Not everyone loved Bojack Horseman the first time around. There’s quite a lot to digest in this cartoon about the shenanigans of a washed-up celebrity horse running around a tinsel town, trying to make a comeback. The offbeat humour didn’t get a universal thumbs-up, and some critics felt that the whole thing amounted to a bit less than the sum of its parts.
The problem with this is that critics came at the show from totally the wrong angle. As a throwaway cartoon comedy Bojack Horseman is hard to place, but as a slow-building drama about the hypocrisy and absurdity at the heart of Hollywood – with a surprisingly complex protagonist played by Will Arnett – it’s a fascinating and original piece of work. It’s more Six Feet Under than Family Guy, and now that series two is out, it’s time for a reassessment.
Bojack Horseman is surreal and dark, but surrealism and darkness aren’t necessarily what separate drama from comedy. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, for example, goes to a lot of dark and weird places, but it’s unarguably a comedy series. So what’s different about Bojack Horseman? First of all, there’s no reset button at the end of each episode. The story threads run through entire seasons, with the characters and their relationships gaining momentum with each episode. If one of the characters gets their feelings hurt in one episode, they’ll internalise that wound and it will be manifested and felt in future encounters.
One example that comes to mind from season one is Bojack’s relationship with his friend Todd (played by Aaron Paul). They have an unhealthy, co-dependent relationship, and their unwillingness to deal with this causes problems that twist and darken across the whole season.
This long-form character development is also in place in the new season. Bojack is taken by surprise when he meets Wanda ( Lisa Kudrow), an owl that has recently woken up from a 30-year coma. But the episode is not just a 25min rollercoaster of high-jinks that leaves Bojack with exactly the same set of problems and character traits he had at the beginning. Bojack initially welcomes how Wanda sees him as a person rather than as a celebrity, but the freedom this gives him also comes with new responsibilities. By the end of the episode, Bojack – with the help of some constructive feedback – has learnt he needs to adapt to his new relationship if he wants it to work. This gives a new and acutely present layer to his character in the episodes that follow.
What makes this different from a comedy series such as Friends, in which the characters have relationships that change and grow over a course of seasons, is the substance of the interactions. Bojack and the people/animals that surround him all have quite serious addictions and locked-in, existential pain. The long-form character development is in no way a schmaltzy, laugh-a-minute, feel-good journey; it’s a close-to-the-bone exploration of some profound psychological grit. In Bojack’s universe, actions have consequences that don’t get wiped away at the end of the episode. The characters have to deal with these, and as a result it’s quite a gruelling show to watch.
Another reason that Bojack Horseman should be considered a drama rather than a serial comedy is that for all the sass and surrealist gags, there is zero flippancy around the dramatic arcs. Series one saw Bojack confront a painful relationship with an old friend. The way these scenes were portrayed looked and felt completely serious, and while other series may have thrown the audience a bit of comedic rope to ease the bleakness, Bojack didn’t. That’s not to say that the show isn’t hilarious – it is – but the jokes hit you in a different way to the constant stream of gags you get in your average adult American cartoon.
Series two dives straight in with serious moments. The opening episode is littered with noirish encounters between Bojack and his mother – some flashbacks and then a present day phone call. Bojack’s mother moves seamlessly from one unthinkably poisonous sentiment to the next, tearing down any hope Bojack has of feeling at ease with the universe. There may be the odd absurdist comic line, but the overwhelming tone of the scene is one of unrelenting cruelty and sadness.
Other comedy series have poignant moments, but these are undercut by a joke, and you’re brought back to the comedy. Bojack Horseman, on the other hand, has these frequent dark and dramatic moments but there’s no comedic resolution; all you’re left with is the hurt the characters are suffering. The effect is unlike anything else, and it invokes a very strange feeling. The Bojack Horseman universe is so bizarre that you keep expecting it to be a comedy, but it rebels against its own set-up and becomes deeply moving.
You can take Bojack Horseman on any terms you want, but you might feel like you’re missing something if you view it as a straight-up comedy. It may look like a frivolous animation about candyfloss-coloured animals, but with all the complex characterisation and serious treatment of its darker elements, Bojack Horseman is anything but cartoonish.