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Groggy Watches TV: BoJack Horseman

Posted on the 19 September 2017 by Christopher Saunders

Groggy Watches TV: BoJack Horseman

"I don't believe in deep down. I kind of think all you are is just the things that you do."

When BoJack Horseman first premiered in August 2014, critics wrote it off as a shallow, raunchy cartoon that, at best, landed a few jabs at celebrity culture. Todd Vanderwerff of Vox dismissed it as an "ankle-deep Hollywood satire"; the AV Club (which has since become its staunchest champion) blasted it as "hollow," "standard-issue" and possessing "so-so scripts." Many casual viewers like myself, confronted by this strange-looking cartoon with a vulgar horse possessing Will Arnett's voice, read these lukewarm missives and opted to pass.
Boy, is our collective face red.
Having just released its fourth season on Netflix, BoJack Horseman can make an honest claim to being one of the best shows on television. (Forget the "animated" disclaimer: the medium that gave us Looney Tunes, The Simpsons, King of the Hill and many other brilliant shows doesn't deserve the implied condescension.) Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg, a comedian with only a few writing credits on his resume, crafted a show that's consistently engaging and surprisingly rich, balancing broad satire with some of the heaviest existential character drama this side of Mad Men or Breaking Bad
Warning: massive spoilers for an ongoing show. Proceed at your own risk. 
The series follows BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett), who starred in a cornball '90s sitcom called Horsin' Around. Two decades later, he's middle-aged, swimming in illicit substances and royalty checks while battling depression. He hopes to restart his career with a tell-all memoir, hiring Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie) to ghostwrite it. The book succeeds, BoJack leads his dream role playing Secretariat, yet still can't find happiness. He can't find it in Diane, who's betrothed to fellow sitcom star Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins); nor Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), his agent and ex-lover; nor his abusive mother Beatrice (Wendy Malick) or stoner roommate Todd (Aaron Paul) or assorted sycophants, hangers-on and one-night stands. 
Groggy Watches TV: BoJack Horseman
Admittedly, BoJack's first few episodes offer what you'd expect. These most recall Archer transplanted to Hollywood (or "Hollywoo," per one of the stranger running gags), a sociopathic black comedy mixing witty zingers, violent slapstick and coarse drug and sexual humor. Also like Archer, a show I once loved but quickly soured on, there's no real core beyond laughing at horrible people doing awful things, fun if you're in the right mood but subject to diminishing returns. Then the show kicks into gear halfway through Season One, and never looks back. 
Most obvious is BoJack's visual style. Bob-Waksberg and cartoonist Lisa Hanawalt create one of the most visually sumptuous cartoon worlds. Once you're adjusted to the weirdness of humans interacting with anthropomorphic animals, the premise affords hundreds of incidental jokes per episode. From Mr. Peanutbutter's (a Labrador) fondness for belly rubs and hatred of mailmen to a bird PA hit with doors and exploding feathers, from Princess Carolyn's cat-like drinking habits to sideways crabs, glowing salamanders and a tree frog constantly getting his hands stuck, it's an endless riot of puns and visual gags.
In her more ambitious moments, Hanawalt breathtakingly experiments with odd formats and non-linear storytelling. There's the divergent story lines of "After the Party" and "lovin' that cali lifestyle!"; the Lost in Translation-esque "Fish Out of Water," where BoJack traverses an underwater world of rude fish, glowing coral reefs and slapstick assembly lines; and "That's Too Much, Man!" which shows an endless bender between BoJack and Sarah Lynn (Kristen Schaal) through black outs, shock cuts and dream sequences. The latest season gives us childish line drawings for BoJack's savage subconscious ("Stupid Piece of Sh*t") and devastating flashbacks involving BoJack's mother, which play like Sylvia Plath filtered through Citizen Kane
Groggy Watches TV: BoJack Horseman
