about resolution.

It’s a story so palpably outlandish and so occasionally terrifying that I found myself thanking God it’s fiction. The subjects and the feelings, however, are real, and through all the humor and drama, BoJack Horseman could best be described as BoJack Trojan Horseman, where the secrets and depth are invisible to the naked eye.

BoJack’s comparisons as a character are Don Draper, Frank Underwood, and Tony Soprano (among others), all names featured on one of the series’ 2016 advertisements, which you can see above. Draper and Horseman are extremely similar, and fans of Mad Men should long ago have given BoJack a try. Many of them have, but not enough. It’s time to watch, ladies and gentlemen. It’s past time.

Expertly drawn by Lisa Hanawalt, matching the vision and ingenuity of creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg, BoJack Horseman is that most rare of entertainment animal (this time pun fully intended), a hyped phenomenon still on the upswing. Creatively peaking, hooking new fans every day, and becoming an inspiration for young writers and artists, Season 3 shows staying power, and a willingness to challenge conventions and rewrite the rules. It leaves you in tears of every variety, with bellyaching laughs and nearly intolerable sadness both integral parts of BoJack’s emotional journey.

It deserves your attention, and the wait for Season 4, officially announced on Friday, will be a long one. You’ll be hearing more about BoJack Horseman in my 2016 Year End Top Ten list, that I can assure you.

For now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to start over and relive the entire thing, to see what I missed and also to enjoy the many memorable moments for a second time.

Do likewise my friends.

I’m @GuyNamedJason on the Tweets. Enjoy your party. Stop worrying about the future.  

Written by Jason Martin