Note: this review contains (obvious) spoilers about season two of BoJack Horseman.
BoJack Horseman navigates multiple characters battling extreme depression, including an alcoholic, washed-up celebrity, a discontent writer who wants her life to feel more complete, and a man whose best friend can never seem to acknowledge his accomplishments. It’s odd, then, that it’s also an absurdist comedy with animals acting as most of the main characters alongside normal human beings. One of the strangest, least human worlds on television has also proven to be one of the most ripe for human emotion.
BoJack has evolved into one of television’s best situational comedies. That wasn’t an easy trek, considering creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg struggled undeniably with his tone and source of comedy in the first half of season one. The show was a disjointed mess of Family Guy-style non sequiturs and absurd humor without any character guidance. BoJack was a fledgling of a character who was mostly defined as being an asshole and wasn’t a good protagonist to his core. He was boring to watch because he was one-note and seemed without self-guidance.
Then something remarkable happened: the show got dark. Really, really dark. The second half of season one was a tour-de-force of emotion, with the eighth episode “The Telescope” providing a rectification of old, shattered memories with the titular character’s cancer-stricken former showrunner. That was a remarkable turning point for the series. But most surprisingly, it wasn’t the moment in most comedies when they get serious before settling back into their familiar jovial natures; instead, it provided a wallop of emotion for the rest of the season, ending on a nostalgic and self-defining note for BoJack as he realized just how lonely he had become.
BoJack had finally become a strong protagonist.
Season two, the point of this entire article, is one of the most tremendously satisfying seasons of television in recent memory. The narrative picks up with BoJack finding a renewed sense of purpose as he wants to put depression behind him and find new guidance, particularly after being cast in Secretariat. Keep in mind, this is an alternate universe where pop culture doesn’t really exist in the way that we know it, even if there are references to such. One of the show’s most inspired bits involves a visit to a ’50s diner where a marlin is dressed as Marlon Brando from A Streetcar Named Desire and screams Stella as he serves drinks, only to reach his last drink and say “Coors Light” normally. Tell me that’s not one of the most extravagant five second jokes you’ve ever heard.
We’ll get to those amazing visual jokes later. But for the time being, the narrative moves from BoJack looking into ways to become positive while also dwelling on the past that pervasively haunts him. The opening moment of the season involves young BoJack watching television while his parents verbally abuse each other in the kitchen. His father is absent and his mother has never been supportive or particularly nice; cruelty breeds further cruelty, as abusive relationships and familial lives have shown. That’s a fundamentally dark truth not just to BoJack, but to any human.
I don’t want to simply summarize the season, but begin to cut to the core of just why season two is miles better than its predecessor. The supporting characters finally come to the forefront as characters with their own missions: newly introduced coma-stricken network executive Wanda (voiced by the talented Lisa Kudrow) who wants someone with positivity, with which BoJack continuously struggles; Mr. Peanutbutter’s desire to express his easygoing nature through his own television show not in the shadows of others; the compulsive ghost writer Diane finding that her relationship with the aforementioned golden retriever is strained because he is finding success and she is relentlessly unhappy; and even Todd, whose adventures involve inventing his own Disneyland and joining an improv troupe that functions eerily similarly to Scientology.
BoJack Horseman cares about its characters. It isn’t afraid to shy away from the truths of its people. BoJack’s adventures usually ended on a punchline or would focus on the blatantly obvious jokes when the show was at its weakest. Now, it finds the story moving between emotional moments and occasionally sad laughs. There are many heart-to-heart conversations on the show that are unparalleled to any network television programs. How many shows do we see discuss the depression that comes from no one supporting you when you grow up, and the everyday hatred that fuels your personality? BoJack isn’t a sad man because he chooses to be so. He’s been formed into that man from his experiences.
Man, is that heavy. Especially for a show with anthropomorphic animals as its leads.
But BoJack can also be one of the lightest, breeziest comedies imaginable. It’s impeccably layered, with visual jokes subtly lying beneath the already intelligent text of each scene. Take any of the scenes involving Keith Olbermann’s ridiculous newscaster Tom Jumbo-Grumbo, who works on MSNBSea and often attacks people with sensationalist comments. While his scenes are funny enough as they are, there are great moments when commentary pops up on the news ticker. One of them involves the writer of the ticker himself commenting that they told him he would have time to write books on the weekends, and instead this has basically destroyed him as a person. That’s where BoJack derives its strongest laughs: from the sad truths of everyday life.
The show’s best episode to date has to be the eleventh episode of season two, “Escape From L.A.” The story of that episode is simple but far from sweet: BoJack, at his lowest point, visits the only person that he knows to have loved him. Charlotte, voiced seductively and fiercely by Olivia Wilde, has settled down with a family in New Mexico while BoJack cannot seem to find any stability in his life. Yet he messes up his relationship with Charlotte by deciding to attempt to sleep with her consensual daughter after refusing to do so the entire episode. His moment of fragility turns into a downward spiral for BoJack that ends with Charlotte ending to kill him if she ever sees him again. Like I said, this is heavy, heavy stuff. But the episode also features BoJack teaching kids how to not get hungover (mixing bourbon and water) while also shamelessly buying a boat because he doesn’t know how else to spend his money or explain the trip to New Mexico in the first place.
BoJack Horseman is incredibly funny and intelligent, though. Despite all of my compliments regarding its dark, absurdist tone, it’s one of the punniest and visually driven shows on television. Many sequences play out straight-forward, while others surprise with both their emotional and visual depth.
Yet the most important part? I care about everything that happens, and I like all of these characters. They’re not perfect people, but Bob-Waksberg found his voice with one of the most thrillingly inventive comedies on television. His show is textured, nuanced, and still one of the funniest programs of 2015.
Season two of BoJack Horseman is the most complete season of any of Netflix’s original programs. Let’s hope it shows other programs how to move on from their shaky upbringings.