3P Reviews

3P Reviews: Bojack Horseman, Season Two

Bojack Horseman Season 2 B

Series Breakdown Rating:

Characters: 8 
Aesthetics and Style: 6
Humor: 8
Overall Plot: 6
Subplots: 9
Sum: 37/50

 

Spoilers: Yes

Audience Assumptions: No familiarity

 

Season Two – ***

 

Part One: This is About as Functional as These People Get

In many ways, this season is just more of the same of what the first had to offer, which isn’t a bad thing. The second season of Bojack Horseman kicks off with Bojack landing a role in the film Secretariat, a dream project he’s been trying to get made for decades now as Secretariat was his hero growing up. The production is beset by some initial problems including Bojack’s own lack of serious acting capability, but once it gets off the ground, things seem to be going relatively well. Most of the season’s subplots are more episodic than in the first season, but a lot of these are still engaging and the usual ridiculous humor the series performs so well is here in bounds. Princess Carolyn is struggling to figure out what she wants in a boyfriend and a career, Mr. Peanutbutter is hosting a new game show written by J.D. Salinger, Diane is shuffling a few different jobs trying to find out what works, and Todd is still Todd.

The setup the series presented in the first season allowed for expansion and character growth, and this season starts to fulfill that potential with new character Wanda, an owl who’s been stuck in a coma for thirty years. She and Bojack hit it off and start dating, which proves beneficial to Bojack’s mental stability. Wanda is a gentle optimist with a twenty-something’s sense of responsibility owing to her missing out on the last several decades. She’s unfamiliar with Bojack’s reputation or life history, which Bojack sees as a boon because he wants a fresh start now that his career is taking off in earnest. He’s still the selfish jackass he always was, but he sees an opportunity to try to improve himself and he takes it, attempting to impress Wanda throughout the season. And it kind of works; Wanda is compassionate in a way Bojack never was, and when he takes the time to slow down and work with her as a partner, some of that compassion rubs off on him. He forms a more personal connection with her than any of his former partners, and even tries to connect with her interests (all of which are naturally 1980s things that have long since gone out of fashion). It’s not perfect by any means and Bojack is a long way from making any radical change to his character, but their relationship is a prominent step in a positive direction. It’s a pity it doesn’t last.

The other characters aren’t nearly as involved in this season’s overall plot as they were in the first and most of them don’t grow considerably. They all get their own moments, though.

Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter in particular have a hard time working out the kinks in their new marriage. Their contrasting personality traits come to blows in several key episodes. After the Party follows three storylines (Princess Carolyn and Todd, Bojack and Wanda, and Mr. Peanutbutter and Diane) following an unseen argument at a surprise birthday party for Diane. She prefers small, personal events to crowded parties and ends up yelling at Mr. Peanutbutter over an inane disagreement after he opts to turn what was initially a quiet evening into exactly the sort of social event Diane dislikes. Mr. Peanutbutter is a kind person, but he has difficulty relating to others beyond superficial feelings. He sees the surprise party as a loving gesture and is caught completely off-guard by Diane’s upset, even growing angry that she doesn’t appreciate the effort he went through to plan it for her. They resolve the issue eventually by talking it over and reminding themselves why they love each other in the first place, but similar issues continue to crop up.

Mr. Peanutbutter fails to handle rejection when the shenanigans-based company he founded with Todd goes bankrupt, when his agent dies, when one of his television heroes and co-workers turns out to be a sex offender, and when he learns that Diane quit her three-month long journalism job overseas without telling him. In this season, we see a shallower side of Mr. Peanutbutter that can occasionally be pretty callous and realize that his friendly nature limits his ability to make meaningful relationships. He’s friends with everyone, but good friends with no one. He likes to be a people pleaser and would prefer to ignore bad news in order to stay happy. When other people point this out, he fails to see it as a bad thing, and doesn’t understand why people can’t just let everything slide. He grows concerned when people do upsetting things, especially to themselves, but when they have good reason to do those things, like to gain life experience, Mr. Peanutbutter fails to see the benefit. His instinct is to comfort them, but sometimes that’s not what they need or want. When they reject his comfort, he gets actively angry about it. Like Bojack, he’s never learned a healthy way to deal with pain and so tries to avoid it altogether.