If BoJack merely satirized showbiz shallowness, it wouldn't merit discussion beyond this point, and possibly its voice cast. The exploration of fame's pitfalls, the compromise between art and commerce and the obsessive, hectoring media, are familiar enough, if engagingly rendered with sharp insider jokes and amusingly convoluted plot lines. Perhaps the best takes on this come in "Let's Find Out!", with a self-important game show treated Aaron Sorkin-style as the Second Coming of Michelangelo, or in the gonzo As Themselves celebrity cameos: Margo Martindale the master criminal, Daniel Radcliffe the giddy contestant, Jessica Biel the flamethrower-wielding cannibal psycho. 
The show occasionally delves into topical issues, with varying results. I admire the bluntness of a music video called "Get Dat Fetus, Kill Dat Fetus," if only for its don't-give-a-fuck provocativeness. Diane's wrestling with sexism and double-standards about assault in "Hank After Dark" and "Thoughts and Prayers" offer a nuanced, sympathetic view of feminism that's refreshing in our reactionary, pussy-grabbing epoch. And Todd's wrestling with asexuality proves more refreshing than your average coming-out story (not the least because of BoJack's unquestioning acceptance of it). 
At the same time, these Very Special Plotlines are so broad that they don't entirely land; generally, I respect the message more than their presentation. Season Four in particular set up an ill-conceived story arc where Mr. Peanutbutter ran for Governor of California, on a platform of being inexperienced. While "See Mr. Peanutbutter Run" hints at our favorite cartoon Labrador becoming a vicious demagogue, the show settles for pat take downs of phoniness before fizzling out halfway through. Its main impact is pushing Mr. Peanutbutter's ill-judged marriage with Diane to the breaking point.  
Groggy Watches TV: BoJack Horseman
BoJack's real strengths lie elsewhere. Few shows have better characterization and more layered storytelling than BoJack, totally belying its conception as a colorful sitcom. Anyone with a lingering prejudice against animation ought to shut it down, immediately. 
BoJack seems like a cautionary tale for celebrities, washed-out and coasting on residual fame. He's a jerk who treats his friends and associates like garbage, who drinks, takes pills and scores with women desperate enough to score with a has-been, watches episodes of Horsin' Around constantly. There's little reason to like him initially, yet his relationship with Diane (which evolves, quite touchingly, from unrequited love to professionalism to a deep, mutually-understanding friendship) brings him out of his shell. Disgusted as he is by his failures, he recognizes a need to move on, to make something of his regained fame and public image. 
Thus the conflict. Most shows would present BoJack an easy character arc to navigate, seeking to atone for misdeeds and becoming a better person. BoJack doesn't have that luxury. He recognizes this early on, when his attempt to reconnect with co-star Sarah Lynn merely feeds her drug problems, and when his dying producer (Stanley Tucci) refuses to forgive BoJack for letting him be fired. He makes passive-aggressive jabs at Mr. Peanutbutter, who acts oblivious until granted the opportunity to publicly humiliate BoJack in "Let's Find Out!" His relationship with Princess Carolyn dances awkwardly around their past affair and his stagnant career; he passive-aggressively sabotages Todd's shot at a theatrical career. Everywhere lies ruin. 
Groggy Watches TV: BoJack Horseman
From Season Two onward, BoJack makes an effort to reform himself, yet constantly sabotages himself. It most painfully emerges in a story arc where Secretariat's director (Maria Bamford) is fired for shooting a scene without the producer's permission ("The Shot"). He abandons Hollywood and visits old flame Charlotte (Olivia Wilde), who's living in New Mexico with her family. In "Escape from L.A." BoJack becomes a freeloader with them, stagnating and slowly poisoning them like a toxic Harold Pinter guest.Things climax when he befriends Charlotte's teenaged daughter Penny (Ilana Glazer), the two becoming too close for comfort. 
Which is nothing next to Season Three's "That's Too Much, Man!" BoJack pushes Sarah Lynn off the wagon for a debauched road trip worthy of Hunter S. Thompson; their stated efforts at making amends for transgressions turn into assorted druggy capers. It climaxes with Sarah Lynn winning an Oscar as she watches from a hotel room. When she melts down, all BoJack can think to do is take her to a planetarium she's admired since childhood. As he tries reassuring her that she has a future, Sarah Lynn dies in his arms. Fade to black, and cue a million viewers screaming in agony. 
