There’s an element of been there/done that when you first sit down with Netflix’s Bojack Horseman. For starters, it’s a showbiz satire of all the greedy, petty lifestyles of Hollywood’s elite. Already, you can feel a yawn growing. What possible gold could be left to be mined from territory that’s been razed by shows like 30 Rock or Entourage or any of the probably hundreds of shows, movies, and books all dedicated to revealing (and reveling in) the dirty and dumb life behind the spotlights.
Not only is Bojack starting from well-worn ground, but it is centered around maybe the most overused archetype on television these days: the wealthy, middle-aged male fuck-up who just can’t stop causing trouble. We’ve seen permutation after permutation of this exact same trope, so much so that most (all?) of the recent incarnations have been so thoroughly diluted that all that is left is these mushy mutations that wheeze at you “Kill meeeeeeee…” like in that one scene of Alien: Resurrection, I guess, although I haven’t seen that one. Ron Perlman is supposed to be good in it, right?
Even in its appearance, Bojack Horseman seems uninventive. An animated sitcom, the somewhat crude animation (and often cruder content) recalls the same self-conscious ugliness that Adult Swim has been plying, profitably, to stoners for over a decade.
So why, after two seasons, do I come away from Bojack Horseman thinking that it’s one of the best shows airing on television?
Partly it’s to do with Bojack Horseman being genuinely, consistently funny. As washed up, self-destructive former sitcom star Bojack Horseman, Will Arnett brings the same dead-on comic timing that has made him so indelible in modern comedy. Arnett generally gets cast as oblivious dummies, and he’s great at that. With Bojack, though, he often gets the chance to play the straight man in the room, the guy who understands how insane and stupid everyone is being, but who is powerless to actually do anything about it. Arnett also gets to play the flipside, when Bojack’s own obliviousness or selfishness leaves him scrambling to halt a disaster, and he’s proven himself adept at playing either side of the comedy coin.
Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg has created a dense comic universe around Bojack, a universe that is loaded with endless background gags and puns. In this world, humans co-exist with anthropomorphic animal people, and the show takes gleeful joy in mashing together cultural iconography and people (in one season two episode, Bojack runs into Jake and Maggot Gyllenhaal). The show is loaded with sharp writing that runs the gamut from stupid-smart to smart-stupid, aided by a voice cast that does exceptional work from episode to episode, whether you’re talking about starring roles for Arnett, Amy Sedaris, Alison Brie, Paul F. Tompkins and Aaron Paul, or guest spots from the likes of J.K. Simmons, Patton Oswalt, Stanley Tucci, or Keith Olberman as a bloviating whale news anchor.
But what keeps me coming back, and what elevates the show to something special, has nothing to do with the (quite bountiful) humor to be had in the show. What gives Bojack its kick is the almost crushing sadness at the heart of its main character, at the heart of almost every character trapped within lonely worlds.
That seems counter-intuitive, I’ll grant you. After all, who watches a comedy to feel sad, besides fans of Adam Sandler who can’t bring themselves to cease investment in his advancing decrepitude. But the great trick of Bojack Horseman is in how it uses the absurdity of its setting and aesthetic to counterbalance the melancholy and despair. In live action, these same stories and situations might be unwatchable misery porn. But because every other shot has some kind of gag or pun occurring in the background, there are still laughs to be had even as the show hits on its darkest material.
And it goes dark. Bojack levels his life time and time again, his self-loathing and self-destruction leading him to actively hurt and damage the people who love him most, even as he’s aware of what he’s doing and powerless to stop it. Season two pushed this even further, as Bojack began the season on a self-help kick, and going to work on the movie of his dreams: a biopic of Secretariat. But before the end of the very first episode, that resolve had been shattered and Bojack was left feeling like his old, broken self.
It’s a sadness that runs through the entire show, with an empathetic brush that sweeps over each character. One early episode of season two split the characters up into three vignettes, each dealing with romantic relationships at varying points of health. Yes, one of those romantic vignettes was about a purple cat-lady breaking up with her boyfriend, Vincent Adultman, who is actually three children standing on each others’ shoulders while wearing a trench coat, Muppet-man style. But even as the show loaded on gag after gag about the nature of this situation, it never lost track of how lost and alone this break-up was making the characters caught up in the situation.
Other times, the show can go entire episodes without stopping to crack a joke. One season two episode saw Bojack’s friend and ghostwriter Diane (Brie) attempt to spread information about a beloved media figure being horrifically abusive to his female assistants. Diane’s reward for doing the right thing is the complete immolation of her personal and professional life. There’s no relief, no reward, only a vicious cycle that chews Diane up and spits her out, shattered. It’s a tragic episode, a frothing-at-the-mouth angry episode, and many other episodes share that same pain.
And I’ll tell you why that pain is worth sifting through: because at its heart, Bojack Horseman does not believe in the despair. As destructive as Bojack is, as broken as he believes himself to be, both the character and the show that bears his name continues to fight the good fight and walk the slow uphill walk towards becoming ‘better,’ whatever that means. None of these characters are ever going to get what they want. Hell, the lucky ones are the few who are able to clearly determine what that want even is. But each character ends the season in a better place, if not physically or professionally, but with a better understanding of who they are and what it is going to take to keep improving.
Maybe Bojack can never be ‘fixed’ as a person. His mother goes out of her way to remind him that whatever is broken inside of him, has been broken right from the get go and will most likely never be truly repaired. But he can keep working, keep striving, keep pushing his way on that uphill path and working through the pain.
And so long as Netflix is putting the show out, I’ll be happy to keep watching Bojack and Bojack keep working on it.