Warning: this column contains spoilers from all three seasons of the Netflix original series Bojack Horseman, though I did try my best not to give away too much, as I would like for more people to see it if they haven’t already.
I love TV, and I think this is the best time in the history of the medium to be a TV viewer, but I thought I was done having a favorite show that I was obsessed with on the level that I was when I was a little younger. It’s a similar kind of identity crisis I have written about with being a Red Sox fan post-2004. After a certain point in life, no new show can hold my attention and my obsession the way Community did or the way The Wire did and no late night talk show will ever be such a singular source for news satire the way The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was in 2008 and 2009. There is more TV in 2016 than there ever has been before, and shows from decades ago are more accessible than ever before, and while that is a good thing, it’s also overwhelming to try and keep up with it all. When Community wrapped their sixth, Yahoo!-revived, and final season (still waiting on the movie) a few months after Parks and Recreation‘s series finale aired on NBC, I thought I was done having a favorite show in the traditional sense. I thought I was passed being obsessed with Easter eggs and episode-by-episode Reddit threads. Like having the Red Sox win the World Series when I was fourteen, while older New Englanders said things like “now I can die in peace” and absolutely mean it, I was ready to transition into this next phase of watching TV without getting too invested… then Bojack Horseman happened.
As I’ve written about before, Community was the right show at the right moment for me in 2009, as I was transferring to a new college and there was this new show starring comedy legend Chevy Chase and That British Guy From The Daily Show (this was a good five years before John Oliver was a household name). The pilot episode aired a couple weeks after John Hughes died, and coincidentally, was loaded with references to The Breakfast Club, and it resonated so well with my own sense of humor that I started to think Dan Harmon created the show just for me. It was exactly what I needed out of a network sitcom at that point in my life, and I got to see a bunch of rising stars (Oliver, Joel McHale, Alison Brie, Gillian Jacobs, Donald Glover, and Ken Jeong) rise over the seasons that followed. With Bojack, the stars were more established (Will Arnett from Arrested Development, Alison Brie from Community and Mad Men, Aaron Paul from Breaking Bad, etc.), but it was the perfect show for where I was in 2014. Netflix dropped the first season into the world the summer before I went back to college after a year and a half hiatus, and right after Robin Williams killed himself. I know television production doesn’t work this way, but it almost felt like the universe knew the world would need this show in the summer of 2014 before the summer of 2014 even happened.
On the surface, Bojack Horseman is a ridiculous premise that is really hard to explain to people at parties the way my friends would talk about Breaking Bad or Orange Is the New Black or Silicon Valley. Yes, it’s an animated show about a world where there are talking animals who interact with people and nobody really questions it, but that’s not the point. Yes, it’s too clever for it’s own good, and in every scene there are going to be a few things you miss the first time around. Yes, it looks like The Simpsons and SpongeBob Squarepants merged cinematic universes, but at the same time it’s more grounded than any animated show in history. At times I’m not sure it’s a comedy, like when shows like M*A*S*H and Cheers would go minutes at a time without making a joke, because at the end of the day, they were shows about characters the audience cared about and that mattered more than the beats and patterns of jokes leading to a commercial break to sell the ad space that kept the show on the air. Netflix shows have the luxury of not cutting to commercial, but unlike House of Cards, Bojack does not feel like it was created in a lab, based on an algorithm to bring fans of early 90s BBC drama, David Fincher, and Kevin Spacey together in one cynical, nihilistic juggernaut.
What I thought was going to be a fun show full of animal puns and show business references, like some sort of Arthur/30 Rock hybrid, ended up being an Arthur/30 Rock hybrid that also expressed the way we as a society view celebrities, success, and happiness in a very believable and insightful way. The show is centered around Bojack Horseman, a has-been sitcom dad from the 80s and 90s (think Ray Romano or Bob Saget) who was financially successful, but was perceived as a failure for years for not being constantly on TV since his show ended. When he does achieve critical acclaim, whether for his bestselling memoir in the first season, or for his portrayal of Secretiariat in the definitive biopic of the Steve Prefontaine/Muhammad Ali/Carl Lewis type star athlete of that universe, it doesn’t make him any happier. If anything, he’s more depressed the more the public thinks he’s great. When Robin Williams died, I wrote that while I would have loved to have the creative genius of someone like Robin, or Hunter S. Thompson, or David Foster Wallace, I would have to think twice about the personal demons that come with such greatness. Seeing Bojack struggle when the world seems to think he has it made was refreshing in the way it was portrayed.
On the other end of the spectrum, we see a foil to Bojack’s misery in the form of a talking dog named Mr. Peanutbutter, voiced by the great Paul F. Tompkins. While Bojack is known for an old sitcom called Horsin’ Around about a bachelor horse who adopts three human orphan children, Mr. Peanutbutter starred in a weirdly similar sitcom about a bachelor dog who adopts orphan humans called Mr. Peanutbutter’s House, that was created by David Chase and Steven Bochco, and a really catchy theme song. While Bojack wallows in self pity, constantly insecure with himself and his fame, Mr. Peanutbutter is happy-go-lucky and well adjusted, and Bojack resents him for it. For the audience, whenever things get too dark for Bojack, Mr. Peanutbutter is there to lighten things up and remind us that we clicked on this animated show to be able to laugh in the first place, but his antics are not presented in a tacky way.
The show boasts a recurring voice cast that’s as strong as any animated show out there. Stenley Tucci voices Herb Kazzaz, the creator of Horsin’ Around and Bojack’s former mentor and best friend. Stephen Colbert voices a talking frog who owns the Hollywoo talent agency that represents both Bojack and Mr. Peanutbutter. Kristen Schaal voices Sarah Lynn, Bojack’s TV daughter whose career took a Miley Cyrus-like trajectory from child star to pop sensation. Keith Olbermann voices Tom Jumbo-Grumbo, the bombastic cable news anchor who happens to be a whale, in a hilariously self-deprecating, self-aware performance that fundamentally changes the way I see Keith Olbermann. Just to name a few.
My favorite episode so far came in Season Three, entitled “Fish Out of Water,” when Bojack went to a film festival in an underwater city. There is almost no dialogue, and the underwater aesthetic looks very different from anything else the show has done to this point. The story of the episode is a bit of Lost in Translation meets SpongeBob Squarepants with the episode of Arthur when Arthur missed his bus stop mixed in. Without giving too much away, that episode showed all of the things that makes this show great while simultaneously being completely different from everything the show has done before or since. It’s just another misadventure in the human (or horse?) experience, and we are nothing more than the things we do and the connections we make. Every day, people try, but even if they succeed, happiness is no guarantee, but you still should try.
I’ve only scratched the surface on my thoughts on this, weird, quirky, clever, wonderful show, and it’s weird to me that even though I finished the most recent season a few weeks ago, I’m still thinking about it all the time. That’s unusual for a Netflix show, and it’s unusual for any show these days. I have to give credit to Raphael Bob-Waksberg for creating something like this. I didn’t know this was something I wanted, and now I’m not sure where I’d be without it. Then again, what do I know? Do I know things? Let’s find out.