If you asked me to describe Bojack horseman in five words I would have to go with:
- And probably ‘man’.
- And something else. I dunno ‘Netflix’.
A better five words would be:
- And something else. I dunno. ‘Netflix’.
I love animated comedies. The Simpsons, Family Guy, American Dad, Bob’s Burgers. Once an innovative new field of television, now there are hundreds of these shows. Some are better than others. The ones listed above are some of my favourites, and probably some of the best. I think Bojack Horseman deserves a place on that list. (Special mention to Adventure Time which, while made for kids, is very funny indeed.) I’m going to try and write this with as few spoilers as possible, so you should be safe if you plan to watch the show afterwards.
Produced by Netflix, Bojack Horseman is about a washed up actor who starred in a successful sitcom in the 90s about family values. Think Full House or Home Improvement. Bojack is depressed, selfish,, desperate for approval and frustratingly self-destructive. This doesn’t exactly sound like the stuff of comedy, but the show thrives on its serious yet humourous treatment of sombre topics like cancer, sexual harassment and auto-erotic asphyxiation. (Don’t Google that. Trust me.) This season follows Bojack as he works on a biopic of Secretariat, his childhood hero.
The voice of Will Arnett brings the titular anthropomorphic horse to life. You might recognise his gravelly tones from his time on Arrested Development or a repeated guest spot on 30 Rock. Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul voices Bojack’s slacker housemate Todd and Community’s Alison Brie plays his friend and ghost-writer Diane with Paul F. Tomkins as her husband, the irrepressibly positive Mr. Peanutbutter. He’s a dog so that’s an appropriate name. I’m not sure if it’s better or worse than Princess Carolyn, the name of Bojack’s agent who’s a cat.
Despite being one of Netflix’s lesser known shows, Bojack Horseman has been able to draw some impressive names to guest star, playing themselves or fictional characters. Amy Schumer, Paul McCartney and Daniel Radcliffe all lent their voices to this series. Even better are some of the hilarious recurring characters. This season sees Lisa Kudrow play an owl called Wanda who’s just woken up from a thirty year coma. (The more I write about it, the more I realise how odd this show is). I instantly liked this character, even before realising who played her, because Lisa Kudrow’s voice puts me at ease, no doubt the result of years of watching Friends repeats on T4.
J.D. Salinger (obviously not voiced by Salinger himself who has the noticeable handicap of being dead) is an unlikely comedy goldmine as he leaves the world of literature and produces a reality show titled “Hollywoo Stars and Celebrities: What do they Know? Do They Know Stuff? Let’s Find Out!” Catchy.
The funniest character to me however, is a reoccurring cameo from actress Margo Martindale who is only ever referred to in the show as “Character actress Margo Martindale”, poking fun at her status as a successful supporting actress who shines in small parts but rarely has starring roles. She’s only in one episode this season, but she is hysterical. A potential rival for funniest minor character is catfish movie director Abe or feline police officer MeowMeow Fuzzyface (in fact, the whole police department) in the episode ‘Chickens’ which we’ll discuss later
Bojack Horseman is much more cynical than most animated comedies. Unlike Family Guy or South Park, it is less focused on dark humour and shock value (though this does feature), but rather has realistic characters who are flawed and broken just like us – at least, as realistic as a depressed anthropomorphic horse actor can be. And just like us, they don’t have the astonishing ability of sitcom characters to solve all their problems in 25 minutes. Actions have consequences on this show. A light-hearted example is that after a Bojack stole the D from the Hollywood sign in season one, the place is now only referred to as “Hollywoo”. A more serious example is when a character is fired for disobeying her boss, even though she only disobeyed him in a cute ‘follow your heart’ kind of way that, in any other show, would have had the boss soften and change his mind.
Unlike pretty much every other comedy, Bojack Horseman isn’t afraid to end an episode on a melancholy note. This is perhaps aided by the fact that, instead of having to wait a week for the next episode like on traditional television, you can just sit still for 20 seconds and wait for Netflix to play the next episode that will cheer you up almost instantly with its hilarity. It feels a bit odd that a show that had you in fits of laughter one minute can leave you feeling a bit downcast and contemplative later on, but I love that the show refuses to tie up complex things like depression in a neat little package.
Episode 5, Chickens is my favourite episode of this season. It earned some full-blown belly laughs from me and there are a couple of sequences that are just genius. At times the joke density rivals golden-era Simpsons, with each line being choke-on-your-coffee funny. Officer Fuzzyface is an absolute scene stealer and it is a joy to see him interact with Todd and with his team. “We know the chicken crossed the road…the real question is, why?” This episode lampoons pretty much every 80s cop show trope even down to the dynamic camera style. My favourite thing about chickens however, is its premise: perpetually stoned slacker Todd takes in a brain-damaged battery chicken named Becca who’s wanted by the police. (This show really is ridiculous when you think about it).
What’s interesting about the episode is that it faces an issue that other cartoons featuring humanoid animal characters refuse to confront – if some of the people are animals, do all animals have the same rights as humans? This is something that perplexed me growing up watching shows like Arthur where the Read family had a pet dog called Pal, but Muffy’s chauffeur was a humanoid dog who was obviously treated like a person. What’s that all about? Same problem with Disney’s Goofy and Pluto. Understandably, Arthur and Disney were reluctant to go into their complex animal caste systems that essentially legitimised forms of cannibalism and slavery. They were too busy teaching us about library cards and the power of friendship. While briefly acknowledged in season one when a bovine waitress grumpily serves a steak to a human customer who awkwardly mumbles a “sorry”, this episode explores the idea in hilarious way that also makes you think about the real life implications of battery farming, food production practices and just eating meat.
Having a cast of animals and humans lends itself quite well to cultural interrogation like this, but especially to jokes. One that I can’t get over from season one is an humanoid cockerel that recreates the early morning crowing of its brethren by jogging around his neighbourhood at daybreak shouting “It’s morning. Everybody wake up”.
Despite all this, once you get into the show, you completely forget that some of them aren’t humans. In fact, it is only when they make jokes about the animal heritage of characters that you remember that Mr Peanutbutter is a dog or Wanda is an owl. This is a credit to the writing and the voice acting. The show is well-crafted and the makers should be proud of it.
I thoroughly enjoyed the first season and season two continues to build on the hilarious foundations. And with the season ending on a minor cliffhanger, it looks like this horse is going to shape up nicely.