Series Breakdown Rating:
Aesthetics and Style: 6
Overall Plot: 6
Audience Assumptions: No familiarity
All right, I give in. I have too many things to say about this damn series to hold off. I might honestly go through and do episodic reviews for this series one day, but in the meantime, I think the seasons are worth a look. Don’t expect these to come every week (I’ll probably stagger them among reviews for the first seasons of some other shows), but I am planning on continuing these until the series’ conclusion.
As an aside, I’d like to recommend Film Crit Hulk’s reviews of the fourth and fifth season’s episodes if you’re caught up. I disagree with him on some major points, but the reviews are well-written and bring up a lot of aspects of the series I won’t cover. It’s a solid presentation of what the series has to offer that I didn’t quite get in my viewing, but I enjoyed hearing what someone else saw. You might too.
Season One – ****
Part One: It’s a Show about a Rich-Ass Alcoholic Horse. No, It’s Good, I Swear!
Here’s a funny story: I discovered this series about a week before the fifth season came out. I learned a lot of important lessons through that experience. First, apparently you can re-watch an entire series about four times in one week if you try hard enough. Second, it only takes two full binge-watches and a few specific episode re-watches for a person to start thinking they know a series inside and out and feel confident enough to quote lines like an obnoxious asshole. Third, and perhaps most importantly, it does not matter if a new season is coming out in a year and a half or literally a few days; it sucks to wait either way.
So yeah, I liked it.
Like most people, I’ve been hearing about the life-changing experience that is Bojack Horseman for years, and as with most things, I approached it with a healthy dose of skepticism. I’ve never been especially partial to cartoons – I watched plenty of them as a kid because that’s what about three quarters of entertainment for children is (the other fourth is high school dramas about kissing, btw), but I kind of grew out of interest in them. The sort of animation you get on Adult Swim and the like never really appealed to me because I always associated it with odd, exaggerated visuals. Animation for the sake of spectacle can be worth the price of admission, but animated humor is a much harder sell, especially when the humor is derived from the animation itself. I can appreciate the time and dedication that goes into something like old Warner Brothers cartoons, but that alone won’t win me over; it needs character, story, or dialogue to pull me in enough that I can get past my initial reservations and maybe even come to appreciate the usual style.
Bojack Horseman has an advantage over the competition in that it jumps immediately into its best qualities and spells out the recurring themes of the series in the first few minutes of the pilot. The series is a dramedy in the truest sense of the word, although it opts for juxtaposition of drama and humor far more than integration of the two within one another. It follows an aging Hollywood star of an old sitcom, the titular Bojack Horseman, who has coasted on his past success and spiraled into alcoholism, drug addiction, and general assholery over the years. The first episode sets up the main cast of the series by way of Bojack, his roommate Todd, his agent Princess Carolyn, his friendly rival Mr. Peanutbutter, and his ghost writer Diane. The story largely revolves around Bojack’s interactions and relationships with these characters.
If one look at the main character wasn’t enough of a clue, half of these characters are (occasionally brightly colored) animals with human bodies. Most cartoons have a distinct visual style, and as so many series these days depict exaggerated human models, this series opts to distinguish itself with the gimmick that most of the people in its world are anthropomorphized animals. This is never explained, of course, and while it’s a bit of an odd choice to take in, the series makes full use of the absurdity of its world. The anthropomorphized animals act and function more or less exactly like the human characters, although with a few gags thrown in to reference behaviors and idioms from their real-world counterparts. Secretariat is known for running marathons, dogs still really love tennis balls, birds can still fly, and several of the anthropomorphized animals have names you would expect someone to give their pet, yet there are no actual animals in this series.
It’s a silly choice that does its job in setting the series apart visually, but it occasionally yields some utterly delightful jokes, particularly where Mr. Peanutbutter, an anthropomorphized dog, is concerned. Dogs are just sort of inherently ridiculous because they’re basically wolves we’ve bred to act more like human babies, and that concept combined with a character that is otherwise a fully-functioning human being leads to situations like a dog receiving a speeding ticket for chasing the mailman in his sports car. That’s the sort of joke only this series could ever produce.
The choice to flesh out the world with anthropomorphized animals (of every sort, I might add, not just mammals and birds) is a relatively minor thing within the context of the story. Once you get used to it, it’s really just there to make puns. The more important setting is the Hollywood environment where the characters live, which is populated by real-world and fictional celebrities whom the characters interact with. The protagonist is notably wealthy with little to want for other than human relationships, and the juxtaposition of extravagant wealth with dissatisfaction is core to the protagonist’s woes.
