BoJack Horseman and the Art of Dropping the Ball

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I can’t stop thinking about BoJack Horseman.

And it’s not like I think Netflix’s original animated series about a washed-up sitcom star who happens to be a talking horse is any good. In fact, I… I kinda hated it. At first, I hated it with some hesitation, remembering that a lot of comedies don’t really find their footing until well into their initial season, when the characters are already established and there’s a solid foundation to build on. But then, when I realized that it really wasn’t going to miraculously get a million times funnier, I just plain hated it. Realizing that I was already past the mid-season mark, and that I was somewhat invested in this stupid fucking show and its cardboard cutout cast of characters, I kept watching. And I continued to hate it.

So why did I hate it so much? And why can’t I stop thinking about it a full week after I finished it? And– perhaps most pressing a question– why have I rewatched several episodes multiple times?

The premise is simple. BoJack Horseman is the abrasive, alcoholic, self-destructing former TV star trope personified– part Charlie Sheen, part Bob Saget. His glory days are well behind him at this point, and his career has grown stagnant. He spends his days in a drunken stupor, watching reruns of his old sitcom to catch last lingering vestiges of his former glory. In an effort to revitalize his career, he teams up with a ghostwriter to release an autobiography. He has a slacker roommate. He has a snarky ex-girlriend who is also his agent. He’s a callous prick with a heart of gold. Based on all this information I’ve provided you, you can pretty much figure out how the show is gonna go– to a T. It’s been done. Everything about this premise has been done before, a thousand times, by a hundred better movies and TV shows. In fact, the one thing separating BoJack Horseman from every other hacky sitcom pilot you’ve ever seen is that it takes place in a world where humans and anthropomorphic animals coexist as equals. A huge chunk of the humor that works is derived from this, and aside from the immensely talented voice cast, it’s what keeps it from being a complete failure.

The main problem with BoJack Horseman is that, much like its insipid premise, the comedy is utterly uninspired. It’s like someone who watched one too many seasons of Archer decided to “take a stab at this adult cartoon thing”, without realizing they lacked the wit and cleverness to pull it off. It all feels very constructed; characters speak in meticulously crafted one-liners that seem like they were written for the sole purpose of becoming gifs on tumblr. In the social media age, where the average denizen of “weird twitter” is more interesting and insightful than most TV writers, this kind of ham-handedness seems particularly contrived and off-putting. The jokes plod along and, with the exception of the aforementioned animal gags, there is hardly a laugh to be found throughout the entire season– which is, you know, kind of a big deal when you’re ostensibly a wacky cartoon comedy.

And yet…

princesscarolyn

What works about BoJack Horseman, works so fucking well. It’s infuriating. You want to quantify it and put it on a pie chart and point at it aggressively with a stick and yell at the writers’ face. “LOOK. LOOK HERE. THIS IS GOOD. THIS WORKS. DO MORE OF THIS.”

The show is at its best when it prioritizes the bittersweet character moments over superficial yuk-yuks. It’s like, if you stripped away all the rapid-fire Charlie Sheen comedy, it would work really fucking well as a wistful drama– and I’m in full knowledge of how ridiculous that sounds when talking about a cartoon about a talking horse. But BoJack Horseman almost feels like it was meant to be a drama– like somebody took the basic scripts for a somber live-action IFC drama about the futile nature of human relationships, made it a cartoon and filled it with animal jokes and soon-to-be-horrifically-outdated pop culture references. Either that, or whoever wrote BoJack– Wikipedia reliably informs me it’s somebody by the name of Raphael Bob-Waksberg, which sounds made up– just wanted to write an incredibly bleak story about failure and utter despondency, and was forced by a bunch of execs to half-assedly shoehorn a bunch of tepid FX comedy into it. Clearly that’s not actually the case, but it’s how it comes across sometimes.

Ultimately, BoJack Horseman is a show about disappointment. Every character seems to be unsure of their place in the world, ill at ease with their current station in life, always feeling like they’re not quite doing what they’re supposed to be doing, hurling towards a certain doom. My favorite episode of the season is “Say Anything”, which focuses on BoJack’s tenacious yet long-suffering manager/ex-girlfriend as she deals with capricious directors, fickle movie stars, opportunistic rivals and BoJack’s own proclivity towards self-sabotage. At the end of the ingeniously crafted 25-minute-long episode, she’s dealt with every crisis and expertly solved every issue, but she’s left alone in an office with no one to celebrate with. In a genuinely touching sequence at the end of the episode, she gazes longingly out of her office window into the Hollywood night sky as Lyla Foy’s “Impossible” plays. She gets a cell phone notification. “Happy birthday, Princess Carolyn. You are 40.”

There’s a sadness which permeates the entirety of season 1. There’s the feeling that, for each of these characters, time is quickly running out as they scramble for that thing– that dream project, that book, that million-dollar idea– that will finally earn them some semblance of significance, that’ll give some meaning to the madcap struggle. In the parlance of the times, I know that feel. As I approach the end of my twenties, as I stare at my growing pile of unfinished projects, as I struggle to come up with ways to explain to my friends why that script that I sold hasn’t gotten made yet, it all condenses into a subdued shrug and a weary smile and the knowledge that all I can do is keep trying. That there’s something big about to happen, but it’s just out of reach, just over this hillside. The very best moments of BoJack Horseman tap into that feeling, and– especially towards the very end of the season– it’s sweetly poignant.

Netflix Original Series continue to be an exciting idea that hasn’t quite lived up to its promise. Between the wacky (and tonally inconsistent) antics of Orange is the New Black, the tawdry soap-opera proceedings of House of Cards and now BoJack’s failed comedy, I remain unimpressed by a medium that has all the promise in the world. I really wanted to like BoJack Horseman. I really did. But then, I guess for a show about disappointment, it’s only fitting that I’m so frustratingly underwhelmed.

3 thoughts on “BoJack Horseman and the Art of Dropping the Ball

  1. Just finished watching the first season after having seen a few episodes and finding it a little off-putting. Great investigation into what’s so mesmerizing about the show; after a while I found it difficult to stop and couldn’t quite figure out why. Good to know there are others who feel the same.

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