The follow up, "That Went Well," offers a crushing flashback as coda: Sarah Lynn, at the height of her pop star fame, asks BoJack for friendship and he can only offer a script. Depressed that even her friend and costar views her as a commodity, Sarah Lynn begins her slide towards death. BoJack tries to support another costar, Bradley Hitler-Smith's (Adam Conover) attempt at a comeback, but he sabotages this after a run-in with the show's child star. Unwilling to create another Sarah Lynn, he abandons Bradley mid-scene, fleeing to the desert for an apparent suicide attempt. 
Groggy Watches TV: BoJack Horseman
The problem isn't that BoJack's impulsive, a jerk or an addict, though he's certainly all three. It's that he's depressed, "born broken" in his mother's words, unable to see himself as a better person no matter what others think. He takes a few, fleeting steps in the right direction, only to self-destruct. All too often, others (family, friends, collaborators) are collateral damage, even when he's well-intentioned. There's no obvious out for BoJack, no single act of kindness or Oscar win that will heal him, just a gradual realization that he can be better and might redeem himself. 
Of course, that's a big "might." The most recent season dives into BoJack's horrible past lives; his mother grew up in WWII-era Michigan, daughter of a sugar magnate (Matthew Broderick) who embodies all the prejudices and microaggressions of his time and class. After their son dies in the war, Beatrice's mother Honey (Jane Krakowski) cracks up, publicly embarrassing her husband into a drastic action. In the face of this, a failed marriage to coarse writer Butterscotch (Arnett again) and a generally miserable life, it's little wonder she turned out so awful.
The Greeks said character is fate; BoJack says of his own sitcom, "It isn't Ibsen." This apparent gag informs BoJack's most crushing tragedy, worthy of A Doll's House or Hedda Gabbler or something else far weightier than a Netflix cartoon. That a family's sins and demons poison their descendants, crippling the innocent from birth with baggage and defects they can never fully overcome. It's a heavy, profoundly despairing message, pitting the "arrow of time" against free will and dumb luck. 
Groggy Watches TV: BoJack Horseman
All this and we've barely touched on BoJack's rich ensemble. Diane, whose outward togetherness and assertive feminism masks a frustrated writer as hung-up as BoJack; Mr. Peanutbutter, who seems painfully mismatched with Diane and can't find a middle ground aside from sex and bad jokes; Todd, whose zany shenanigans mix with common sense put downs like Lear's Fool; Princess Carolyn, whose breakneck career competes with her desire for family and roots. All these characters get their own arcs, ambitions and dreams, generally as frustrated and unfinished as BoJack's own. 
The voice cast can't be complemented enough. Will Arnett gives arguably his career-best work fleshing out BoJack from grouchy has-been to deeply wounded, empathetic soul. Who better than Gob Bluth to make such a sour sad sack endearing? Alison Brie's exasperation, Aaron Paul's zonked-out weirdness, Paul F. Tompkins' energetic optimism and Amy Sedaris's snappy wit provide perfect counterpoint, all finding the same depth and pathos as Arnett even in characters who are variously dogs, cats and stoners. 
It would take days to acknowledge all of the memorable recurring characters, so I'll single out just a few. Kristin Chenowith as Carolyn's arch-nemesis, Vanessa Gekko; J.K. Simmons' flustered producer, who baffles colleagues with cryptic anecdotes about Buster Keaton and Edwin S. Porter; Maria Bamford as an art house director who believes in BoJack, only to be betrayed by him; Angela Bassett as a cutthroat talent agent; Alan Arkin as, of all things, J.D. Salinger, who comes out of hiding to produce a cheesy game show. 
Groggy Watches TV: BoJack Horseman
Special notice to Groggy favorite Kristen Schaal, who finds every bit of humanity within Sarah Lynn's manic Lindsay Lohan exterior and wrings it out, emoting within an inch of her life. Between this show, Gravity Falls and Bob's Burgers, Ms. Schaal is truly a national treasure, enough of one that she earned BoJack's only Emmy nomination. That she lost to Seth MacFarlane, of all people, is further proof that Hollywoo is indeed a cruel, unforgiving place.
Despite its constant downbeats, BoJack at least offers its protagonist a way forward. He makes peace with his mother, reconnects with his friends and forges an odd-relationship with teenage Hollyhock (Aparna Nancheria), who may be his daughter. Season Four offers the most hopeful season finale thus far, with optimism rather than despair the dominant note. Sadly, we'll have to wait a year to find out whether it sticks.  

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