3P Reviews

3P Reviews: Bojack Horseman, Season Three

Bojack Horseman Season 3

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 Three – **

 

Part One: Yes, We Get It. Bojack Is Sad.

The last season left me with some pretty complicated feelings about the characters and this show in general. It threw a lot at them, and their nuanced responses showed some of the best of what this series has to offer as an exploration of the human condition. That said, it continued to isolate the humorous subplots from the more serious ones, favoring the latter, and I felt it slipped quite a bit in its attempt to say something important. It kind of seems like after the success of the first season, the series started to get cocky and put more weight on its most obvious strengths — Bojack as a lovable but deeply flawed character, commentary on the state of Hollywood cynicism, and the pains of having to grow up when you’re already an adult. However, these aren’t the show’s only strengths, and I think giving these facets more attention disrupted the show’s overall balance.

Leading into this season, I was a bit nervous. I was growing to dislike Bojack as a character more and more, especially after the events of Escape from L.A. When a series brings a protagonist to a moral low point, it has three paths it can take from there: it can turn the character into a fully-blown antagonist, it can follow the character as they come to terms with the horrible thing they’ve done, or it can pass off their corruption as no big deal. Generally speaking, which option a series chooses depends on how terrible the deed is. Minor offenses (at least within the world of the series) are shrugged off; action movies rarely pause to let a character dwell on the number of people they’ve killed because the framing of the story assumes a militaristic mentality that doesn’t consider combatants human beings. More serious offenses, like murder or manslaughter in most stories, merit some amount of condemnation. We’ll let characters get away with a lot if they’re sympathetic, but there’s a line for everything. Once a character crosses it, we no longer sympathize enough to want to see any more of them. In fact, we’ll actively root for someone else to defeat them.

Bojack Horseman considers the actions of its titular character in the previous season to be on the more moderate side of the line. I wholeheartedly disagree and consider what he did to be pedophilia and sexual assault. This disconnect makes the first part of the third season thoroughly unpleasant.

While Bojack-centered episodes are nothing new, the third season doubles-down on them right off the bat. The other characters are present, but only in bit roles that feel insufficient for the growth they’ve undergone. Todd especially gets the shaft, hardly appearing in the first three episodes at all and only in subplots completely almost completely unrelated to any of the other characters. Princess Carolyn’s new business makes her overworked, which turns her into a more sympathetic character, but like Todd, we see very little of her. Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter continue to try to work through their marriage woes and get a few poignant moments early on, but even they get very little screen time.

Two episodes that shake-up the formula before the halfway point of the season also don’t really help the narrative much. I’ll confess, I’ve never really liked the flashback-heavy episodes of this series, especially as they relate to Bojack’s old show, Horsin’ Around. I don’t feel the characters we meet in the flashbacks are explored fully enough to merit full flashback episodes; anything the show needs to communicate about Bojack’s former friends and family can be told effectively through shorter flashbacks or implied through dialogue. To be fair, neither the first nor second seasons technically had any flashback-exclusive episodes, but that doesn’t make their presence in the third any more welcome. I’m not entirely sure what exactly the second episode of the season, The Bojack Horseman Show, is trying to say beyond what all of the present-timeline events communicate already. Even the inclusion of the other major characters, most of whom rarely appear in Bojack’s flashbacks if at all, didn’t do much to make it more engaging.

The underwater episode, Fish Out Of Water, has a similar problem. This episode gets widely praised, and with good reason — it’s well-structured, visually interesting, breaks from the series’ conventions, and tells a compelling story without any dialogue. The joke at the end is also pretty darn funny. However, I actively skip over it when re-watching this season because its placement within the structure of the series is terrible. The last thing the audience wants at this point is to spend more time with Bojack, especially after the show waves away the time he took advantage of a teenager. The episode is a whimsical adventure involving Bojack trying to get a letter to a director he got fired and also trying to take a baby seahorse home. It would be perfect if any other character were leading it. As is, unless you manage to outright forget the recent events of the show, you just end up feeling seriously uncomfortable that this character is taking care of anyone’s kid.

This season proclaims right out of the gate: THIS IS A BOJACK SEASON. LOVE HIM! And I can’t. He’s not necessarily beyond salvage — the character is complex enough that the audience could come to understand him as more than the sum of his actions — but he has to put some effort into bettering himself. Eventually, you can’t just give a character any more chances, because you know what they’ll do with them.

