Film & Television

The unexpected depths of Netflix’s ‘BoJack Horseman’

By Craig Mathieson
An animated satire about an anthropomorphic former sitcom star gets surprisingly real

In the latest season of BoJack Horseman, the Netflix animated streaming series about a plateaued Los Angeles celebrity’s grudging but ultimately moving self-awareness, the titular former sitcom star has to explain to his recently revealed daughter, who’s searching for the birth mother who put her up for adoption, how he came to sleep with the president of the BoJack Horseman fan club two decades prior.

“It’s actually a cute story,” he begins, with unexpectedly winsome emphasis from the expressive voice of Will Arnett, and as with so many Hollywood satires, the anecdote plainly isn’t. But just when you think that BoJack’s narcissism is comically terminal, he adds that he genuinely couldn’t think of a better person to have slept with. No one, BoJack reasons, loved him more or genuinely cared for his needs than his biggest fan. She actually made him feel safe with his fame.

Of course, your own appeasement is no excuse for such a cruel (and now timely) transgression, but that’s the masterful twist in this show: the ludicrous and the sublime intermingle so thoroughly that they begin to communicate, changing how you perceive their roles. The ludicrous can be batted back and forth, with deadpan exchanges, until it finds a pin-drop moment instead of a punchline, while the sublime can rear up with a laugh-out-loud release. Few series are as attuned to the strange shroud that is sadness.

It helps that the pastel-toned environment is conceptually pliable. Now four seasons deep, Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s creation is set in an alternative universe where human beings and anthropomorphic animals coexist. As his name suggests, BoJack is a horse, albeit one who walks upright and has several distinct human addictions, including alcohol, sex and the celebration of his flickering success.

There’s no social distinction between his feline manager, Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), and his female ghostwriter turned best friend, Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), although background sight gags, which blow by with a flash of surrealist wit, and puns abound; “This cow likes to be tipped,” declares a bovine waitress. The concept’s real purpose is a metaphor for how different we appear, but how fundamentally similar our underlying needs are.

The program didn’t get to such a finely balanced point easily. BoJack Horseman belongs, alongside the recently concluded tech-industry period drama Halt and Catch Fire, to that subgroup of series where it’s better to skip the lesser first season than to risk giving up before the second season blossoms. Initially, the blithe Hollywood satire complete with celebrity cameos was the underpinning, as BoJack floated through this loopy La La Land with entitled detachment.

The second season made a crucial breakthrough: BoJack, bottoming out in the mansion paid for by his cheesy 1990s sitcom Horsin’ Around, wasn’t a dick, he was actually depressed. The self-loathing didn’t just result in disdainful humour, it opened up BoJack to a consideration of his flaws, and the question of whether he had the means, let alone the will, to do something about them.

The subsequent seasons have slowly but steadily excavated those concerns, even as silly plot points and sublime non sequiturs jostled for attention. Arnett plays a character, also a denizen of Los Angeles, with similar failings in the live action Netflix series Flaked, and it’s fascinating how much better the animated variant is at teasing out the painful personality strands.

Arnett, who does his best Batman rasp in the Lego animated movies, is a good actor, but a brilliant voice actor. He has a deep timbre with upper notes of self-disgust and desperate avoidance, instead of the sturdy or heroic. Arnett can make you believe that BoJack isn’t merely on a journey of redemption. It could as easily be the case that the more he learns about himself, the less likely he is to embrace the difficulty of change.

That’s where the storytelling’s multiple plots come in. They overlap with BoJack’s quest, while opening up the supporting cast. Diane, for example, is married to Mr Peanutbutter (Paul F Tompkins), a genial Labrador and actor who once starred in a Horsin’ Around knock-off. Their marriage is a small, almost casual, thing of wonder, full of caring give and take even as Mr Peanutbutter pursues the governorship of California through the recall process and then a winner-takes-all ski race against incumbent technocrat Woodchuck Coodchuck Berkowitz (Andre Braugher).

On one level, this lowest common denominator politics is an easy dig at the Trump age, but Bob-Waksberg is more interested in Californian mores. The idea that the state is somehow a redoubt against Trump amuses him, because he sees fickle flaws most everywhere he looks. Occasionally, as with BoJack’s indolent houseguest, Todd Chavez (Aaron Paul), it makes for surprising breakthroughs, but mostly it’s a struggle for people not to be dragged down by their own nature.

It’s notable that the new season begins with BoJack hiding out in Michigan, where he shacks up in his family’s former summer home. His presence summons memories of his mother (Wendie Malick), who was unforgiving in her prime and now, in her dotage, doesn’t even deign to recognise her son. Naturally he returns to California, because it’s a place where people remake themselves, and that’s a promise that sustains BoJack.

The more BoJack delves into family, whether with his mother or level-headed new daughter, Hollyhock (Aparna Nancherla), the more he has to consider that he’s bound by the past and his personality to be who he is. After a long bender during a wild episode where Diane and Mr Peanutbutter’s house literally sinks into the ground during a campaign fundraiser, BoJack admits as much to Diane.

 “Even if I did get better, the best I could ever be is still just some other version of me,” he concedes, and that’s the kind of poignant admission – earned, not simply inserted – that allows BoJack Horseman to transcend whatever limitations it initially suggests.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.


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