There’s a sincerity to this series that few others ever achieve. Whether it’s the deep personal takes or the moral ramblings or even the utter ridiculousness of the comedy, the show is earnest in everything it does. The characters all have distinct personality traits they keep throughout the series that dictate their actions, but they’re far from the static archetypes you so often see in comedy narratives. The characters grow and learn and try to change, and the difficulty they have in changing, especially the main character, lends more to the drama of the series than anything else. The characters all act according to fairly predictable patterns of behavior, but they have a full range of moods and emotions and will occasionally surprise the audience by bucking their archetypes entirely when the situation demands it.
Part Two: Yes, But Why is the Cat Pink?
In my experience, the single most common thing people want out of their stories, often to the exclusion of all else, is well-written characters. That can mean a lot of things – characters can be complex or likable, but that doesn’t make them “well-written.” Any nuanced character may lose appeal because of small stereotypes or clichés they play into, or because they incite distaste that prevents an audience from praising their complexity. I don’t think there’s a clear set of criteria for what makes a character well-written, but those in Bojack Horseman come awfully close to defining it.
Rather than rely on the protagonist alone to carry the series’ weight, Bojack Horseman pours its character effort into four additional major characters. Each of them is connected to the others largely through Bojack, and some of them have obvious similarities. In fact, each of them fits into a complimentary pair within the series; Todd and Mr. Peanutbutter are both comic relief, Diane and Princess Carolyn are both love interests, Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter are the happy couple counterpart to Bojack’s misery, Todd and Princess Carolyn are the people Bojack most regularly screws over, Mr. Peanutbutter and Princess Carolyn are work associates who share a long history with Bojack, and Diane and Todd are Bojack’s close friends. The major characters all reflect Bojack in some way, too. Princess Carolyn is what Bojack might look like if he were driven in his work, Todd is what he might look like if he were less cynical, Mr. Peanutbutter is what he might look like if he were kinder, and Diane is what he might look like if he cleaned himself up. Each of the characters fits a unique role within the story, narratively and thematically, but even beyond that, they all have particular quirks and personalities that flesh them out as dynamic people.
Mr. Peanutbutter is probably the least connected to the protagonist, introduced as a friend but clearly quite the opposite in Bojack’s mind. He was the star of a show uncannily similar to Bojack’s that was also popular three decades ago, and he similarly has more money than he knows what to do with. However, unlike Bojack, Mr. Peanutbutter is overly optimistic and quite happy with his lot in life, amiable to an almost irritating degree. He’s not entirely ignorant, as demonstrated when he expresses concern about Diane and Bojack growing close, but he’s unlikely to ever assume something bad is happening, even when it clearly is. His optimism and him being a literal dog are a large part of where the character’s humor comes from. The choice to make him a Yellow Labrador who enjoys fetching tennis balls is about as spot-on this series gets.
Princess Carolyn has more of a connection to the protagonist as his former girlfriend and current agent, but she too is fairly distanced from Bojack. In the first season, she comes in mostly via telephone calls to remind Bojack of his obligations and listen unhappily to his various schemes. She has a curt, ambitious personality reminiscent of an oily salesman, a solid representation of the artifice and cutthroat nature of the film industry. However, she’s not an oily salesman; the thing that sets her apart from the other agents is her sincerity. She’s a good agent, brilliant even, but she gets disheartened from a lack of appreciation for her work. The only way to get recognized in her field is to cut corners like everyone else, but, as with the other major characters in the series, Princess Carolyn is good at heart. She’s also a pink cat, which stands out among the rest of the animal characters because all of the others (as far as I can tell) have patterns and coloration comparable to their real-life counterparts. I have no idea why the cat is pink. It remains the single most pressing question I have about this series, and I don’t think it’s likely to ever be answered.
Todd is the best damn character in the whole series. He’s the other comic relief alongside Mr. Peanutbutter and mainly plays as Bojack’s stoner roommate, providing a similar but slightly stranger and less broadcast sort of comedy than Mr. Peanutbutter. As such, the moments when he and Mr. Peanutbutter interact are among the funniest you will ever see on a television series. Some of the jokes involving these two planning schemes bring tears to my eyes just thinking about them. However, it’s also worth noting that while Todd’s gimmick is accidentally getting involved in nonsense comic relief plots to counterbalance the serious human drama of the other characters, he’s still a well-rounded character himself. He’s mostly inept, but like Mr. Peanutbutter, he’s not nearly as dumb as people assume; he turns out to be surprisingly good at some of the more ridiculous things he does, and when he succeeds at something, he takes it seriously. Todd is a genuinely nice character and lacks the artifice that most of the others put up through lies and deception, which makes him conflicted when Bojack tries to use him for his own selfish means. He has his limits, and when Bojack oversteps them, Todd decides to cut him off at least partially from his life – something all of the other major characters struggle to do.
