BoJack Horseman: the smartest, funniest, saddest comedy on TV
The show’s range of characters, topics and jokes beguiles and moves in equal measure
BoJack Horseman takes potent stabs at the expense of Hollywood, journalism, society, sex and culture
Few things are more rewarding than a well-established fantasy world, but one of them is picking apart the logic of said world for every single second that it’s on-screen. If you’ve had the privilege of watching Game of Thrones in my vicinity, you’ll have heard me deliver my thrilling thesis on how weird it is that people in Westeros don’t observe units of time, or even days of the week. No hours, minutes, weeks or months, no Sunday, May 15th, at 6pm. How does a Lannister record a birthday, or advertise a wedding? How, in the name of the gods (Old & New) are you supposed to plan even the most trivial outing? “Oh, I can’t do ale on the third moon at all,” you might say to a busty concubine as you pore over your strangely large and blank appointment book, each page unmarked by any chronological subdivisions whatsoever. “My guest bedroom’s getting work done for an indeterminate period of time that appears to be connected to gigantic celestial events.”
And in Westworld, I might say, adjusting imaginary spectacles with professorial flair, why are all of its patrons uniformly obsessed with sex and murder? Personally, I’d get the robot cowboys to read the manuscript for my unwritten novel and laugh at the good bits, and then when I ask them what’s funny, insist they talk to me about each bit they liked in detail, before asking me whence I get all my great ideas.
It is, therefore, the highest praise I can offer to BoJack Horseman that I usually forget its high-concept premise and simply delight in the show itself. BoJack, returning to Netflix for its fifth season, takes place in an animated fantasy world in which anthropomorphic animals cohabit alongside humans. BoJack – a literal horse man – is a formerly washed-up sitcom star now undergoing something of a career renaissance, albeit still pursued by his many and varied emotional issues. This season he serves as the lead in a grimly cliched police procedural called Philbert, while battling recurring issues of addiction, depression and relationship trauma. Elsewhere in the cast, we see the travails of asexual romance, racial identity, and sexual harassment. Despite such heady topics, and the fact it’s set in a bizarre animal-human-hybrid mirror of our own universe, the most noteworthy thing about BoJack is that it is still one of the most consistently funny shows on TV.
Will Arnett remains unfailingly brilliant in the title role, capable of balancing the rapid-fire gags of a 30 Rock or Arrested Development, with streaks of genuinely heartfelt, adult pathos. His gruff register – equal parts pith and gravel – is equally at home with stifled, depressive longing as it is with the feckless braying of a man who brings a swivel chair to his Hollywood agent’s house just so he can spin it around dramatically when she arrives.
Hollywood – or Hollywoo, since the D was stolen in the first season – is BoJack’s real setting; not just the trashy show he’s operating in but also the desperate, craven behaviours of the industry itself, and the actors, agents and hangers-on that populate the show’s supporting cast. And these supporting characters are the show’s undoubted strength, given ample room to explore their own stories in uncommon depth and colour.
Diane Nguyen is one such character who comes out of herself early on. She originally began as BoJack’s memoirist, and wife to his rival – the irrepressibly affable Labrador retriever Mr Peanutbutter – and series five finds her divorced and trying to figure out her place in the world.
Her journey of discovery is deftly handled in one episode that eschews narrative chronology to depict her character’s trip to Vietnam, filled-to-bursting with savage gags about Americans who fetishise Asia as a place to “find themselves”. While there, she collates a listicle for the clickbait news site she works for and runs into the production team for a movie in which Laura Linney is a recently divorced American woman trying to find herself. In an even more perfect move, Linney plays herself with delightful understatement that also undercuts the central identity crisis of Alison Brie herself – this being her fifth season portraying a Vietnamese-American, a casting that simply would not happen today, and about which the show has developed a certain savvy self-consciousness.
Compare that Linney appearance to, say, the approach to latter-day Simpsons, whose incessant celebrity guest spots are so loveless in execution they amount to little more than desperate blows to the show’s chest, hoping to jolt its rotting corpse back to life. Invariably preceded by a character saying something like “wow, RTÉ’s Marty Morrissey? Here – in SPRINGFIELD?!”, they have a wet desperation to them that has become tragic, and might rightly make someone suspicious of a show that has guest stars at every turn.
By contrast, BoJack’s abundant guest stars are weaved throughout the series with a casual elan that speaks to the show’s confidence in its own material. A cursory glance through IMDB to see who played one character, will near-invariably lead to the discovery of another you hadn’t recognised. Pat yourself on the back for recognising Whoopi Goldberg as an adoption counsellor, and you’ll have to slap yourself on the wrist for missing Bobby Canavale as rehabilitated sex pest Vance Wagoner, or Eva Longoria as the porn-star mother of asexual amphibian Yolanda.
Throughout, it’s this range of characters, topics and jokes that beguiles. Potent stabs at the expense of Hollywood, journalism, society, sex and culture are what make BoJack’s world so liveable and recognisable, well past the point at which you stop asking how it is that the snake guys have full human bodies and then a snake’s entire body instead of a head? This is a show that has legs beyond its central premise. In the crowded pack of smart, savvy American comedy, BoJack is winning the race at a canter.