When I was younger, I was terrified of adult animated comedy shows. They were such fickle bastards; I’d initially think they were innocent cartoons, watch them in front of my parents, and then four “fucks” and three sex jokes later, my parents would flip a shit and do everything but discontinue our cable service.
Things have changed since then. I’ve been invested in Family Guy, with its wacky cut-off gags essential to the show’s comedic engine, and Rick and Morty, a recent Adult Swim cartoon about an alcoholic genius scientist traveling around time and space with his mentally challenged but morally upstanding grandson. Recently, on the recommendation of a friend, I began watching Netflix’s hilarious, wacky, and heartwarming new animated series, BoJack Horseman.
And like they say, the third time’s the charm.
The show starts off with a rather simple and predictable plot: the titular character is a fifty-something washed up D-List celebrity doing nothing with his life except drinking excessively and watching reruns of the popular but critically panned sitcom in which he used to star (like the father from The Brady Bunch, or Michael Keaton’s character in Birdman). Worthy of note is the show’s commitment to continuity. Events from one episode carry through to the next one, and so on and so forth. In this sense, the show functions as a drama as well as a comedy, staying true to the story rather than starting from scratch each episode for laughs.
The universe of the show is truly unique. Many of the characters are animal-human hybrids, and in-universe, nothing about this is abnormal. These anthropomorphic creatures (“anthros” for short) live alongside humans in peace and with no strife whatsoever. In fact, other than using the anthro gimmick to squeeze laughs out of animal puns, there’s really no significance to this design. This is no criticism; so many of the anthro jokes are funny in an adorable way that goes surprisingly well with the show’s dark themes. We see raccoon-people fighting each other for dumpster territory, cat-people drinking milk, dog-people raising their ears when excited, a Hollywood director named “Quentin Tarantulino,” etc., etc. BoJack Horseman is one such anthro, with the head and mane of a horse and the body of a rather out-of-shape middle-aged man.
MILD SPOILERS: the show’s first season kicks off with BoJack trying to reclaim his old celebrity status by having a ghostwriter, Diane Nguyen, publish his memoirs; and the second season follows him performing the role of his dreams in a new movie about his childhood hero. The show’s writers have thought it all through: each of these plots fits with the show’s central premise of a (horse)man earning his way back to fame.
And it works…but almost too easily, right? We’ve seen retired-professional-regaining-his-lost-luster plots several times–especially in unnecessarily long action movies (Die Hard, Mission: Impossible, Fast and Furious, etc). Plain and simple, a story about an ex-actor becoming famous again is far too blasé. Critics have even noted that the first three or four episodes of the show lack the emotional grounding that the show masters as it goes on, and that’s because they quickly squeeze everything out of the actor-making-a-comeback plot. However, about halfway into the first season, it becomes clear that the show really isn’t about an actor in his mid-life crisis. It’s about a man learning how to be happy.
So yes, it’s not entirely a comedy. While the show contains several hilarious segments, it also has its share of truly dark and emotional moments as well. Flashbacks occur as the show progresses to show us more of BoJack’s life, paving the way for some genuinely heart-wrenching moments. We see young, enthusiastic BoJack from the days of his old sitcom, Horsin’ Around and the innocent, daydreaming BoJack from childhood. It’s laudable how we witness his transformation before the series’ present timeline, making his current storyline all the more empathetic. Our hero may be an inconsiderate, narcissistic horse-thing, but he’s fighting a battle that most TV shows don’t explore nearly as poignantly. We begin to learn through BoJack that having a shitty past doesn’t make you a good person. “Deep down” is a myth to bolster self-esteem. And reconciling a dark past with a bleak future requires the strength of a horse.
BoJack Horseman (horse): The eponymous horse who reluctantly embarks on a mission of self-acceptance at the beginning of season one when he hesitantly decides to hire a ghostwriter (Diane Nguyen) to write his memoirs. He’s a self-obsessed alcoholic, manipulating the people around him to support his need for acceptance. If it weren’t for his dry wit and the show’s humor, he would instantly be a dislikable character (like a more fleshed out and maudlin version of Erlich Bachman from Silicon Valley). Over the show, BoJack begins to mature and learn from his mistakes. However, the show is smart enough not to hand out conflict resolution so easily. In fact, a recurring pattern in the show is as follows: BoJack has a problem, he feels that he’s discovered a solution, and then he implements that solution only to have it backfire catastrophically. Victories in the show feel earned because they come from characters painfully and repeatedly failing rather than from the need to advance the plot.
