All of the professional criticism I’ve read of “Bojack Horseman” focuses entirely too heavily on the show’s humor. Yes, Bojack is an animated show, and like virtually all-American animation, it’s a comedy.
But it isn’t the humor that will keep you coming back. If it were just another animated comedy I would have had no interest in finishing it. I enjoy “Bob’s Burgers” and “Archer,” but I rarely seek them out and, frankly, I find animated comedies to be tiresome.
“Bojack” is something else entirely.
In the first few episodes, you’ll have serious doubts about whether “Bojack” is worth your time; I did. At only about 20 minutes a pop, it’s hard to make those first few chapters of the story anything more than exposition. We learn that our titular Bojack (voiced by Will Arnett) was once upon a time the biggest sitcom star in the world. That time was the ‘90s, and the sitcom was a little show called “Horsin’ Around.”
But what those first few episodes can’t expose is how compelling a character Bojack really is. What really makes him a worthy protagonist is this delicate balance of truly deplorable character traits and occasional silver-lining acts of humanity. Bojack is a dick, an asshole and a pussy. He’s selfish and cowardly and mean-spirited. He’s still riding the coattails of his long-gone sitcom glory, still living off the dole of pseudo-stardom. But he’s compelling. There’s a cynical darkness in him, a hatred of formalities and pleasantries and people (throughout the season we see glimpses of where his darkness comes from) that’s relatable as hell.
The premise of the show, beyond “is a dick, acts like a dick,” involves the protagonist trying to write his autobiography and failing at it. The people in his life include Todd (Aaron Paul), a sitcom rival (and also an anthropomorphic dog) named Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins) and his agent, a pink cat named Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris). In the first episode, a spazzy, neurotic penguin book agent named Pinky Penguin (Patton Oswalt) scolds Bojack for not meeting any of his deadlines. If he continues to not get anything done, he’llbe forced to work with a ghostwriter.
And because he’s a lazy, narcissistic individual, that’s exactly what happens. The ghostwriter is named Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), and she is about the closest thing to the show’s moral center.
See, unlike most animated shows, Bojack’s entire framework doesn’t exist for the easy creation and deliberation of sight gags and cutaways. It isn’t hemorrhaging reference humor left and right. It exists for the same reason as any worthy piece of fiction: character development.
I’ve spent years enduring “Family Guy” and “South Park” references: dumb kids in my classes with Peter Griffin on their shirts, pieces of human tumbleweed doing their best Eric Cartman impressions. In a word, I was disillusioned. It was hard for me to wrap my brain around the concept of a show such as “Bojack.” Animation and character development, as they’re defined in the American lexicon, seem almost antithetical.
Bojack proves that hypothesis wrong in spades and it has everything to do with the show’s darkness. If its character development operated in the same vein as “Parks and Recreation” or other happy comedies, it wouldn’t work. The fact that Bojack is close to irredeemable is the show’s best quality; it makes it all work. His journey of self-discovery is not a positive one. The show is about him coming to terms with the worst things about himself, his greatest regrets and follies.
In one episode, Bojack is forced to confront his former best friend Herb Kazazz (a brilliant Stanley Tucci), who he betrayed two decades earlier. The betrayal is intentionally ambiguous because it’s part of Bojack’s journey of self-discovery as much as it’s part of ours. By the end of the season Bojack is not a better person, he may in fact be worse, but he’s newly self-aware. Before he can even begin to improve, he has to know himself. When he asks Diane (SPOILER) if he’s a good person in one of the show’s most pivotal scenes, we know that he’s asking rhetorically. He’s asking the question because he wants to be lied to; him knowing the truth about himself is why he asks in the first place, and his vulnerability in that moment is, for him, progress.
“Bojack Horseman” is a funny show (Vincent Adultman, anyone?), but that honestly doesn’t matter. It’s a fascinating character study and even this column only scratches the surface of how it wrings its subjects dry for our entertainment. Bojack’s greatest fears and guilts are laid bare not to make us laugh but to make us sympathize with a deeply troubled man. Well, a deeply troubled horse.
Don’t be afraid of what you see of yourself in Bojack; he’s a horse, but his damage is all human.