‘BoJack Horseman’ is Netflix’s Best Original Show
Yes, the company that makes sure you can't walk two steps without seeing an advertisement for 'House of Cards' and 'Orange is the New Black' didn't go out of their way to sell its latest offering. The people who managed to make the fourth season resurrection of 'Arrested Development' into a cultural event didn't drum up much interest. Even the likes of 'Lilyhammer' and 'Hemlock Grove' got more press.
And to be fair, 'BoJack Horseman' looks like a dud at first glance. It's a crudely animated half-hour comedy in the Adult Swim vein and its "washed-up movie star tries to fix his life" premise feels played out. There have been plenty of shows about former movie stars coming to grips with their drug-addled spiral into irrelevance -- how could making the main character an anthropomorphic horse bring anything fresh to the table?
However, an early knee-jerk reaction has never been more wrong. 'BoJack Horseman' isn't just a very funny, very clever and very smart comedy, it may be the best original program that Netflix has produced yet. Seriously. Go ahead and let the trashy soap opera antics of 'House of Cards' steal the glory at the Emmy nominations! 'BoJack Horseman' is the kind of show that's too good and too cool for awards.
The premise, which is hilariously explained beat-for-beat in the shows's ear worm of an end credits theme, is simple enough. BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett) was the star of a '90s sitcom called 'Horsin' Around,' where he played an ordinary horse who finds himself taking care of a trio of adorable orphans. It was a popular show and BoJack found himself very rich and very famous ... and then nothing happened. Twenty years later, he lives in his Hollywood home with his slacker buddy Todd (Aaron Paul), makes life difficult for his cat agent/sometime girlfriend Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), and resents the success of Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), a happy-go-lucky dog who ripped off 'Horsin Around' with a sitcom of his own. The show finds its ongoing narrative when Diane (Alison Brie) arrives in BoJack's life to ghost write his long overdue memoir.
Yes, that's a murderer's row of voice talent for an animated series and the guest stars are an equally deep and eclectic bench. Patton Oswalt, Stanley Tucci, Keith Olbermann, Kristen Schaal, J.K. Simmons, Wyatt Cenac and Oliva Wilde are among those who pop up as key recurring characters. The great character actress Margot Martindale plays herself in a truly bizarre ongoing subplot. Even though the animation of 'BoJack Horseman' is on the stiff, low budget side, these actors lend a ridiculous amount of prestige to their characters. Everyone is on point and, more importantly, everyone is funny.
Let's talk about the funny. Some viewers may shrug off the first episode and say it's not their thing, but do yourself a favor and try the next one. Like Netfix's version of 'Arrested Development,' this is a show that was built to be binge-watched and the jokes and storylines carry over from episode to episode. Throwaway non sequiturs in early episodes become major plot points later on. The cast of characters and their dynamic go through radically change. It takes a few episodes for the deeply bizarre world of 'BoJack Horseman' to make sense, but when it does, its humor begins to reveal itself. There are few big jokes or extensive gags. Most of the best laughs come from odd and subtle places. Quick exchanges, obscure movie references and odd world-building provide the best laughs and they reward viewers who pay attention to detail.
Let's talk about the world of 'BoJack Horseman,' which is as well-drawn as its characters aren't. This is a world where animals walk upright, wear clothes, have jobs and behave like human beings in every way. They date each other, work together and everyone acts like this is no big deal. Yet the show doesn't forget that these characters are still animals. Flocks of pedestrian pigeons fly away when someone yells. Mr. Peanutbutter, a dog, has an unhealthy obsession with his mailman. Princess Carolyn, a cat, leaps onto her desk when she's startled. One great running joke finds BoJack obsessed with the racehorse Secretariat, who was a Olympic-style athlete in this universe. Some of these jokes are obvious and others will only jump out to people familiar with animal behavior, but it's what separates 'BoJack Horseman' from every other show featuring talking animals. To see a human character date an anthropomorphized dog who still has the instincts of a dog sounds creepy on paper, but it's hilarious in execution. When a completely straight forward feline police officer is introduced as Officer Meow Meow Fluffy Face, you will laugh.
Let's talk about those characters. Although BoJack himself is a type that we've seen countless times before, Arnett's performance and the show's sharp writing make him into a three-dimensional and surprisingly complex character. He's a jerk who does awful things to the people in his life, but he's also deeply damaged and pathetic. His selfishness is matched only by his depression, which is portrayed in a touching and frequently realistic way. He's the most complicated cartoon horse you'll ever see. Even the broader supporting characters shine on a regular basis, with Paul's Todd actually going through a major arc throughout the season and Brie's Diane providing the show with a perfect audience surrogate. The less complex characters are funny enough to get away with not being particularly deep. Sedaris and Tompkins do some of the best work of their careers as Princess Carolyn and Mr. Peanutbutter, providing the show with just the right amount of a broad silliness and chaos.
A reductive but accurate way to describe 'BoJack Horseman' would be to say it's like 'Family Guy,' but actually funny. It's the kind of show that frequently employs "Remember that time when..." flashbacks and pop culture references, but they always play into the actual plot. There are no wasted jokes and no wasted scenes. If something seems random or silly for silly's sake, it's just because a joke has been set up. Just sit back and wait for the payoff.
What's most surprising about 'BoJack Horseman' is how it quietly sneaks up with the big emotional punches. While it's busy distracting you with Hollywood satire and animal gags, creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg and his writers are quietly moving the pieces into place for those big character moments. Moments that radically change the lives of the characters and break them in ways that cannot be fixed. The greatest strength of 'BoJack Horseman' is that its first season refuses to revert to a formula. BoJack and his friends and rivals are in very different places at the end of episode 12 and it all feels earned. The final two episodes are especially tough on its lead character. It's hard to remember the last time any half-hour comedy got as dark, as real and as emotionally tough as this. 'BoJack Horseman' will draw you in with its clever world and great characters, but its the show's downright refusal to play it safe that makes it tremendous.
Not everyone is going to get into 'BoJack Horseman.' Some will find the animation itself a barrier to entry. Others may prefer comedy with bigger jokes. Some may find the droll and eccentric comedy just plain unfunny. But the show succeeds on every necessary level. Its first 12 episodes feel nearly perfect in every way.
Season two is already happening, so start watching now so you can say you were a fan of 'BoJack Horseman' before it was cool.[googleAd adunit="cutout-placeholder" placeholder="cutout-placeholder"]