Diane Nguyen (human): The ghostwriter famous for writing the biography of BoJack Horseman’s childhood idol, Secretariat, Diane begins writing BoJack’s own memoirs upon his request. Although a wallflower, she’s unafraid to call BoJack out on his spoiled behavior. She bonds with BoJack over similarities in their upbringing, forming the show’s beating heart without ever becoming cheesy. Diane’s story truly emerges in the second season, as she ponders the direction she wants her life to take. She’s dating Mr. Peanutbutter at the start of the series.
Todd Chavez (human): BoJack’s slacker roommate and best friend. He came for one of BoJack’s huge Hollywood parties years before the series began, and he just decided not to leave. In many ways completely opposite of BoJack, Todd is young, cheerful, simple, and well-meaning. However, he also shares much with BoJack: he’s lazy yet protective of his dreams, and on a couple of occasions, it’s shown that he searches for some sort of meaning in his own life as well. Todd’s interests range from writing rock operas to making “smoodies” to becoming a Hollywood understudy. In many ways, Todd serves as a reminder that everything will be okay, lightening the mood when things become heavy.
Princess Carolyn (cat): A sharp and career-oriented woman working for a Hollywood Talent Agency called Vigor. Despite her fast-paced and bustling lifestyle, she suffers from severe loneliness. She’s BoJack’s agent and girlfriend at the start of the series. Similar to BoJack, she initially served as simply a rather overused metaphor for everything wrong with Hollywood. Her character appeared only to be in the show to move the plot forward, but it becomes evident as the series goes on that her story of finding value in herself manages to stand separately–parallel, even–to that of Bojack.
Mr. Peanutbutter (dog): Another Hollywood actor best known for an ’80s sitcom. His show, Mr. Peanutbutter’s House, basically ripped off the plot from BoJack’s Horsin’ Around. As a result, BoJack doesn’t quite respect Mr. Peanutbutter despite the latter’s several attempts to make amends. Compared to BoJack’s cynical and snarky personality, Mr. Peanutbutter is energetic, social, loyal, and honestly adorable (truly a dog). He starts the series dating Diane, drawing him into the plot as a tertiary character, but his relationships with other characters, namely Todd and BoJack, soon work their way into the show’s comedic-melancholic (melanchomedic?) soul, making him the second season’s breakout character.
The show’s opening theme is, simply put, an animated masterpiece. The music, the visual art, and the wordless story it tells all encapsulate the show’s soul perfectly. First of all, the “acid jazz” created by the morphing, psychedelic beat captures the lazy cadence of BoJack’s post-stardom life, and the “camerawork” cutting between him moving around his house illustrate its blunt mundanity.
From then on, the music becomes more frenetic and excited as the camera follows BoJack going through the motions: we see the inside of his beautiful home, the awards and pictures on the wall from his days on Horsin’ Around, his friends fast-forwarding through their own lives with seemingly lighthearted vigor, his frustration at the paparazzi’s relentless ambushes, and his disinterest in his own party in which all of his friends and coworkers are having a blast.
And then, with the grand interjection of a powerful saxophone melody, we witness our protagonist tumble off his balcony and into his swimming pool. Whether the fall is a mere drunken slip or a distressingly intentional decision remains ambiguous, but either way, we can understand that BoJack feels jarringly outside of his own life, and no amount of wealth, accolades, or even friends bring him any respite. The theme ends with a cut to BoJack lounging alone on his pool–an adequate allegory for his own precariously self-reliant position–with the saxophone pulling back to a repetitive melody as the camera zooms out slowly.
- “Life is just one long, hard kick in the urethra.” –BoJack
- “What have you been doing?” –Diane
“Mostly sitting around the house complaining about things.” –BoJack
“Yeah? How’s that working out for you?” –Diane
“Can’t complain.” –BoJack
- “Closure is a made up thing by Steven Spielberg to sell movie tickets! It, like true love and the Munich Olympics, doesn’t exist in the real world. The only thing to do now is just to keep living forward.” –BoJack
- “I don’t think I believe in ‘deep down’. I think that all you are is just the things that you do.” –Diane
- “That was–and I don’t say this lightly–worse than a hundred September 11ths.” –BoJack
- “I said, make me a penis-butter and vajelly sandwich, bitch!” –Sarah Lynn
- “You know, it’s funny. When you look at someone through rose-colored glasses all the red flags just look like flags.” –Wanda”
- “I’m not afraid of committing! I commit to things all the time! I just don’t follow through with any of them!” –BoJack
- “Every day, it gets a little easier. But you have to do it every day. Thats the hard part. But it does get easier.” –Jogger
Writing this quotes section made me realize how dark and depressing this show may appear at first glance. It’s not that traumatic; I promise! The first two seasons are on Netflix, so give it a shot. If it sucks at first, just remember that “every day, it gets a little easier. But you have to do it every day.” You can finish the rest. God I can’t wait for Season Three.