Regular readers will know that I have some fondness for dysfunctional talking animals and I like cartoons and I like binge-watching Netflix. So yes, I’ve watched all four seasons of BoJack Horseman. You’ll note that while I’ve made passing comments about it that I haven’t reviewed even a single episode.
Mainly this is because I don’t know where to start or what the point of the review would be. So I thought I’d write two different pieces. This first one avoids big spoilers, talks more in generalities and focuses on what the show is like. If you haven’t seen the show, this review might give a sense of the show.
The second review will have more spoilers – if I write it. Part of writing about the stuff you consume is to debrief yourself and help articulate what you experienced. Season 4 of the show, in particular, has a lot to process.
Let’s begin. BoJack Horseman is an animated comedy aimed at adults about a washed up former sitcom star and his dysfunctional life. Simple. He is also a horse. The world he lives in is our world but also some people are animals. Some people are fish, some people are insects. BoJack’s agent/ex-girlfriend is a cat. Some people are humans. People still eat chicken but chickens are people and essentially chickens are people enslaved and kept docile to be eaten by people in what is a deeply disturbing nightmare scenario that isn’t a metaphor it is just how the world is.
BoJack Horseman is an animated comedy aimed at adults about a washed up former sitcom star and his dysfunctional life. Simple. He is also a horse. The world he lives in is our world but also some people are animals. Some people are fish, some people are insects. BoJack’s agent/ex-girlfriend is a cat. Some people are humans. People still eat chicken but chickens are people and essentially chickens are people enslaved and kept docile to be eaten by people in what is a deeply disturbing nightmare scenario that isn’t a metaphor it is just how the world is.
The show is also very funny .
I love shows that have an inbuilt capacity to essentially do anything and BoJack Horseman is one of those shows. The core of the storyline is the life of a genuinely unlikable person. BoJack is conceited and cynical, he uses people and manipulates people. Not only is he unhappy but he takes active steps to sabotage the happiness of others. Narcissistic-yet-self-loathing and at best amoral, he operates in part as the antagonist of the show. When other characters make the move to get BoJack out of their lives, you cheer them on – it is always a smart move. When those same characters find themselves embroiled in his unpleasantness you feel sad for them.
Except…BoJack is also a sympathetic character. Which is hard and it is worth stating up front that having an emotionally abusive character at the centre of a show and also making him sympathetic is a problematic concept. Yet it works – it works because the surrounding characters are also sympathetically drawn even when some of them start just as one-note jokes. Also by making the audience feel sympathetic towards BoJack the cycle of emotional damage becomes intelligible. The ups and downs of his career, his occasional personal insights, the apparent missed opportunities for a better happier life put the viewer in the same position as those self-same characters that we think should just get FAR AWAY from the piece of shit that is BoJack. Except of course we also like those characters and want them to stay in the show and hence want them to stay involved in BoJack’s life and rationalise that maybe they are good for him… and once again the viewer ends up in the mindset of the person trying to be friends with a shitty person.
I’m not really selling this as a funny show.
It is a funny show. Talking animals is a basically funny concept. Taking that concept and then extrapolating it further makes it even funnier. Taking that concept and then occasionally delving into the implications of a world in which some people are literally animals and working out the mechanics of it, is both absurd and funny and pushes the show well into speculative fiction. If animals are people then what about sea creatures? Well, they are also people and live in giant sea cities and have a whole somewhat alien culture.
Showbiz, politics, sitcom cliches all get satirised both crudely and subtly. Sight gags and puns and wordplay keep the episodes sparkling with humour while absurd events send characters off on increasingly irrational sequences of events (e.g. the Governor of California having a hand transplant and getting lobster claws – also the Governor of California is a woodchuck called Woodchuck Couldchuck Berkowitz).
The humour is inappropriate and the events that happen to the characters are cruel but in general, what it avoids doing is making the humour pointlessly cruel. There are times when wordplay is both stupid-funny AND devastating to the character but it isn’t Seth Macfarlane or South Park nasty. There is a consistent current of humanity and sympathy throughout.
In part that is due to some amazing writing but also due to the cast. Will Arnett as BoJack is truly impressive but also in Season 4 Amy Sedaris as BoJack’s agent Princess Carolyn does some incredible and heart-wrenching acting. Alison Brie as writer/journalist/blogger Diane Nguyen is consistently good. Aaron Paul pulls off a different but similar trick that he did with Breaking Bad – taking an apparently shallow and uncomplex secondary character and turning them into the heart of the show. Paul F Tompkins as BoJack’s frenemy, the irrepressibly jolly Labrador Mr Peanutbutter also shifts a character who starts as a one-note joke (he’s a person who has the personality of a labrador) into a complex character.
I’m still processing Season 4 and that’s what I’d like to write about next because it was extraordinary and at times very upsetting. I don’t think there is a way to discuss it without spoilers, so if you haven’t watched the show but intend to, don’t read that post.