This is directly at odds with Diane’s personality, which seeks depth even when it requires digging through thorns. Diane spends the season working as a character consultant for the Secretariat movie, going on a book tour for Bojack’s memoir, and travelling to the fictional war-torn country of Cordovia to start a new book about a philanthropist. She’s dissatisfied with all of these jobs, finding them degrading or unchallenging or morally questionable, and ends up crashing on Bojack’s couch for two months while trying to avoid her husband. She’s starting to realize that her dissatisfaction with her work shares common ground with her fights against Mr. Peanutbutter. He too asks her to do things she finds degrading, unchallenging, and morally questionable, albeit for different reasons. She still loves and appreciates him for his good qualities like his patience and kindness, and sees the effort he goes through to make her happy. However, she’s continually frustrated by his inability to really empathize with what she wants. She’d much rather he leave her to her own devices as far as her happiness is concerned rather than keep trying and failing to deliver grand romantic gestures.

Diane struggles with a similar issue to Mr. Peanutbutter, not quite realizing that she can’t expect Mr. Peanutbutter to change overnight. She needs to put effort into the relationship by allowing him some leniency, as these gestures are not just for her sake, but also his. He doesn’t have the experience that she does swallowing hard truths, and he doesn’t really generate his own happiness like Diane does – he needs to be loved by other people in order to be happy. It’s not really the contrasting parts of their personalities that cause these two trouble; it’s the parts that are similar but not quite the same.

Princess Carolyn and Todd don’t have much in the way of overarching subplots this season, instead going around supplementing the other characters’ stories with little bit pieces of their own.

Princess Carolyn spends a lot of time in the first part of the season with Vincent, her “boyfriend,” who’s really just a bunch of kids under a trench coat and mostly there as a continued gag from the first season. Vincent speaks about business and adult things in the vague, ignorant terms of a child, but of course Princess Carolyn sees this as him being too mature for her. A smarmy friend who’s also an agent and a potential love interest steps in to suggest they run off and start their own agency, but this plot point only comes up a few times. Princess Carolyn’s participation in the season mainly involves Mr. Peanutbutter’s new show and the Secretariat film, usually with her trying to get Bojack and Mr. Peanutbutter to do their jobs. As in the first season, she works hard and receives little praise for it. Fueled by a series of disappointments, she eventually decides to take her coworker’s gamble and found her own company.

Todd, meanwhile, is still living with Bojack and, as usual, finds himself in a series of ridiculous situations through very little fault of his own. He ends up opening an extremely dangerous knock-off Disneyland (and legally winning the rights to the term “Disneyland” in the process), helps some cell phones find love, runs his and Mr. Peanutbutter’s co-founded business into the ground, temporarily switches places with the totalitarian prince of Cordovia, works for Mr. Peanutbutter’s game show, and joins an improvisational comedy cult. Todd gets less character development over the course of the season than in the previous one, but it’s still there in bits and pieces. He spends much of the season becoming more independent, hanging out on the periphery of the other character’s subplots but occasionally asking them for help in his own schemes. Often they decline. The other characters frequently take Todd for granted and walk all over him whenever it’s convenient for them, whether it’s Mr. Peanutbutter trying to lay claim to his Disneyland, Diane making him give his chicken friend over to an unscrupulous farmer, Princess Carolyn offering to take him home then making him wait in her car, or Bojack missing his improv graduation show. He goes missing for a full episode and none of the other characters notices or cares. However, all of them do eventually try to make it up to Todd, particularly Bojack, who ends the season by rescuing him from an improv cult cruise ship and admitting that he doesn’t appreciate Todd nearly as much as he should. Considering that Todd doesn’t have much of an arc over the course of the season, this is a pretty impactful contribution to his character as a whole.

 

Part Two: Nothing to See Here, Just Systemic Cannibalism

The comedic situations that surround the characters (particularly Todd, as Mr. Peanutbutter is shifted toward a more serious role) are arguably not quite as funny or absurd as those in the first season, with one notable exception: Chickens.

Throughout the series, there’s been repeated verification that all of the animals in this world are anthropomorphic. However, meat is still very much a thing. This raises a rather pressing question of where on earth it comes from, and the episode Chickens answers it in the most disturbing way possible: it comes from anthropomorphized animals, of course. Specifically, some animals like chickens are randomly selected by an institution of state-sanctioned cannibalism to be maltreated and injected with hormones that seem to limit brain function, thereby designating them as food. The series doesn’t state it specifically, but the animal in question does not seem to matter, as non-food chickens are shown to be treated the same way as other anthropomorphic beings in the series. Nobody in the series seems especially concerned by this, either, except the few characters in this episode who briefly address how it’s kind of weird and horribly dystopian. You’d think that vegetarianism might be more widespread in this world but that does not appear to be the case. At all.

