Bojack Horseman: Am I more man than horse or more horse than man?
Patrick Freyne's favourite "cyberprogramme" is the one all the celebs want to be on
BoJack Horseman: Sometimes after binging on episodes I wish that I lived in a world of anthropomorphic animals and I consider dressing my cat in clothes
One of the oldest artworks in the world is a 32,000-year-old ivory statuette of a man with a lion’s head from the Stadel Cave in Germany. I thought I’d share that before telling you that BoJack Horseman is my favourite cyberprogramme (this is what I call TV shows on Netflix because I came of age in the 1990s) and possibly one of my favourite TV programmes full stop.
The eponymous BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett) is, as his name suggests, a horseman, not in the sense that he rides horses, but in the sense that he has a human body and an animal head, like the aforementioned lion man, the minotaur or some of the lesser royals. And he lives in a Richard-Scarry-esque place called Hollywoo (someone stole the ‘d’) where humans co-exist with anthropomorphic animals, like Dempsey’s Den or the home planet of the Thundercats or Naas.
He is also, more plot-pertinently, the burned-out former star of a fictional 1990s sitcom called Horsin’ Around about a horse who adopts three adorable orphans who learn to love and laugh together. But when we meet BoJack in series one, he is living in depressed, alcoholic luxury, with his slacker human houseguest Todd (Aaron Paul), working sporadically thanks to his agile, feline agent Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), and he struggles to either love or laugh.
In early episodes this seems like a weird-for-weird’s-sake premise on which to peg satirical riffs about celebrity and bad television shows, but it’s soon clear that BoJack Horseman is much more ambitious than that.
To begin with, the world-building is detailed and delightfully odd. Ethan Hawk is an actual hawk, Llama Del Rey is in the charts and there’s a magazine called Manatee Fair (staffed by manatees). Plots feature Jungian drug hallucinations and carefully-phrased jokes about Scientology-like cults (“I learned a little about cults the year I was a Scientologist,” says BoJack, “because that year I read a book about cults.”).
Ricky Gervais plays a hedgehog, George Takei plays a smartphone app, Paul McCartney jumps out of a cake as himself and character actress Margo Martindale plays hired muscle called character actress Margo Martindale. It’s a place where chicken-farmers are chickens who farm other chickens (in a disturbing episode about factory farming).
Sometimes after binging on episodes I wish that I lived in a world of anthropomorphic animals and I consider dressing my cat in clothes and giving her a job and a more office-appropriate name like Denise Ferguson (her name is Beebles).
But this is when I’m missing the point. There’s a very high joke count on BoJack Horseman, with each scene crammed with visual gags and funny, self-referential subplots (I particularly enjoy happily hapless Todd’s “toddventures”), but this is a dark show. Ultimately, and surprisingly, it treats BoJack’s cynicism and depression not just as a device for comedy, but as a seriously considered theme of the show.
His actions have emotional consequences that reverberate from episode to episode.
“This is network television – resolving everything cleanly in half an hour is what we do,” says his network executive, girlfriend (a formerly comatose owl played by Lisa Kudrow) of another show, but BoJack Horseman isn’t network television, it’s a weird Netflix iteration of visual entertainment and the latest in a string of sitcoms that use comedic dynamics to unsettle and amuse.
The series has an emotional arc. The effects accumulate – the jokes get funnier, the premise gets sadder. The programme darkens at regular intervals with BoJacksuccumbing to selfishness and substance abuse and, worse still, hope. There are stretches with no laughs. He is a deeply troubled horseman. He hates himself, and over the course of two series we get to decide if he’s right.
He authors a memoir and wavers between jumpstarting his career and escaping Hollywoo altogether. He dislikes his television rival, a Labrador called Mr Peanutbutter, largely because Mr Peanutbutter is happy. He kisses Mr Peanutbutter’s wife, his human ghostwriter Diane (Alison Brie). He betrays his cancer-stricken friend and mentor, a ginger human called Herb Kazazz (Stanley Tucci). He corrupts his drug-addicted screen-daughter Sarah Lynn (Kristen Schaal). He ruminates over his childhood. “You’re broken and nothing can fix you,” his bitter, chain-smoking mother says in a flashback. He is a cartoon horse.
In a single episode, BoJack Horseman can veer from being a postmodern romp about a horse-headed celebrity into a moving and troubling exploration of a horse-headed celebrity’s self-loathing and ennui. It has brought both kinds of tears to my eyes (happy and sad) and now I’m spontaneously moved by the credit sequence in which Bojack’s haunted horse face moves ghost-like through his world. In some ways, I think, he’s BoJack Everyman.
I mean, who doesn’t ask the question, as the band Grouplove do on the outro music, “Am I more horse than a man? Or am I more man than a horse?” (Editor’s note: you’re a man).