The series seems to understand this, at least in part, by way of sparse moments of clarity. Bojack’s character thesis seems to be, “I can be nice sometimes, but I’m too much of an asshole to be a nice person and unless I can make some massive change to my character and stick with it, I’ll drive away or accidentally kill everyone I care about.” Many characters point this out at least once, and Bojack himself readily admits it, but few recurring characters ever internalize what Bojack’s behavior means. Bojack does something shitty, another character calls him out on it, he lashes out, ruining his relationship with them, then he immediately regrets it and wallows in his sorrows until he can’t bear it any longer, which eventually leads him to apologize and briefly try to be a better person. Eventually, the cycle repeats. Diane and Princess Carolyn have fallen into this trap on several occasions, each time seeming to forget whatever tiff they had with Bojack after he apologizes. Mr. Peanutbutter is generally non-confrontational, but even he’s been through a version of this cycle. Todd’s the only character who seems to recognize it as a cycle and at least tries to get out of it, but even he often comes back to Bojack in the end. Todd does, however, give a surprisingly clear monologue near the end of the season that distills Bojack’s actions and throws them back at him: Bojack does shitty things, feels sorry for himself, then deflects the blame, and nothing changes because the root of his problems are, of course, himself.

Even if the series understands that no amount of Bojack feeling sorry for himself excuses his actions, much of the third season fundamentally does not. Its main concern is getting Bojack an Oscar (which I’m disappointed isn’t shaped like an anthropomorphized oscar fish), or more accurately, demonstrating to Bojack that fame and glory aren’t worth alienating your friends. In his constant pursuit of happiness, Bojack hires a publicist and promotes Secretariat, striving for the brief adulation winning a prestigious award will bring. When that goes south, he turns back to drugs as he did in the bender episode in Season One, except this time, he gets even more heavily addicted, eventually bringing his former co-star, Sarah Lyn, down with him. She dies, he tries to recover, and when he realizes his continued existence threatens those around him, he runs away.

I’m going to put my foot in my mouth and predict where the series is going with Bojack’s character, beyond the fourth and fifth season. The series doesn’t want you to forget what Bojack did in New Mexico, even though it doesn’t seem to want to address the matter either. The logical conclusion would be that they’re building to something. The scandal has gotten too close to going public for it to stay a private matter in the long term. The series is going to build pressure, with Bojack continuing to oscillate through periods of hope and despair and addressing what he sees as his two personal demons, his abusive childhood and his drug addiction, eventually coming to terms with them. However, he’ll find that he’s still a broken individual because, as Todd says, those aren’t his real problems. He’ll probably backslide a bit but get involved in a thoughtful indie film he can be proud of, which will make him feel genuinely fulfilled. Maybe he’ll try to repair some of his relationships. Eventually, though, his taking advantage of Charlotte’s daughter will become public, which will irreparably damage his career. He’ll be forced into retirement, perhaps lose a good chunk of his wealth, and have to live with the consequences of his actions, regardless of the sort of person he has become since then. At that point, it’s anyone’s guess what he’ll do.

Wherever the series decides to go, it wants to paint Bojack as a complex, nuanced character. However, the creators of the show have the benefit of knowing where the series is headed, and at this point, that makes a real difference. If the show intends to bring Bojack to his knees in a later season and force him to confront his assholery, free of any of the excuses the character tries to use to cover himself, then I can see how the creators might want to keep framing him as a good guy. They know he gets his comeuppance or properly changes in the end. However, whether that’s their intent doesn’t really matter; the audience gets the same thing either way. We see a selfish, condescending narcissist who has done something irreparable, and a series that keeps trying to shove us into his shoes. We’ve been there already, we know what his foot size is. For those in the audience who aren’t still on-board with Bojack, this is just kind of weird and unpleasant.

 

Part Two: Princess Carolyn Needs Some Appreciation

Since Bojack is so front and center this season, a lot of the other characters get shoved to the side. Most of them don’t have much to do with Bojack, either, given that he’s not working on a movie and few of them were heavily involved in Secretariat at all. The major characters are linked together through their own loosely-related subplots, mainly those involving Diane tweeting for celebrities and Todd starting a ride-share service. Diane works for Princess Carolyn, who’s trying to make ends meet with her new business. Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter are going to couples’ therapy to salvage their shaky marriage after Diane’s breakdown at the end of the last season. Mr. Peanutbutter isn’t heavily involved in much this season, but he does start up a new business with Todd and Todd’s old girlfriend, Emily. Todd’s subplot this season largely revolves around him trying to get back together with Emily and Bojack screwing it up.

