BoJack Horseman isn’t Netflix’s first foray into the realm of animation, but it is the first that is aimed at adults (Note: Knights of Sidonia was a localisation project. It isn’t actually made by Netflix, but they did dub it). An obvious attempt at getting into the edgy, controversial cartoon crowd, BoJack actually brings a few refreshing changes to a scene dominated by the machine gun gags of Seth MacFarlane.
BoJack Horseman is a washed up TV actor, still living off the fortune that he made while starring in the biggest sitcom of the 90’s. You know, like Matthew Perry must be. BoJack’s world is a Lynchian nightmare where anthropomorphic animals are part of everyday society, yet all seem to be marginalised into demeaning stereotypes. It’s almost as if this is how the makers of the show get away with off colour jokes about ethnic minorities. Even BoJack’s old show was just one long gag about him being a horse.
The pilot starts off with a bum note. It opens with an interview as BoJack tries to plug the memoirs he’s been writing. It contains some lumpy characterisation. It clumsily uses the scene to sum up BoJack’s character in a matter of three or four lines. Later we are supposed to buy him as both a dim witted egotist and the only sane man in Hollywood. An awkward combination to pull off as one would rule him out as the other. It sets a president for the rest of the program as all the other characters are set up with big, hard to swallow mouthfuls of exposition. The pilot also runs BoJack’s affection for his old TV show into the ground, and it becomes a worry that they might take this paper thin character trait and stretch it across the whole season.
Fortunately, the following episodes fare much better. If the first episode sets up the series characters, the second and third episodes set up what kind of show BoJack is. Instead of the program using the format of animation to get away with a lack of continuity and well-drawn (no that was not a pun) characters, it subtly puts the idea in our heads that there might be more going on here than drunk jokes and bestiality.
BoJack is a series. Not a series of unconnected episodes, but one with an on-going story and a surprising amount of character development. A proper series. It’s a gradual realisation, so that the makers of the show can accommodate those who believe that animation shouldn’t try to do plot. It’s only when the show starts hitting mid-season that the events of the previous episodes have direct effects on their successors.
It’s a great realisation too. Almost all the adult animation shows on TV right now are training us to laugh in the face of continuity and reject the idea that sentimentality has a place in comedy. In fact, so many of them are following this exact same archetype they are becoming just as cookie cutter as the sitcoms they are satirising. Plus, you don’t expect a cartoon show about a washed up soap opera horse to try and tug at your heart strings.
But, it does, and the way it’s been leading you to that revelation for the first half of the season is devious in its stealth. BoJack has a ghostwriter who will be the real author of his memoirs. To her, he opens up with tales of neglectful parents and self-loathing narcissism. She points him in the right direction when the memories of these times send his celebrity warped mind to spiral out of control.
You start to think that this will be the formula for the show. Repeated episode after episode, as disposable as it is repetitive. But actually, it’s leading somewhere. They begin to reveal that they have remembered the things that the other person has told them. It changes their opinions and characters. It forces you to raise your own opinion of the show and think of it as more than surreal, zany satire.
Not that it isn’t great zany satire. Will Arnett is perfectly cast as BoJack. He can pull off both the arrogant drunk and the pitiful loner. His timing and vocal inflections are spot on. Aaron Paul, who plays his roommate Todd, begins his role as a typical Hollywood house guest, which is to say lazy, job shy and constantly stoned. Not very exciting. But the places the character goes, especially when he finds himself freed of the main plot, are often hilarious and some of the most ridiculous in the series.
BoJacks agent/ex-girlfriend is so funny she could be in Archer. Her venom for BoJack and her manipulative scheming offers some of the shows best satire. Alison Brie plays the main love interest, BoJack’s ghostwriter, Diane. A third wave feminist that the show has fun with, without putting her beliefs down. Finding out she is just as messed up as BoJack is the crux of the shows emotional heart.
The jokes can be as quick paced as anything in Family Guy or South Park. They can also be just as gleefully stupid and absurdly dark, the two styles mingling together like Bert and Ernie at a singles night. It can be crass and it can hit the obvious too many times an episode, but the numerous animal jokes are a delight. The best of which by the way is a tie between Keith Olbermann (a former MSNBC liberal anchor) as a sperm whale Fox News lampoon and Patton Oswalt as anything. Seriously he’s like the Hank Azaria of the show, he does like a dozen characters.
BoJack is a breath of fresh air in a staling genre. It changes things in a way I hope will make it influential, or at least a herald of things to come. It’s smart, its funny, it can be deep as a shotgun wound or as shallow as shot of whiskey. But the thing is, it know how to pull both of them off.