There’s something obviously comical about how critics are currently clambering over each other to offer the most glowing praise to Bojack Horseman. Clearly, they recognize how ludicrous that appears: Critics are being reduced to tears by Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s show, praising it as a “brilliant comedy about the human condition,” and a “character-rich treatise on depression,” but you’ll read few reviews that don’t also begin by highlighting Bojack’s on-paper ridiculous conceit. Bojack Horseman is an animated Hollywoo(d) satire set in an LA where humans and anthropomorphic animals live side-by-side. In season three, the title character – a depressed, middle-aged horse – has his eyes on the Best Actor Oscar, hoping to beat out the more starry likes of Jurj Clooners and Bread Poot. It’s a comedy, with animal puns, about our inability to be truly happy, and you’ll find near every ecstatic appraisal almost apologetically prefaced with a description that underlines the absurdity of it all.
Last year, Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff went out on a limb to declare Bojack Horseman a successor to Mad Men. High praise, but it’s true – the two shows similarly depict lost souls seeking happiness in a glam world where good feelings are ephemeral. But even VanDerWerff, acknowledging how bizarre it is that a show such as this one could be so deep, began his comparison with, “This might sound ridiculous, but….” We’ve all been culturally trained to think life’s big questions are to be dealt with by our live-action programs – preferably dramas – not animated comedies about alcoholic celebrity horses.
All the same, there are episodes in Bojack season three that are among the most profound, heartbreaking and ultimately creative that you’ll see this year. In daring to wade into waters that sitcom-style animation rarely (if ever) approaches, there’s a sense that Bob-Waksberg and co. are tapping a previously untapped well of ideas – and it’s resulting in some of the finest individual episodes of comedy-drama in recent memory.
Take The Bojack Horseman Show, a ‘period piece’ set in a parodically auto-tuned and carefree 2007 (background gags include a bank promising “Everything will be okay!”), and season three’s shattering penultimate episode, That’s Too Much, Man!. The latter finds Bojack and former screen daughter Sarah Lynn (Kristen Schaal, channelling every falling starlet of the 21st century) on a weeks-long bender, culminating in Sarah Lynn dying in Bojack’s arms from a heroin overdose. The episode is constantly punctuated by Bojack’s drugs and alcohol-fuelled blackouts, meaning we randomly skip minutes, hours and days ahead, a device that’s used for both comic and tragic purposes, Bojack’s increased loss of control over his own life a source of both hilarity and overwhelming melancholy.
Animated sitcoms, especially ones as surreal as this, don’t normally go to the places Bojack goes (abortion, addiction, sexual assault). The show works well partly because it’s unexpected, navigating territory rarely explored by this type of programme, with creator Bob-Waksberg and team dealing in emotions regularly untouched by animation (especially that of the existential-drama-meets-animal-gags variety). And if after a lifetime of colourful, family-friendly ‘toons you’ve come to presume this kind of medium is feels-free, when Bojack delivers a blow it’s doubly effective.
That the voice cast is so stacked with talent also helps Bojack to be so bruisingly brilliant. Will Arnett, Aaron Paul and Alison Brie take the leads, while smaller roles are filled this season by heavyweights such as Jeffrey Wright, Lorraine Bracco and Tessa Thompson, with actual Oscar winners Alan Arkin and JK Simmons also making a return from previous seasons (along with esteemed character actress Margo Martindale, of course). These are all performers who have on this show proven they can shine at both comedy and drama, with Arnett – giving the performance of his life – perhaps the chief revelation.
But the main reason why the show works so well, the reason it can reduce you to tears just seconds after it made you snort with laughter, is that because the world of Bojack Horseman is so elastic, it can do things dramatically that no live-action show can. Bob-Waksberg’s creation is wowing critics not in spite of its format, but precisely because of it.
The almost entirely silent, underwater-set episode “Fish Out of Water” is a prime example of Bojack going places live-action programming can’t reach as a result of their own often literalist constraints. Perfectly capturing our (anti-)hero’s uncomfortable isolation, “Fish Out of Water” sends Bojack under the sea to Pacific Ocean City, where he doesn’t understand the customs and doesn’t know how to speak the language – or speak at all, for that matter, as he’s forced to wear soundproof breathing gear, completely unaware it has a vocalizer until the last seconds of the episode. (In another sign of the show’s patient genius, the whole 25 minutes is spent building up to this one punchline.)
That Bojack Horseman adopts a format so free (and which we’ve been conditioned to think is just plain goofy) is exactly the reason why the show gets to be both hilarious and hard-hitting. It can turn on a dime tonally more easily than oh-so-serious live-action can, and gets to approach big issues of our time in interesting ways that live-action never could. For example, the focus of season three’s Bojack Kills is a club full of pole-dancing, drug-addicted killer whales, a setting which allows the show to simultaneously tackle both the objectification of women in modern society and the Seaworld controversy.
To the uninitiated, it might seem unbelievable that an animated comedy set in a world of talking animals would be worthy of such breathless acclaim. Bojack Horseman proves, though, not just that nothing is off-limits for the humble cartoon sitcom, but that embracing the genre’s lack of boundaries can actually help elevate a show well beyond what we typically think the genre dramatically capable of. That may be Bojack Horseman’s single greatest accomplishment.
Brogan Morris is a UK-based freelance writer, as seen on the Guardian, Little White Lies, Flavorwire, the BFI, the New Humanist and more. Opinions range from ridiculous to passable. You can follow him on Twitter.