As you can imagine, this season isn’t quite as funny as the last one, favoring characters who are stressed and unhappy over the usual wacky capers. This is especially true of the latter half of the season, which is overall much more serious than this show usually is. Princess Carolyn features prominently in a few mid-season episodes that explore her relationship with Bojack. This is particularly significant since Princess Carolyn, arguably more than any of the other major characters, has frequently been relegated to the background, rarely given much personality or character growth beyond the predictable beats of her archetype.

Princess Carolyn has a longer history with Bojack than any of the other recurring characters. She appears frequently in flashbacks and has been in an on-again-off-again relationship with Bojack for nearly a decade. Curiously, after the first season, she and Bojack remain exclusively friends and business associates, and inconsistent ones at that. Princess Carolyn is involved, by her choice, in all of the other characters’ lives as their agent or boss whenever possible. She’s business savvy to the point where she struggles to stop networking, even at dinner.

Given the opportunity in this season to take charge of her own life as she’s always wanted, Princess Carolyn run herself into the ground biting off more than she can chew. She can collaborate when the situation calls for it, but asking for help has never been a strong suit of hers. It takes a proactive coworker organizing her schedule to the minute in order for her to admit she needs a business partner to help her run the agency. Even so, she’s overworking herself trying to get as many clients and jobs for those clients as she can. Eventually, this results in her juggling too many lucrative offers for Bojack and overplaying her hand, losing all of them. Furious, Bojack fires her, and with that, she loses her company’s long-term prospects.

While Princess Carolyn has had personal subplots before, these have consistently been the weakest in the series. Her boyfriends have been caricatures, there to serve a joke or a very simple character growth moment. She has a long-term rival, Vanessa Gecko (who is naturally just a human), but their relationship is like something out of a bad high school drama. If anything, the characters Princess Carolyn has an established history with are mainly there to make her look better by comparison.

That’s not necessarily the case anymore. Beyond Bojack and the regular crew, Princess Carolyn gets a business partner in the form of Judah and a new boyfriend in the form of Ralph. Judah is professional and overly literal, but competent and occasionally friendly. His role in the series is largely to relieve some of Princess Carolyn’s tension by presenting the air of someone who is twice as competent at she is, but content in a supporting role and lacking her ambition. Ralph, meanwhile, is a charming enough character who also helps to relieve Princess Carolyn’s stress. He’s not given much to do or say in this season, but he’s amiable and lighthearted, which, like Judah, makes him a much-needed contrast to the show’s regular incompetent numskulls.

These two help Princess Carolyn see how miserable her line of work makes her, to the point where when her company goes bankrupt and she’s out of work, she’s relieved. It doesn’t last long, though; the inbred need to prove herself drives her right back to her failed business under the barest pretense of a new idea. The dual tragedy of her character is that she can’t be happy any one place, but can’t commit to anything without throwing every ounce of herself into it. Princess Carolyn tends to spread herself too thin on her projects, which makes it all the more devastating when one of them fails.

Meanwhile, Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter’s problems arise from each other more than any other characters. With the cracks in their marriage beginning to show in the previous season, the two work to fill them in, yet have no idea how to go about doing so. They initially tiptoe around their problems, trying to acknowledge each other while completely failing to communicate. After Diane crashed on Bojack’s couch for several months at the end of the last season and Mr. Peanutbutter found out, they’ve actively tried to ignore their deep-seated issues. However, though happenstance and perseverance, they make ground in forging a stronger bond. This culminates right as they discover Diane is pregnant, which is something neither of them want.

Each season seems to dedicate an episode to a political topic and this season’s is abortion. And it handles it… pretty well, actually. I mean, okay, the episode is called Brrap Brrap Pew Pew, but it’s a surprisingly sympathetic take on something millions of women will go through in their lives. Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter are in the seldom-explored situation of two married adults who don’t want kids, and they both agree that Diane should get an abortion. The episode focuses on Diane trying to reign in a belligerent client after the latter is mistaken for the one getting an abortion and leans into the attention it gets her. Diane is self-conscious about her decision, especially when Princess Carolyn expresses jealousy that Diane is capable of having the choice to have kids. The episode satirizes manipulative pro-life laws and the misogynistic ignorance of many men who speak out against abortion, but it’s a character study as much as a statement.