In this episode, a food-raised chicken escapes captivity and finds her way to Mr. Peanutbutter’s house, where she comes across Todd. Despite the chicken being unable to speak and largely acting like an animal, Todd immediately decides he loves the chicken and wants to keep her from getting caught, recruiting Diane’s help in evading the police. Together, they bring the chicken to an organic farm, then, questioning the whole idea of cannibalism for a moment, decide to set Todd’s chicken (named Becca) and all of the other chickens free. This goes poorly. Bojack comes in like a deus ex machina at the end to alleviate all criminal charges and find a good home for Becca simply by way of being a celebrity, but the episode ends on the downer that people still very much like to eat chicken.

This is easily the weirdest episode in the whole damn series so far. It’s possibly the weirdest episode in the entire series, period. It’s also one of my favorites for several reasons. First, the puns. The writing in this episode is quick and its ability to come up with chicken-noise-based puns is somewhat spectacular. It’s also a Todd-focused episode and he gets plenty to do, so that’s always a bonus. I enjoy that this particular setup has some relevance to the discussion of how we treat animals meant for consumption and how we define what are ultimately pretty arbitrary lines between animals you don’t eat and animals you do. However, I likewise enjoy that it’s such a strange, surreal storyline in an otherwise fairly normal world, all things considered. It’s a cynical episode – Todd forming an emotional bond with the chicken is cute but ultimately does very little to help anyone, no one ever addresses the chicken as a person even though it kind of learns to speak, Diane sets the chickens free but they’re clearly not going to be able to get by on their own without help, the organic farmers are seen in pretty much the same light as the industrial farmers, there’s an implication that the main farmer (who is a chicken) is basically imprisoning his family, and the main characters’ outcry against the chickens’ situation does fuck all to stop anyone from eating meat. Including, as we see later, THE MAIN CHARACTERS. These would all be pretty dark points if we were just talking about real chickens and animal welfare, but the fact that the series’ world very obviously condones widespread cannibalism makes it all the more disturbing.

For me, the episode works because it’s the sort of thing only this series could pull off. It’s silly and confusing, sure, but all of it kind of slots into place within the absurd reality of the show. It’s funny, it’s dark, and it has some surprisingly deep little character moments, particularly for Todd and Diane. It doesn’t have much effect on the rest of the season, nor is it ever really brought up again, but as a brief aside and a zany comic adventure, I really like it.

 

Part Three: Maybe Don’t Try to Make the Audience Sympathetic to a Pedophile?

As much as this I love the first season of this show and appreciate how the second largely continues in the same style, I don’t like the second season quite as much. There are a few smaller reasons and one really big one for why I gave this season a lower rating. Let’s get the big one out of the way.

As we learned in the first season, Bojack has an old friend from his sitcom days, Charlotte, whom he’s lost touch with but still sees as having romantic potential. He was never really involved with her romantically but has wondered about what his life would have been like if he’d run away with her as she suggested years ago when his sitcom was on shaky ground. She invites Bojack to visit her earlier in the season when they run into each other at a colleague’s funeral. After he and Wanda get into an ugly fight and break up, Bojack drives to New Mexico to reconnect with Charlotte.

Upon arriving there, he’s disappointed to learn that not only is Charlotte already married, she has a family of her own and no interest in Bojack. Despite this, he sticks around and refuses to accept that he won’t get what he wants. The episode Escape from L.A. details his months-long stay with Charlotte and her family, disconnected from any of the other characters. See, Charlotte has a seventeen year old daughter who looks a lot like her, and as soon as I say that, you know where this episode is going and probably feel deeply unsettled by it. This episode is pretty sickening in concept; Bojack grows close to Charlotte’s daughter, who sees him as a cool adult figure much more in line with her way of thinking than the childish students around her. As she develops a crush on him, he starts to see her as a replacement for his idealized version of Charlotte.

This is a really difficult episode to watch. I won’t say that it’s wholly without merit, because it is self-aware and it’s trying to show where the line is for the protagonist, but it’s the sort of episode I’d want to warn people about before they see it. He plays along with the horrible idea of entrapping a young girl for his own gain up until she tries to kiss him, at which point he seems to snap awake and realizes what he’s doing. He knows that it’s not okay and lets the girl down by dismissing her as being a child – which, whether she likes it or not, she is. Even though she consents and initiates the relationship, Bojack is intentionally manipulating her by exploiting her inexperience. Abusing a teenager is absolutely not okay, and Bojack knows it; when he dismisses her, he goes to Charlotte to verify that he has no chance with her, and she tells him to leave.

