BoJack Horseman: Surprise Stallion in the Netflix Stable

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BoJack Horseman is an ass. Well, technically he’s a horse and not a donkey, but he’s an ass.

As fall television rolls in this week and we all find ourselves engulfed with a deluge of new programming, there’s one little piece of summer business to take care of before moving into the swamp. I say that because somewhere around 90 percent of the new stuff this fall…stinks on ice. Luckily, as we exist in this terrific age of television and of streaming content, there are tons of things to watch that make it almost irrelevant if most of what’s new isn’t very good. If you haven’t been watching Review with Forrest MacNeil on Comedy Central, you may well have missed the best entertainment of the year. Seriously, it’s insane. If you missed UnREAL this summer, you should fix that. If you didn’t get to Rectify or Deutschland ’83, they’re out there for you. If you haven’t heard of Rick & Morty, you should Google it. If you didn’t watch Mr. Robot, first read my season one review, and get to the first season on demand immediately. Netflix has the fourth season of Longmire up as well as the solid debut of Narcos, and that’s just what’s popped up in the past four weeks or so.

Netflix is where I want to stay today, because there’s something sitting in the “Trending” or “Popular” listings that many of you probably have blown right past, just positive it’s not for you. It just has to be a waste of time. It’s animated for crying out loud, and as fun and edgy as Archer can be, I’m an adult. The lead character is an animal. I’m just going to go rewatch Friday Night Lights for the eleventh time. While that last decision isn’t wrong, and I’ve basically been attributing thoughts to your brain that may be invalid, stick with me on this one. If it looked ridiculous and “maybe it’s good, but I know it’s wrong for me” was the result, it’s quite possible you’ve missed out on the true hidden gem of television in 2015.

Again, BoJack Horseman is an ass. He’s self-centered; a washed-up television star who drinks a lot and mistreats virtually everyone in his life. He’s entitled. Technically, he’s a horse and not a donkey, but he’s definitely an ass.

BoJack Horseman returned for its second season in July and while the first year featured an evolution of a rookie concept from something that seemed banal to something wholly unique, Season 2 took everything to an entirely different level. BoJack, the gimmick star of a ’90’s (late 80s, but ended in 1996) sitcom called “Horsin’ Around,” still pretty much walks around like BoJack, the gimmick star of a ’90’s (late 80s, but ended in 1996) sitcom called “Horsin’ Around.” He watches his own repeats, has done virtually no work since the show’s cancellation, and wallows around in his mansion on the hills, dodging pizza boxes and endless glass bottles of alcohol in various stages of emptiness. Those bottles of brew all over his home are a perfect metaphor for who this man/horse/protagonist/brilliant creation is in reality. He’s empty. He was rolling in loot, but he’s lonely and his entire life seems to lack any semblance of meaning.

Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff called BoJack Horseman the show Mad Men fans should use to help them cope with the loss of Matthew Weiner’s epic drama. As the most truly “original” Netflix original begins to unfold, Todd’s point is well taken, because the best comparison of BoJack to another lead character in recent television history is unquestionably Don Draper, both in his present and in his upbringing. So, if you’re still reading this and were unfamiliar with the series before today, the question has to be some version of, “So why is it a cartoon then?”

One thing that became readily apparent even in the early stages of the first season, where even creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg would agree that his show hadn’t found itself yet, was that the cartoon format allowed for much higher degrees of over the top comedy that wouldn’t play in a live action setting. Why would you use animals in a show like this? It seemed obvious almost from the first moment. You use animals because it’s so easy to do background, observational, fluffy humor with animals simultaneously doing furry things and human things. Also, you can go way further in the wacky direction and depict things that would be far more distracting outside of the “drawn” sphere. In BoJack Horseman, one of the greatest examples of the juxtaposition of light and darkness in storytelling that television has provided an audience in a long time, it’s necessary to have some fun because the overarching subject matter is so amazingly bleak and “real.” This isn’t a story about animals in a human world. It’s a tale of the never-ending and oft-elusive struggle and journey to find lasting individual contentment in life. Whether that’s true love or deep friendship or the meaning of existence, BoJack Horseman as a character goes through every stage of that psychological dilemma. BoJack Horseman the show ensures that the ride is worth taking, but at times it’s a very painful trip, and one that can hit close to home.

The key to being happy isn’t a search for meaning. It’s just to keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually, you’ll be dead. — Mr. Peanutbutter

I wrote in the aforementioned Mr. Robot piece of a concept I created years ago of the “RED” and “BLUE” show. Red shows are programs that require the correct mood. Blue shows are ones I have in the background as I write or clean or eat or do whatever else. For example, currently I have USA Network’s Psych on as I’m writing this article. Leverage, White Collar, Chuck, and any variety of comedies all fit the bill. Blue is a cooling, relaxing color for me. Red is a warning signal that feels harsh and requires a state of alertness. BoJack Horseman is an animated show, but it’s very much a red entity for me. I can’t put it on to go to sleep at night, or it has to be the right episode, because some of the subject matter demands my attention and leaves me deep in thought.

Raphael’s greatest triumph with BoJack is in his understanding of how best to tell this story. Making it animated would only be a turnoff to those closed-minded enough to avoid it simply because it’s a cartoon. It’s not Shirt Tales. It’s not Jabberjaw. It’s not even Aqua Teen or Harvey Birdman. The voice of occasional BoJack rival and frenemy, Mr. Peanutbutter (yes he’s a dog), Paul F. Tompkins, of whom I’ve long been an unabashed fan, explains it thusly:

“BoJack Horseman isn’t a cartoon for grown-ups. It’s a cartoon for adults.”

