To say Netflix has been on a roll lately is a bit of an understatement. Multiple award-winning shows, combined with the Marvel brand fully in support of it. But for all of the live-action shows that are garnering attention, it’s an animated show about a talking horse named Bojack Horseman that’s slowly and surely making waves. If you haven’t watched it yet, well I’m going to just say shame on you. You should stop reading and go watch it now.
Whether you stopped mid-article to go watch or you’re waiting until after this treatise, hello and welcome back! Bojack Horseman is an atypical animated sitcom, created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg and designed by Lisa Hanawalt. By sitcom, I mean it has a humor and joke density rivaled only by Arrested Development and peak Simpsons. And by atypical, I mean that on top of its humor it has equal amounts of drama, pathos, and harsh reality. The same episode can, with a deft hand, make you cry laughing and then simply make you cry.
Please note: this is a basic overview of the series, and will remain, for the most part other than the links, spoiler-free.
The premise of the show takes place in the present day. Bojack is somewhat of a has-been at the start of the series. His 90’s sitcom Horsin’ Around was a major success but he hasn’t really worked since. His only friends are his agent Princess Carolyn, his unemployed houseguest Todd, his partner-in-pathos Diane, and his frenemy Mr. Peanutbutter. Did I mention he’s a talking horse? Because that’s totally a normal thing. In the world of Bojack Horseman, anthropomorphic animals are completely natural. Try not to worry too much about it.
When I mentioned above about the sheer density of the humor, I wasn’t kidding. Small background jokes fill every episode. Callbacks and recurring puns are a-plenty. It’s a show that rewards the viewer for rewatching because you can see how far ahead the writers were planning the set-ups, or how you missed that amazing bit of wordplay the first time through.
The show has a veritable murderer’s row of comedic talent to boot. Will Arnett, Amy Sedaris, Alison Brie, Paul F. Tompkins, and Aaron Paul voice the main cast. Combine that with a supporting cast that includes Patton Oswalt, Kristen Schaal, Maria Bamford, Keagan-Michael Key, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson. The show is a veritable “who’s who” of comedy, with the credits surprising me every time with who was in the episode.
It’s not just the fact that they have these actors on the show, but it’s the amazing job they do to convey realistic emotions and drama through these animated characters. While the first season was initially criticized for being uneven, it’s now looked back on as setting the table. Getting the relationships, character arcs, and backstory in place to allow reality to slowly permeate across the show. Because when reality hits, it hits HARD.
Amidst the jokes and puns are devastating truths and examinations of the self. The character of Bojack is an absolute mess. Prone to depression and self-loathing, he tries to do the right thing but inevitably poisons the well because he doesn’t feel worthy of people caring about him. Princess Carolyn is juggling a high-stress career and struggles to have a personal life that’s as fulfilling as her professional one. Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter have a tumultuous but realistic marriage that they’re constantly navigating throughout the series.
It’s an animated show with talking animals that openly deals with depression, addiction, sexual assault, death, and how true happiness might not come from success. I was not using hyperbole when I said the show is heavy. But it’s to the credit of everyone involved that these moments seem as natural and earned as the humor.
For me, it’s that balancing of both that’s the appeal of the show. Yes, it’s heightened to the point of hyperbole, but it doesn’t make what happens to these characters feel any less real. Despite it being a cartoon, there are situations in the show that either I’ve been witness to or I’ve known to happen to friends and family. Although I haven’t met J.D.Salinger…yet.
In all seriousness, I can’t recommend Bojack Horseman highly enough. It’s a perfect combination of the mundane and the absurd. It addresses social issues with a sense of humor and reverence. And it shows that even we who are deeply flawed can move forward, even if it’s one step uphill at a time.
Oh, what the hell. Let’s end with a joke.