The structure of the episode is very similar to the Hank After Dark episode in the previous season, but with several important differences. Diane is directly involved in the main conflict of the episode, as she’s both the one getting the abortion and the one who made her client into an accidental pro-choice figurehead. The episode also keeps Mr. Peanutbutter as a supportive side character there for occasional comic relief rather than putting him at odds with Diane, which is a necessary change from how the series has used him recently. It’s nice to see Diane act mature when confronted with conflicting opinions; she plans to sabotage her client when the client starts glamorizing abortion, but a conversation with a teenager at the clinic changes her mind. The teen sees the lack of deference Diane’s client has toward abortion as a joke to lighten the mood, which vulnerable girls like her need more at this point than the serious rhetoric Diane prefers.

The client’s absurd plan to fake her abortion on live television manages to strike a tone the characters feel is surprisingly respectful, and the episode ends on a warm note. Princess Carolyn rescinds her judgement of Diane and the two of them get excited planning for the client’s own surprise pregnancy, which she intends to keep. It’s a solid demonstration of how women supporting one another on their decisions is independent of their own feelings about pregnancy or having children. It’s a good moment for Princess Carolyn as well as Diane, as the two rarely interact much and often seem to have little in common. Princess Carolyn’s always been portrayed as eager for children, a plot point that becomes more central to her character in the next two seasons, but this episode provides a glimpse at how it’s closely tied to her understanding of success.

 

Part Three: Wait. Wait a Minute.

I have a bit of a problem with this season’s sense of humor. It’s not very good.

I mentioned before that the season takes a more serious tone with its content and characters, focusing on those that have high-stakes subplots. The nonsensical humor is still present, and it even builds up to a massively convoluted joke in the last episode, but even this feels a bit forced. The series has struggled to mesh its humor with its drama since the first season, but it’s been able to get away with that for two reasons: because the unrelated comedy subplots help manage the overall tone, and because Todd’s subplots are the rare exception to the rule.

The first of these is difficult to pin down, but it basically means that whenever the dour subplots become too deep or heavy to handle, the series switches gears to distract the audience with something lighthearted. The comedic subplots rarely make up the bulk of an episode, but they’re necessary levity that can’t come from the serious subplots themselves. As the show becomes more invested in the serious subplots, the comedic ones understandably appear less important by comparison, which I think is the main reason this season puts far less emphasis on its humor. Convention states that constantly shifting between tense drama and nonsense comedy disrupts the tone and flow, cheapening both moods. However, I personally think this is more of a pacing issue — given sufficient time to register something tense or funny, the strength of a piece can actually be bolstered by transitions in tone. Regardless, the series opts to devote less effort to its jokes, which makes them infrequent as well as fairly weak.

Downplaying the comedy isn’t entirely new for the series; the more serious characters, like Princess Carolyn and Diane, often deliver fewer and less witty jokes. Their subplots call for small, lighthearted moments to contrast with the crushing defeat these characters face on a regular basis. You don’t need much to show these characters are having a good day — Princess Carolyn’s jokes frequently come in the form of alliterative and rhyming names, which are are sometimes impressive but rarely funny. It works because not all of the characters need to be funny; the comic relief characters are usually there to pick up the slack.

With Mr. Peanutbutter largely downplayed in this season, a lot of pressure is on Todd to fulfill the series’ comedic precedent. At times, this works admirably. Even when his lines aren’t especially funny, the delivery almost always is. As the character has developed, his design and personality becomes inherently more amusing simply because it doesn’t change. The simple idea that Todd still wears flip-flops and a silly hat at all times, even when running a business, is delightful. However, even his jokes are dulled quite a bit in comparison to the rest of the series.