Never during the course of the second season in particular do you feel like you’re watching something beneath your age limit. You get the animal puns, you laugh at Mr. Peanutbutter’s blind naivety and later love him as the host of the new game show, “Hollywoo Stars and Celebrities: What Do They Know? Do They Know Things? Let’s Find Out.” The “D” in Hollywood disappeared after BoJack stole it in order to present it to Diana Nguyen, the author of his memoir, who he quickly falls in love with, despite her relationship and engagement to…you guessed it…Mr. Peanutbutter.

BoJack is far less horse than Peanutbutter is dog. That feels right, because BoJack is supposed to be more of a reflection of Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s larger picture rather than the spot for visual comedy. If he was downing a giant can of oats every five minutes, it would be far more difficult to relate correctly to that character. The dog loves tennis balls and bones and although he works at Lady Foot Locker for a time, he displays many canine characteristics. Also, we just don’t know horses like we know dogs, partly thanks to domestication and partly thanks to Bob Saget and Tom Bergeron on various home videos that generate fake laughter in a studio in Burbank.

Every character on BoJack fits into the larger scope of the show beautifully. Princess Carolyn, a pink cat and Hollywoo agent (albeit one with a scratching post on her desk), wants love and she also wants professional relevance. She’s even willing to ignore the obvious in order to fake success in those pursuits. Mr. Peanutbutter desires marriage but above all desires the pleasant side of fame and the likability that comes with avoiding knowledge at all costs. He’s lovably stupid, but his feelings are fragile. Diane wants to do something important with her life, which doesn’t really include writing a has-been’s story Todd, BoJack’s slacker roommate, seems aimless but in effect is constantly searching for purpose. He ends up finding Improv, which is treated hilariously like a parody of Scientology, which was immensely satisfying. BoJack Horseman craves varying stages of all the other character’s desires, but in the end he keeps reaching out for happiness. He has no clue what that entails, similar to many of us, including me. He remembers an idealized version of the woman he loved years ago, not remembering that the meeting and the time the two spent together was short. He romanticized the memory, which is an incredibly Draperish thing to do, and when he tries to recapture it or set things on a different path late in Season 2, the result is both disastrous and arguably one of the five best episodes of any television program anywhere this year.

BoJack Horseman looks like it should be funny.

BoJack Horseman is funny.

BoJack Horseman doesn’t on the surface appear to possess much more than the humor.

BoJack Horseman’s humor is entirely secondary to the drama, the growth, and the pitch-perfect storytelling that reflects believable emotion in our own lives.

Wanda Pierce: What happened?

BoJack Horseman: Same thing that always happens. You didn’t know me and then you fell in love with me. And now you know me. (S2E10)

The voice cast is tremendous, from Will Arnett as BoJack to Aaron Paul to Alison Brie to Amy Sedaris to Paul F. Tompkins to Lisa Kudrow to the cavalcade of guest stars – including the likes of Daniel Radcliffe, Amy Schumer, Margo Martindale, Lance Bass, Stephen Colbert and Paul McCartney – that help supplement the show. A standout highlight is Keith Olbermann as Tom Jumbo-Grumbo, a blue whale news anchor for the MSNBSea network. Animal puns and sharp, easy punch lines work enormously well and help make the at-times, almost suicidally depressing BoJack storyline tolerable. There are a ton of little hidden prizes within every episode. The animation itself is exceptional as well. Credit to Lisa Hanawalt, who in one interview for the Nerdist Writer’s Panel podcast, remarked that the second she thought of Princess Carolyn, she knew that cat had to be pink. I don’t know her, but I love her, just for being so certain of the tint of feline she needed.

For BoJack Horseman, there would be a flood of yellow tape and “move it along, nothing to see here,” but for the heart, declination, and intensity of the proceedings. What makes it work so seamlessly is in the coagulation of clever, biting, often raunchy humor with the serious tone that we’ve come to expect from the highest of the high end on TV. The mix is almost flawless. It’s at times so crazily over the top, but at other times the “top” is the roof our protagonist is looking over as he contemplates his future or lack thereof. The first six episodes of season one appear to be just another insider Hollywood satire and nothing jumps out as particularly distinctive, but after we get to know the characters through this very different way to intro a series, our familiarity allows Raphael and his team to start telling crucially powerful narratives that we can grasp. We’re used to the zany stuff, which we can now laugh at or just quietly enjoy while keeping our focus on the foreground of the effort.

The best way I can attempt to explain it is that when you watch the early episodes, it’s as if you’re being primed as a viewer to get acclimated to the cartoon side, the animal side, and know each of the characters on screen by name. Once that job is accomplished, the show actually becomes BoJack Horseman. Rather than the first week television pilot where we meet every character, it’s stretched out. Because it’s animated, we get more time to just chuckle and learn a little bit. If we stay with the show, we discover that it’s the real treasure on Netflix. Season 2 is the cream of the service’s crop. Of all the original programming, and much of it is quite good, BoJack Horseman is atop the heap. There’s more meat than Cards, often better balance than Orange, and superior approachability to virtually anything you’ll find. It’s the finest brand of aggregation for those willing to experience its both colorful and dreary universe.

BoJack Horseman is charming.

BoJack Horseman is gut wrenching.

BoJack Horseman can be satire at its best.

BoJack Horseman can be storytelling at its best.

BoJack Horseman is just getting started.

BoJack Horseman is an ass.

Well, technically he’s a horse, but he’s an ass, and we’re all better for his propensity to be Eeyore.

Both seasons of BoJack Horseman are available for streaming on Netflix. Season 3 will premiere in 2016. If you missed it this summer…make amends my friends, make amends.

I’m @GuyNamedJason. Fool me once, shame on you, but teach a man to fool me and I’ll be fooled for the rest of my life.

Written by Jason Martin