TV Review: Bojack Horseman
This show makes me laugh like few others, and wracks me emotionally as much as any live-action drama.
Would you expect a show with a cast of characters that includes a golden retriever named Mr. Peanutbutter, a dolphin named Sextina Aquafina, a police officer named Meow-Meow Fuzzyface, and a pink cat named Princess Carolyn to be an existential, emotional roller-coaster ride? I didn’t either.
It has always been my opinion that comedy is a lot more difficult to pull off than drama. It is fairly easy to make people cry. On the other hand, it is incredibly hard to genuinely make people laugh, and it is even harder to mix comedy with tragedy. Bojack Horseman juggles the two beautifully and seemingly with ease. It has a sense of humor that is ridiculous and silly, but also intelligent and relevant. This brilliant cartoon makes you want to laugh and cry at the same time.
It follows the exploits of the title character, a washed-up former sitcom actor living in L.A. Although often extremely selfish, Bojack is self-destructive and hates himself, and his low self-worth leads him to treat others horribly. Some people in his life include a well-meaning under-achiever named Todd who lives on Bojack’s couch, Bojack’s memoirist (a third-wave feminist named Diane), his dauntless agent, Princess Carolyn, and a loveably-clueless fellow sitcom star, Mr. Peanutbutter. There are zany misadventures and biting satire, but there is also depression, loss, and despair.
When I saw the first season of this series, I thought it was just another animated comedy aimed at adults. It made me laugh, but I didn’t think it was anything special. What I liked most about it were all the puns and witty dialogue centered on the fact that many of the characters are non-human animals. Some of the show’s most memorable lines are hilarious tongue-twisters that are often based on characters’ names.
Although I didn’t think it was a masterpiece, the show was filled with relatable, complex characters and made me laugh. It had well-written jokes with a dark, sardonic edge to them. It wasn’t until the third season, however, that I became convinced that this was something way beyond a routine dramedy. For me, the episode that brought it to a whole new level was “Fish Out of Water,” a mid-season three episode with hardly any dialogue. In it, we see Bojack travel to a place completely foreign to him, where he is unable to understand anyone or communicate with others. We feel his frustration, sadness, and disorientation, and relate to his out-of-placeness.
“Fish Out of Water” was a tipping-point for the show, and season four delves even further into heart-rending territory. The season-four episode “Stupid Piece of Sh*t” offers us a glimpse of the extent of Bojack’s self-hatred, in the form of an inner-monologue. What results is an incredibly accurate portrayal of the thought process of someone with depression.
But for me, the emotional highlight of the shows latest season is “Time’s Arrow.” In this and an earlier episode in the season, we learn more about Bojack’s mother, Beatrice. We are introduced to her in the first season, and the brief look we get of her then shows a caricature of a negligent mother who is resentful of her child. A lesser show would have left her a caricature. But the characters on Bojack Horseman are not as simple as they at first seem, and none of them (aside from a few minor and background characters) are one-dimensional. “Time’s Arrow” gives us context towards her attitude and behavior, and makes us feel deeply for her. It deals with memory and dementia in a beautiful and emotionally-wrenching way, taking us into the psyche of the woman who until then we only see as Bojack’s emotionally abusive and distant mother.
I do not want to imply that this is a clever cartoon that turns into a depressing drama. The miracle of Bojack Horseman is that it goes from being a witty comedy to a tragedy about existential despair, depression, and mortality, and does it while remaining funny. Season four is filled with jokes, tongue-twisters and outrageous storylines (my favorite of which involves rabid clown dentists). This show makes me laugh like few others, and wracks me emotionally as much as any live-action drama.
On the surface, this may look like a silly cartoon with talking animals, and at times, it is exactly that. When it is, it’s absolutely delightful. But the very next moment, it can be poignant, insightful, and heartbreaking. This animated gem is at times light and fun, at others dark and devastating, and often all of those things at once.