It’s not like BoJack Horseman was ever the most uplifting of shows. This is a television program that once built a running gag around a man’s (failed) attempt to resist the siren call of auto-erotic asphyxiation. Even beyond choke-croak gags, BoJack is a series that has always tempered its punchlines and casual surrealism with an aching sense of loss and loneliness, the laughter pitched in direct contrast to the show’s awareness of the ever-present abyss.
The show’s always been dark, is my point. But this year? Shit got real this year.
For those of you who have been ignoring critics for the last couple years (including me, you jerks) BoJack Horseman is a Hollywood satire set in an alternative universe populated by people and animal-people. The titular Horseman is a former sitcom star who followed his blaze of 90s glory with a downward spiral into self-loathing and addiction. The series has followed the (extremely poor) trajectory of BoJack (voiced by Will Arnett) as he has attempted to right the ship of his life. He is assisted (and in some cases enabled) by a supporting cast including his best friend Todd (Aaron Paul), agent/ex-girlfriend Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), biographer Diane (Alison Brie) and arch-rival/good buddy Mr. Peanut Butter (Paul F. Tompkins).
Last year saw BoJack land his dream role in a biopic of Secretariat, and this new season opens with him on the Oscar trail, earning accolades and finally achieving the kind of respect that he has always craved. But this being BoJack Horseman on the television program BoJack Horseman, things quickly go awry.
For my (extremely limited) money, BoJack Horseman remains the best show Netflix has yet put forth. Of the shows I have watched/sampled, creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg and his group of writers and directors remain the only creative team to properly handle things like pacing (episodes usually run between 25-28 minutes, the exact right length) and structure (each episode has its own story and arc, with the episodes flowing into one another to accumulate larger jokes and bigger payoffs, perfect for either binging or episodic viewing), quite unlike the bloated wheel-spinning of even the best Netflix shows.
Beyond the exemplary voice cast (which this season includes the likes of Jeffery Wright, Mara Wilson, Weird Al Yankovic and a shockingly self-effacing Jessica Biel, not to mention returning favorites like Jake Johnson, Angela Bassett and, of course, Character Actress Margo Martindale), BoJack also features the densest layering of gags of any comedy show since Arrested Development in its prime. Virtually every frame is stacked with jokes, making repeat viewings an absolute joy. Lisa Hanawalt is the designer of the world, and she and all the animators seem bent outdoing themselves each and every year.
This year’s crowning achievement may be episode four, which features BoJack attending a film festival in an undersea city. Due to being underwater, the episode contains almost no spoken dialogue, and instead tells a story with both astounding laughs and genuine sweetness and melancholy as BoJack stumbles through this alien world.
As genius as the many, many jokes are (and I cannot impress upon you enough how brilliantly stupid and stupidly brilliant the jokes in this show are), Season Three is truly defined in the agonizing darkness that steadily envelopes the show and characters bit by bit as the season progresses. The show has never flinched from the subject of its subject’s depression and the ripple effects of disaster and sorrow that spread out from him, but this most recent season pushed things as far as they possibly could go.
Rapheal Bob-Waksberg has talked about wanting this season to represent a breaking point, and BoJack and BoJack creep closer to that break with each successive episode, a slow-motion trainwreck you can’t stop watching. BoJack hurts people, and he knows he hurts people, but his awareness of that fact does not stop the hurting. We’ve seen him cycle through patterns of awareness and oblivion, but this year even his staunchest supporters throw their hands up, and the people who have suffered the most at his hands return to remind him of just how lasting the pain truly was. Without getting into spoilers, Bob-Waksberg drives his characters to such an abyss, it begins to feel like the show is working towards a show-ending emotional apocalypse.
Over the past few years of “Peak TV” we have seen many, many iterations of shows about troubled men behaving badly. This can yield shows both transcendent or abhorrent, but what BoJack’s wacky universe and high quotient of gags gives it the ability to cut ten times as deeper as most live action dramas about similar subjects. This is a show that stares into the darkest, dankest portions of human experiences, rummaging through anguish so it might find shreds of grace. As the characters stagger out the other side, many (most?) are even more broken than they were at the start, old wounds hardening into scars. But they end with a better awareness of who they are, and maybe, just maybe, that’s enough to do better next time.
When that next time arrives, I have no way of knowing. But I hope it’s soon.