Long gone are the days when a new Netflix show was an event. The bold new network drops something every other week now, and the misses amongst the hits matter much less. Bojack Horseman is absolutely a hit though; a cartoon about a talking horse which manages to be both the funniest comedy out right now, and a show so deeply existential it’s more of a spiritual successor to Mad Men than any series that’s debuted since its end.
It’s worth taking a moment to note the shows assets for a second, because they’re easily forgotten. It has Will Arnett, Alison Brie and Aaron Paul as the three leads, which might be the most impressive line-up in TV comedy today. Oh, and it’s a show about a washed up celebrity talking horse and it doesn’t even suck. In fact, it’s pretty damn good.
In series two of Bojack the punchlines are sharper, the visual gags more frequent and much bolder and it’s absurdist streak is allowed to run amok. Easily the funniest episode of this current batch is ‘Chickens’ with Joanna Calo’s script filled with zingers about detective tropes but her most fun is had with the chicken concept, and the scene in which Todd manages to hide an escaped chicken from a cop despite her squawking in his face is probably the most I’ve laughed at a show for a couple of years; the chicken’s his wife “Becca”, her favourite Baroque composer is “Bach”, etcetera. It’s very dumb and it made me laugh very hard. The Wanda character is a great new addition to the cast; an owl who’s just come out of a 30 year coma, providing plentiful gags in the trademark Bojack-backwards-logic style; “Finding out Frank Sinatra was dead was a real curveball! Ditto almost my entire family.”
The show is vastly more ambitious this year – servicing every character with a worthwhile story arc, beside maybe Todd. The most fruitful private venture of any character is Mr Peanut Butter; who leads a gameshow titled: “Hollywoo Stars and Celebrities: What Do They Know? Do They Know Things? Let’s Find Out!” as masterminded by the not-dead-and-bit-of-a-dick-actually JD Salinger. The show has great fun with the format, the usual alarming noise at the end of each round on these things appearing here as a girl shrieking, “They’re all dead! I watched them all die!!”
This episode, ‘Let’s Find Out’, also manages to tackle head on a major trope of the series: Bojack’s inherent unhappiness, and why it exists. Mr Peanut Butter points out that “You’re a millionaire movie star with a girlfriend who loves you, acting in your dream movie. What more do you want?!” To which Bojack replies “I…want to feel good about myself. The way you do. And I don’t know if I can.” Bojack Horseman does moments like these, where truths never spoken are said aloud, like nothing else currently on TV. It may sound daft to be so invested in the tales of anthropomorphised cartoons but all it does it stand as testament to the importance of thoughtful writing and characterisation. Without it, the screen is just filled with cardboard cut-outs.
Episode seven finessed the shows penchant for satire too – provided by the character of Hank Hippopotamus; a beloved childhood TV host who’s faced many allegations of sexual misconduct, but the world’s horror falls only on Diane, who exposed them. It’s a bold and biting satire, shockingly damning of the whole institution of Hollywood and much of modern feminism. It’s a sad reminder than those with a social conscience have a hard time in this world; and leads to a downward spiral almost as hard as Bojack’s. If ‘Hank After Dark’ was Diane’s low point, is his. ‘Escape From L.A.’ is one of the bleakest episodes of any comedy I’ve ever seen, and sees him attempting an act I was literally shouting at the screen for him not to. It’s terrible, and heart-breaking, and just sad. It ends with his childhood friend telling him “if you come near me or my family again, I will fucking kill you.” We are used to our comedies and dramas being led by assholes, but never called out in this way, and it’s all the more heart-breaking that Bojack has so often tried and so often failed to be another way. The show is one of the only ones I’ve ever seen positing, with pessimism but some realism too, that there is no grand redemption in store; perhaps we’re born a certain way and stuck there.
‘Escape From L.A.’ was the gutter I hope – and such dark spots only serve to illuminate the moments of hope and pathos that exist too. I haven’t for a while seen a shot that in itself is so inherently wistful as that which ends episode three; with a young Bojack and Herb drunk and stood in a Hollywood floatation tank, looking out at the billboard skyline and his boss uttering: “the future’s bright.” Bojack Horseman has a true penchant for gorgeous cinematography, with a cinematic quality that enables moments like this one.
There are stretches in the series which would be better described as drama than comedy; which must be a first for an animated sitcom. What the show might do better in its newly announced third season is to find a better equilibrium; often the humour in these dramatic stretches is a bit flatter than normal when it does arise, and a show this funny needn’t have flat jokes at all.
The second series actually managed to end on a loosely positive note, which encapsulated the lessons learnt from this current batch: when Bojack’s exhausting workout prompts advice from a passing jogger. “Every day it gets easier.” “Yeah?” “But you got to do it every day. That’s the hard part. But it does get easier.”‘ The fact that the line was delivered by a character that we’ve seen in every episode but never paid any attention to is testament to the huge ambition and precise plotting of this second year. Bojack Horseman began as a show not too dissimilar to Horsin’ Around; another animated sitcom with a somewhat retrodden premise, but has transformed now to one of the boldest comedies in recent memory, pushing the boundaries of what the genre can achieve: the sort of mighty leap the characters within it so desperately need.
Theodore J. Inscoe