Diane is the most important character in the series aside from Bojack. She serves many roles in the story, being Bojack’s ghost writer, friend, and love interest, but also frequently a foil and a narrative satellite who informs the audience of his subtler desires. She’s similar to Bojack in several obvious ways, notably in her tone of voice and interests; she shares his cynicism about humanity and deeper issues, but she’s prone to her own guilty pleasures and bouts of emotion. However, she’s far more well-adjusted, more amiable, and has a better grip on reality than Bojack does. She’s Mr. Peanutbutter’s girlfriend and later his wife, which drives Bojack nuts, but she seems fine with it. Diane isn’t a great match for Mr. Peanutbutter as far as her personality goes, but her openness allows their relationship to develop in a mature way. It’s honestly one of the most realistic and heartwarming relationships I’ve seen on television because it’s imperfect, but both parties try hard to make it work. Diane is something of a reflection of what Bojack could be, regardless of whether it’s something he would want. They grow close because they have so much in common, and their friendship is genuinely a good one. However, like Todd, Diane has limits on what she’ll do for Bojack’s sake and when he oversteps her boundaries, she pushes back. This makes her much more compelling than a typical love interest character. There isn’t really a love triangle subplot in this series anywhere other than Bojack’s mind. Diane does not have romantic feelings for Bojack; his refusal to see her as anything other than an object to acquire reflects on his inadequacies as a character, not hers. This is also why her marrying Mr. Peanutbutter and staying friends with Bojack is an interesting story development. Diane has initiative within her relationships, and if she fails, it’s because she’s made a human mistake, not because these powerful men in her life make her decisions for her.
That brings us to the protagonist, Bojack Horseman himself. Bojack is in many ways one of the weaker characters – certainly weaker from a writing perspective than Todd or Diane – but he’s still more nuanced than almost any other protagonist you’ve seen on television since the conclusion of Breaking Bad. He’s mainly defined by being washed-up, a former celebrity feeding on a past success that happened to net him enough money to live comfortably. He has no particular challenge in life and this disturbs him. Occasionally he tries to push himself into the public sphere so he can feel accomplished, but, never having learned to cope with failure, Bojack tends to quickly retreat back into the safety of his boring routines. He spends his days drinking, taking drugs, and obsessing over old episodes of his show as he tries to convince himself it was secretly genius. He lacks the maturity to take his relationship with Princess Carolyn seriously, measures himself against Mr. Peanutbutter’s success, and keeps Todd around on his couch as an active demonstration of someone who’s done worse than he has. The only character in the first season he shows genuine admiration for is Diane, but as Princess Carolyn even points out, he really only likes her because her job is to ask him questions about himself. He’s an egomaniac who struggles to care about other people, and only values them when they reflect his own characteristics. As soon as they express their own interests or opinions, he tunes out. He knows, objectively, that other people are independent beings, but he never properly internalized empathy.
This all makes Bojack an asshole, but the audience still cares about him by the end of the series despite his shitty behavior. Part of the reason, aside from his occasional humor, is that he’s self-aware. It takes a long while for him to admit it, but he recognizes when he’s hurt someone, and eventually he does try to make amends. On those rare occasions, the character puts a lot of effort into making things better. It may not look impressive, and his efforts are often skewed at first, but he always pulls through in the end. Bojack accepting that Diane is not just there to feed his ego is an important character moment. For anyone else, it would be pittance, but for Bojack, it’s the end result of him breaking apart decades of bad habits, and it doesn’t come easily. That he finally gets there, though, is satisfying. It lets the audience think there might be hope for him yet.
This does bring up the question of how far the other characters (and, by extension, the audience) should go to forgive him, but the series avoids drawing clear conclusions. Diane does not play into his romantic fantasies about her, but gives him a second chance at a friendship when he apologizes for his behavior. Todd continues to spend time with him, but remains wary of Bojack’s schemes after he’s stabbed in the back by one of them. Princess Carolyn agrees to reinstate herself as Bojack’s agent after he fires her, on the condition that he actually does some work. The characters negatively impacted by Bojack lick their wounds and change their behaviors slightly or at least require Bojack to make up for his actions before their relationship can resume as before. This trend becomes more important as the series progresses, as the character relapses and continues to disappoint those around him.
Part Three: I Still Can’t Believe One of the Characters is Named Mr. Peanutbutter and We’re All Just Okay with That
The characters are a large part of what makes this series work, but they’re kind of supplemental to the tone. Without the serious moments (and also, in my opinion, the humorous ones), this series does not become the juggernaut it is today. Make no mistake, this is a comedy series, but when people joke about how comedy these days is where you find deep philosophical questions that leave you staring at the wall for days on end, this is the sort of comedy series they’re talking about. Bojack Horseman, despite the relatively uplifting ending of the first season, is about depression, addiction, failure, dysfunction, and a whole bunch of assholes. The main character is actively unlikable from the start, driving to an interview drunk and parking in a spot for the disabled before the opening credits of the first episode air. Even the most innocent major characters in the series get some acetic lines or actions that come at a severe cost to the other characters. Every character in this series is selfish in some way, and at times it feels like a dogpile on which assholes are just throwing themselves over more assholes.
