3 out of 5
Created by: Raphael Bob-Waksberg
covers season 1 through 3
I like irreverent cartoons. I’m still iffy on Netflix as an original content provider – they introduced the drop-the-series-all-at-once binge format, which still somewhat irks me for nonsensical reasons – but there’s no denying streaming services’ positioning as the new TV model, so, irks aside, there’s plenty of good shows coming from ‘flix and similar platforms.
I’m also – prep your hate – iffy on Will Arnett. His shtick (smart/dumb ignorant/insightful) hovers on the verge of annoying, as did his breakout vehicle Arrested Development. Now, note, I liked AD, but it came at the dawn of super self-aware TV, and like similar shows – The Office – I absolutely find them amusing, but not necessarily clever, so much as filled with the kind of content that people who want to be considered clever can approve of. This is probably all too telling regarding my own insecurities, and this should likely slot me as exactly the type of person who would go for NPR and its ilk… but obviously I’m a “rebel” and I “go my own way” and etc.
…There’s really no fully justifiable path, here. The point is, I had a bias toward BoJack because of Arnett, and because it appeared on Netflix. I sampled an early episode, wrote it off as meeting my expectations (of being very Arnett-y), and celebrated with glee when initial negative reviews started rolling in. I mean – celebrated with nonchalance. Because to each their own, right?
Seasons later – it’s still on? – and the world was celebrating the emotional depth of the show. Later reviews would mention how the opening of the first season focused on the silly premise – a partially human, partially anthropomorphic world in which our lead horse, BoJack Horseman, is a washed up 80s sitcom star, now drinkin’ and druggin’ and sexin’ and Arnettin’ his way through life – whereas the back half of the season blossomed into a more touching rumination on our own inherent, unchangeable flaws. With BoJack as a mouthpiece for anyone who has tried and failed, the comedy comes from plenty of visual anthropomorphic gags, frequent puns, and Arnett’s brashness, and the drama comes from the flashes of humanity during which BoJack realizes he’s done wrong but doesn’t know how to do right.
Subsequent seasons would trace this theme through relative rises and falls in his ebbing fame, with much hilarity added through the rest of the cast: Fellow (and more successful) 80s TV star Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul Tompkins), a dog; BoJack’s agent, a cat (Amy Sedaris); human layabout Todd, who came for a party at BoJack’s house and never left (Aaron Paul); and the human ghost writer for BoJack’s autobiography, Diane (Alison Brie). …With plenty more guest stars to boot.
But here’s a secret: The show never actually changed. During the first season, or from the first episode until now. A big part of BoJack’s formula is riffing on what’s come before: there’s much joy in the way the show sticks to its guns with its own canon, rarely using a plot element as a one-off joke. And it ends up being the sort of purposefully recycled nature of these gags that fuels the sense of tragedy – the cycles of success-avoidance in which BoJack seems trapped. So it took a few episodes to build up that well of material to springboard off of, bit there’s been no big tonal shift overall: the yuks are the same.
This has led to some admirable plotting bravery: BoJack is reliably a failure at being a “good” person, and the rest of the cast is similarly consistent with their flaws, which leads to some realistic downbeats. But the flip side is that aforementioned secret: things ain’t a changin’. There’s no progress. It’s still a sitcom, it just has sad music now and then. Which is absolutely fine, as the order of the day is to laugh, and the show achieves that. And by driving by modern-day recognizable traits of uselessness and distraught, you can get an “intelligent comedy” badge and likely reach a wider audience.
So I was right about BoJack, but I was also wrong. It’s a good formula. A long sit down with the show will leave you approximately where you started, and you can start calling out the pacing / punchline of any given joke after a few times around the block. But, mission accomplished: I was laughing pretty consistently.