I don’t know that there is a tasteful way to deliver this sort of story because it’s unsettling as soon as you introduce the premise, but I think the series almost got it. If the episode had gone up through Bojack nearly doing something horrible and stopping himself right at that line, the episode would have been a high-stakes focus on a single character defining his boundaries as a person. However, a short while after Charlotte rejects Bojack, she catches him and her daughter in bed together. This is the point where I stopped giving a damn about the protagonist.

That they don’t technically have sex is completely beside the point; Bojack shows his true colors and takes advantage of a teenager because she looks like someone he can’t have. This is not just another misstep or accident where the character does or says something cruel because he’s had a hard life and then realizes what he’s done and tries to make up for it. This is a character whose singular drive is getting what he wants, and he doesn’t give a shit when he hurts people in the process.

The audience knows they can accept that Bojack is not a wholly bad individual. Throughout this season, he’s made a concerted effort to better himself for his sake and the sake of those around him. He does feel bad about the ways he hurts people when confronted with them directly, especially after he gets what he thinks he wants and realizes there’s no way it justifies any of the harm he caused in getting it. Bojack apologizing to Todd at the end of the season is genuinely one of the most heartfelt things the character has ever done.

But it’s still no excuse. Once someone does something unforgivable, it changes the way you see them and there’s no amount of “I’m sorry” that will change them back.

The Escape from L.A. episode and the events therein taint the last episode of the season by way of forcing the audience to spend more time with Bojack, for whom we retain little sympathy.  The other characters offer a bit of respite in their own dilemmas, and all of them get some decent character growth to round off the season. It ends on a positive note, but reflecting on it, the whole of the season feels a bit askew. It leaves me unsatisfied even discounting the grotesquery of the second to last episode.

I think that this series, and this season in particular, is juggling its tone pretty precariously. The subplots generally switch between silly nonsense and deep personal drama without a lot of integration of the two within a given subplot (except for arguably some of Todd’s moments, but these largely lean toward being more comedic). This creates a unique style for the show and it works when it’s well-balanced. However, that balance is dependent upon the comedy being funny and the drama being relatable, and if either slips even slightly, there’s no real safety net the series can fall back on. While the series is still funny, a lot of the jokes just don’t land in this season, and that’s especially true of some of the recurring gags, like Diane’s egocentric new boss or Todd’s improv comedy troupe. Likewise, the drama is strong, but it goes in some off-putting directions that don’t feel quite like they reflect what the series wants to say.

The Hank After Dark episode is a good example. It came out well before the MeToo movement started in earnest and is a pretty biting indictment of the widespread apathy toward victims of sexual abuse, especially in entertainment circles. However, the approach it takes is bleak and accusatory, portraying the issue primarily from Diane’s perspective as someone uninvolved in the abuse, and coming down on Diane as an unnecessary rabble-rouser. It’s trying to show how difficult it is to criticize widespread abusive systems, but by refusing to give the female characters even an inch of authority, and worse yet, having all of the male characters around them disregard the issue as unimportant, the series feeds into those harmful perspectives. In half-assing its attempt to help the discourse, the show only ends up empowering abusers, those who fold to their demands, those who try to remain ignorant, and those who steal the microphone from victims. It addresses few of the reasons victims don’t step forward, nor does it give any reason that they should. I can’t speak from personal experience except as someone who has witnessed the effects of systemic sexual abuse from a secondary lens, but as a general rule, I try to defer authority on a subject to those directly affected by it. The episode only features one victim, and dismisses her as a pawn for the abuser without stopping to unpack the deeply unsettling implications there. The episode overall feels like a misfire, and it’s really not what we need right now. We know how shitty this system can be; what we need, especially now, are depictions of how exposure of sexual abuse should unfold, with the abuser being fired and, preferably, imprisoned.

On the whole, the season is a bit jumbled, but it’s not outright bad. The first half is certainly the stronger of the two, presenting an optimism that captures the level of character development, humor, and sarcasm I’ve come to expect from this series. However, it’s a far cry from the merits of the first season and even further from the series’ potential. This series wants to go to some dark places, and it tends to do so just before the last episode of a season. I think it needs to recognize that its eagerness to go to there is not its strong suit. The audience will play along provided the show’s other merits still get sufficient attention, but if it only wants to throw episodes at us about Bojack’s perpetual decline into misery, it has to understand that we’ll eventually lose interest.

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