An alcoholic horse is an alcoholic horse, of course, of course...
The first episode of Netflix’s new animated series BoJack Horseman opens with the show’s namesake, anthropomorphized horse and washed up 90s TV star BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett), being interviewed by Charlie Rose about what he’s been up to in the 18 years since his enormously successful family sitcom Horsin’ Around went off the air. BoJack, who by his own admission is “incredibly drunk”, has this to say when asked about his commercially successful but critically reviled show:
“Look, for a lot of people life is just one long, hard kick in the urethra. And sometimes, when you get home from a long day of getting kicked in the urethra, you just want to watch a show about good, likable people who love each other. Where, y’know, no matter what happens, at the end of 30 minutes, everything’s gonna turn out okay.”
The Hollywood BoJack Horseman lives in is populated by both humans and anthropomorphized animals who mostly behave like humans (driving cars, drinking lattes, hating themselves), although their animal side shines through from time to time. BoJack’s no-nonsense agent and sometimes girlfriend, Princess Caroline (Amy Sedaris), is a pink cat whose corner office is decorated with a desktop scratching post. BoJack’s professional rival, sitcom star Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), is a relentlessly optimistic golden retriever who keeps a pile of tennis balls in the trunk of his BMW.
But it’s BoJack who seems to have the most trouble reconciling his animal side with his human side. He’s a wild stallion who refuses to be put out to pasture – arrogant, overbearing, deluded and selfish, constantly drunk and seeking attention, always on the lookout for a new groupie to bang. Over the years this behavior has alienated nearly everyone around him save for Todd (Aaron Paul), a (human) stoner who wandered into one of BoJack’s parties five years ago and has been sleeping on his couch ever since.
BoJack is struggling to write a tell-all autobiography intended to make America love him again, and in the first episode his editor at Penguin Publishing (who, naturally, is a penguin) hires ghostwriter Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie, yes, that Alison Brie) to shadow him and get the book finished on deadline. Over the course of the 12-episode first season, hijinx ensue as BoJack tries to set the record straight on his life story and his legacy.
But the thing that really caught me off guard and made BoJack Horseman one of my favorite TV shows of the year* was that beneath all the raunchy shenanigans, there’s some serious emotional weight and resonance to this series. By the end of the season I felt a real connection to most of the characters – and that’s quite an achievement when one of the show’s catchphrases is “Eat a dick, dumbshits!”
*The opening title sequence deserves some credit too.
So many popular TV comedies seem to be centered around a man who behaves like a child and the trouble everybody around him goes through trying to clean up his messes – Family Guy, Home Improvement, The Cleveland Show, The Simpsons, American Dad, Married With Children, Two and a Half Men, Eastbound and Down, and so on. Strictly speaking, that’s not a bad thing. But still, every week on Family Guy you know Peter Griffin is going to create some disaster that his entire family will have to set right – and you know that next week they’ll still be there waiting for him to do it again.
The first few episodes of BoJack Horseman follow that standard sitcom formula. BoJack insults a Navy SEAL (who, naturally, is a seal) on TV, causing a national controversy that his friends have to solve. BoJack lets a Lohanesque former costar stay at his house, forcing his friends to intervene before her hard-partying lifestyle brings them both down. BoJack goes to comical lengths to torpedo one of his friends’ lifelong dreams because he doesn’t want him to get too busy to hang out.
But just shy of the halfway point of the season, it starts to become clear that this isn’t a show where, at the end of 30 minutes, everything’s gonna turn out okay. There’s very strong continuity between episodes – BoJack’s ottoman remains charred throughout the season after being lit on fire in an early episode, an LA landmark partially destroyed by BoJack on a drunken bender stays that way in all subsequent establishing shots, and most importantly, everybody remembers all the crappy things BoJack has done to them from one episode to the next.
That’s the genius of BoJack Horseman – it uses the standard sitcom trope of a boorish, self-destructive clown, but it actually shows the clown the consequences of his actions. As the show goes on and BoJack realizes that the world he lives in isn’t as simple and forgiving as the sitcom world where he made his fortune, he has to try to mend fences and become a better, more mature person – and because he has no idea how to do that, the process is as hilarious as it is emotionally involving,
The critics have not been kind to BoJack Horseman – the general consensus is that it’s a stale carbon copy of Family Guy, American Dad, The Cleveland Show, and so on. And that’s not a surprise, since most of these critics watched pre-release screeners from Netflix with only the first couple of episodes on them. If you went to write a review of a magic show but left before the magician pulled the rabbit out of the hat, you’d probably be a neighsayer too.
Truman Capps can only imagine how enthusiastic furries must be about this show.