The vicious nature of the series’ environment can be unpleasant, especially given that all of the major characters are well-to-do in the most basic sense. Even Princess Carolyn and Todd, both of whom are stated to be relatively poor, don’t really ever have to worry about money. All of the characters are chasing metaphysical desires because they have no physical ones. They want love, adulation, self-worth, fame, glory – things most of us would want, to be sure, but struggle to worry about when we’re busy fretting over how to pay the bills or whether we’ll get home safe at night. Of course, there is appeal in watching fictional characters whose qualms are relatable, but not so close to home that they bring up bad memories.
Not that Bojack Horseman shies away from sensitive issues, exactly. It limits its scope to what it knows it can deal with, namely the main character. Bojack’s core vices are his drug addiction, lack of respect for others, and inability to admit mistakes. He also has deep-seated trauma from his abusive childhood, which the show implies is part of the reason for his vices. The drama of the series revolves around Bojack oscillating between succumbing to his vices and trying to escape them. Impactful moments come with his successes and failures in each area. Other characters get similar moments, though theirs are often tied into more traditional events like marriage, finishing a job, getting promoted, getting fired, etc. Bojack’s character climaxes are all grand and important, but generally involve either quiet moments of self-reflection or drug-addled benders.
Contrasting the often harrowing nature of the darker moments of the show, the light moments are utterly absurd. I’ve mentioned the use of the anthropomorphic animals gimmick to introduce puns and visual gags, but the series’ humor doesn’t stop there. Over the course of a single season, the characters get involved in a gangster’s niece’s quinceañera, a muffin-based publicity scandal, a rock opera about aliens, a David Boreanas-based tourism scam, a plot to steal the Hollywood “D,” a prison gang recruitment dilemma comparable to the main plot of Bend It Like Beckham, a film that eventually turns into a gift basket about the aforementioned plot to steal the Hollywood “D” made by Quentin Tarantino (who is, of course, a tarantula), a drug-fueled attempt to write a better memoir that turns into a Doctor Who erotica fanfic, a Halloween shop that lures famous actors to their doom, an adult emotional relationship with a man who is presumably three children stacked on top of one another under a trench coat, and something called “Smoodies.” All of this is excellent.
The humor strikes a tone that is somewhere between a bad pun and a good one (yes, these are in fact different things), usually restricted in is broad strokes to a single episode, but technically ongoing. Even the most recent season references jokes from the first season, akin to the comedic structure of Arrested Development. Actually, along with the puns, a lot of the humor of this series is reminiscent of that in Arrested Development. One of the ways the series maintains longer jokes is the same way it maintains dramatic tension: everything stays. Whenever a major event happens, the series runs with it and keeps it present within the continuity of the show, regardless of how silly it is. Case in point, for reasons that are too convoluted for me to begin to explain in a single sentence, the Hollywood “D” ends up getting dropped on a prison and is promptly destroyed. Ever since, the series has been about the exploits of famous “Hollywoo” stars.
The transition between the more serious subplots and the more ridiculous ones can admittedly be stark, and typically a given subplot will stick only to one tone rather than shifting between drama and comedy. This sometimes confuses the tone the series wants to take, as the comedy and drama are often unrelated to one another, but it has the benefit of ensuring the audience always has something to look forward to. Just as in any series with multiple character viewpoints, Bojack Horseman shifts around from character to character. This provides some levity when the series transitions from a heavy subplot to something more lighthearted, but it also provides necessary thematic contrast to remind the audience that the absurdity of its narrative goes hand-in-hand with the much grimmer reality it tries to paint.
Overall, the series is tightly written, well-paced, funny, somber, and occasionally a bit too clever for its own good, but always thoroughly enjoyable. The first season is a stand-out gem that demonstrates the series’ potential. It creates a unique setup with a lot of narrative mobility and a strong foundation. However, despite the clear trajectory the end of the season establishes for the next (Bojack starring in his dream project, Secretariat), the show doesn’t exactly set an end goal for itself. It seems like the first season was a test run of a format, and given the voice cast, it was always going to be successful, but I don’t get the sense the creators of the series really knew where they wanted to go with it. The major characters all have arcs of a sort, so presumably the series intends for them to reach some sort of end resolution, but the first season jumps the gun on that a little, at least for Bojack, Diane, and arguably Todd and Princess Carolyn. What it intends to do for the rest of its run is up to time, I guess.