The last season left off with a significant contribution to Todd’s overall character arc with Bojack trying to reconcile for generally being a shitty friend. Todd accepts his apology while recognizing that he can’t really go back to being oblivious to Bojack’s actions — it’s essentially an extension of Todd’s arc in the first season, and it continues through the rest of this one. Todd receives the brunt of Bojack’s assholery, being in frequent close proximity to him and not really having anyone other than Bojack he can go to for help. Bojack’s actions disproportionately affect Todd relative to the other major characters. This is why Todd often seems like the only character to recognize the threat Bojack poses to himself and those around him; it’s no coincidence that Sarah Lyn dies while on a bender with Bojack like the one from the first season, nor a coincidence that this time, Todd doesn’t join them.

Much of Todd’s subplot this season is constrained by Emily, his girlfriend from high school whom he meets by chance and tries to reconnect with. This is where the season really disappoints, in my mind, at least on the first viewing. In the flashback episode at the start of the season, we see Todd acting awkward around a girl he likes. Obviously, this is a completely original plot that has never been done before by any narrative ever. Teenage boys not knowing how to kiss girls? How novel!

I don’t mind it, really, except that it introduces some fucking love triangle garbage nonsense a few episodes later when, inevitably, Bojack sleeps with Emily. Dear god, I hate love triangles. I especially dislike when they’re used as the narrative focus of a subplot. Why? Why is this important to people? Why would you interrupt chicken-based capers and terrible entrepreneurial ideas just to show us a love triangle? I struggle to express how little I fucking care.

To be fair, Emily is an engaging character in her own right, and a good friend for Todd. She provides means and motivation that gets him deeply invested in one of his slightly better ideas, which allows him to distance himself from Bojack and take on more responsibility. Bojack sleeping with Emily creates problems less because Todd covets her attention and more because Emily feels ashamed. She leaves Todd out of shame, and yet again, Todd’s success is kneecapped by Bojack’s selfish actions. When he finds out what Bojack did, he lets loose.

Todd’s a cinnamon roll of a character, always helping others and never really causing trouble intentionally, making him harmless at his worst and genuinely nice at his best. It’s a bit jarring in the first season when he starts to sabotage Bojack after finding out Bojack did the same to his rock opera, but him outright yelling at Bojack for being an asshole is something else entirely. Todd’s monologue at the end of It’s You is poignant and cuts straight to the bone. It’s not long, but it’s unapologetic, and means quite a lot considering who it comes from. The monologue isn’t just about Bojack sleeping with Emily or any of the other single things he’s done, but the sum accumulation of Bojack’s actions and how they corrode his friendships. It’s a turning point in Todd’s relationship with Bojack, and the last time they speak for the rest of the season. Actually, it’s never stated explicitly, but this is also the point where Todd moves out of Bojack’s house for good.

The end of the season sees Todd finally successful for about twenty minutes before he accidentally gives all of his money away. He also reunites with Emily to explain that uh…

Uh…

UH…

Goddamnit, show. So, apparently asexual gaydar isn’t a thing, or if it is, mine is broken. The season doesn’t do much with the idea of Todd being asexual, but that little bit of information serves to recontextualize a hell of a lot of his subplot in this season. Namely, him being romantically interested in Emily but avoidant whenever she wants sex, and neither of them quite being able to articulate this.

I’ll be completely honest, this went over my head entirely the first time I watched this season and I was a bit angry at myself for not figuring it out sooner. This is about one of four things I have any sort of authority on. But oh no, my brain looks at someone suggesting playing in the laundry instead of going into the bedroom and legitimately thinks, Yes, that is exactly what a sexual person would do. They are definitely having all of the sex tonight. His girlfriend is so turned on right now. So sexy.

So yeah, I have some thoughts on this development. Good thoughts, mostly. Okay, exclusively. The important thing is, regardless of my overall disappointment in the rest of the season, I have to watch this series until it dies now. Todd has been the best character on it for a while, and him being both a surprise LGBT+ character and ace? Fuck yeah. It would be dishonest of me to say that Todd was the only reason I kept watching after Season Three, because I do genuinely love all of the characters (except Bojack), and the series manages to present a style, sense of humor, and quality of writing I just don’t come across that often. I have a lot of gripes about how this season is structured, and I do think that it represents an overall drop in the series’ quality, but the major characters, even though they aren’t centered in the season, really get their foothold here. Todd, Diane, Mr. Peanutbutter, and Princess Carolyn are coming into their own and could each easily carry their own series. I might even go so far as to say any one of them is a more complex character than Bojack.

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