Bojack Horseman, a cartoon with a horse for a protagonist, is somehow not only one of the best comedies of this era, but it’s also one of the best dramas. It’s a show that takes an unflinching look at the human experience, tackling subjects like the desire for success, failure, fame, vanity, depression, addiction, trauma, and the eternal search for inner peace. Also, one of its main characters is a Labrador named Mr. Peanutbutter. It’s absolutely nuts and it probably shouldn’t work. But it does. It really does.
Created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the show exists in a bizarre alternate reality where humans coexist with anthropomorphic animals. The titular lead character is a horse, but there’s also humans, cats, dogs, mice and many more. But for all intents and purposes all the characters are just people, with many inter-species relationships. One of the strongest compliments you can give the writing is that you quickly stop thinking too much about which character is what species. Despite all their physical differences the characters are all, for lack of a better word, very human.
The story focuses on washed up TV star Bojack Horseman, voiced by Will Arnett. Back in the 90’s, Bojack was the star of a very famous TV show, Horsin’ Around, a squeaky-clean sitcom about a horse who adopts three young human orphans. The show ran for nine seasons and made Bojack a star. But now he’s in his fifties, his fame has faded but his ego hasn’t, he’s horribly depressed and an alcoholic. In the hopes of jump-starting his career, a ghost writer is hired to write a biography of Bojack’s life. A bizarre premise for a quirky comedy. But it quickly becomes clear that this show is going to get as dark as it is weird.
Unlike the 90’s sitcoms that Bojack Horseman lampoons with Horsin’ Around, the consequences in Bojack last from episode to episode. There is a strong sense of continuity through the show, both with long running gags, and multi-episode story arcs and character actions that have impacts several episodes later, if not several seasons later. Even the opening credits sequence reflects the current state of the story, with characters coming and going, or changing appearance. This continuity really helps you feel like you are following Bojack as he tries to stop his career, and life, from just circling down the drain, as you watch Bojack stumble from one regrettable mistake to the next. Substance abuse. Sabotaging personal and professional relationships. Impulsive and destructive choices. He does it all. It gets brutal. The result is that Bojack is one of the most fundamentally flawed and broken lead characters I’ve ever seen. And all the more relatable for it.
Helping tell this story is uniformly fantastic voice acting. Will Arnett is perfect as Bojack. There’s one episode which is literally a monologue and Arnett nails it. Alison Brie, Amy Sedaris, Aaron Paul, and Paul F. Tompkins round out the main cast, and they all shine in their own way. Alison Brie is fantastic as Dianne Nguyen, the ghost writer, constantly trying to do something important, while life gets in the way. Amy Sedaris is excellent as the almost self destructively driven career cat Princess Caroline, Bojack’s agent/manager/sometimes-lover. The writers also seem to love writing extraordinarily convoluted tongue-twister style lines of dialogue, and Sedaris particularly stands out in her ability to make sense of the nonsensical flourishes. Even the characters that may feel somewhat shallow at first glance, like Aaron Paul’s goofy slacker Todd or Paul F. Tompkins endlessly positive Labrador Mr Peanutbutter, all eventually end up involved in truly complex, interesting stories, told in fascinating, risk-taking ways.
The show takes full advantage of it’s animated medium. Bojack is designed by Lisa Hanawalt, an illustrator and cartoonist that series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg has known since high school. The characters and world are classically cartoony and there are constant visual gags based on the anthropomorphic animals. Watching a “bird” take off and fly, by flapping its arms while wearing a suit, never gets old for me. I chuckle every time. But the animation, direction, and writing of the show is so good that along side the slapstick are scenes of real dramatic power. The creators of Bojack also experiment with form a lot, like the episodes that jump freely through time, or try to show the experience of a mind degrading, or the episode where the story is told by Bojack’s therapist to a friend, so for anonymity’s sake, all the names and species are mixed around, then animated as such. This show is such a trip.
Bojack has been running on Netflix since 2014 and has had 5 seasons (with a sixth on the way), but I only binge watched over the past few weeks, so I’m relatively late to the party. I’ve had several friends recommend it to me, saying “Just watch it. Trust me.” To which I’d say, “Yup, definitely. I will.” And I didn’t. Just like I don’t with the dozens of other recommendations I get in a week. However, I really, really must insist that you watch Bojack Horseman. I will be rewatching it for sure, and it’s already sneaking pretty high up on my favourite shows of all time list. Of course, nothing is for everyone, and maybe Bojack isn’t for you. After all, humour is probably the most subjective thing there is, and as I said, the show gets very dark and may be too unrelenting for some tastes. But ultimately, there can be no arguing that Bojack is top tier storytelling.
If you like shows with complex characters, deep explorations of the human condition, and funny stuff with animals, you’ll love Bojack.