Whenever a programme lampoons celebrity culture, there’s always the urge to depict the industry as shallow, cynical and narcissistic, a world that has shred itself of humanity. What many fail to recognise is that this culture is still inhabited by people, and they too experience feelings of emptiness, loneliness and vulnerability.
BoJack Horseman is an animated comedy that interprets this lack-of-humanity trope quite literally, taking place in a world inhabited by anthropomorphic mammals, birds, reptiles and fish, as well as humans. Much of the series follows characters in and around Hollywood (which is later renamed Hollywoo) and it’s here where the show’s central protagonist and eponymous character, BoJack Horseman (voice of Will Arnett) can be found.
BoJack is the former star of a Nineties family sitcom called Horsin’ Around. In the present day, he lives in his Hollywood Hills apartment with Todd (Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad), a twenty-something stoner who has been crashing on BoJack’s couch for years. Helping BoJack to secure acting roles is Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), a pink-furred cat who also acts as BoJack’s on-again-off-again girlfriend.
Throughout the series, BoJack constantly finds himself interacting with Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie). She is introduced as a biographer, employed to ghost-write BoJack’s unfinished memoir, but as the series progresses, comes to be one of BoJack’s closest friends. Unfortunately, this also means spending time with her partner Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), a happy-go-lucky Labrador known for plagiarising BoJack’s material.
BoJack Horseman may well be television’s greatest paradox, for beneath the bright colours and imaginative illustrations lies a deep and occasionally bleak narrative. Not that one would recognise this when watching the first few episodes – several critics and commentators have noted how the quality and tone of BoJack’s initial stories are dramatically different to those occurring in the third season. What BoJack Horseman cleverly does is draw in viewers with its animation style, and uses that to ease those viewers into its darker material.
Fortunately, this does not mean that BoJack Horseman is unpleasant viewing. If anything, having such a melancholic tone makes the series more enjoyable, allowing for a reflective, existential experience that only immerses the audience further. That said, BoJack does not skimp on the laughs, and allows ample opportunity for jokes in each episode, mostly involving puns, pop-culture references or sight gags.
Also making the series enjoyable are the main protagonists, each of whom has a distinct personality that responds differently to the ills of fame and fortune. BoJack, for instance, will be caustic in his approach, bitter and jaded from the events of his past; Mr. Peanutbutter, meanwhile, will be more hedonistic when addressing conflict. In their own way, both of these characters personify Hollywood, with the latter representing the romanticised notion, and the former embodying its darker undertones.
Despite this, it is very easy to identify with the characters and relate to their struggles – BoJack may seem like a cynic, but he uses that persona to hide his insecurities, and deep down just wants to be loved; Princess Carolyn appears to be an assertive go-getter, but is growing wearier by the day; Diane is into her thirties, yet is still uncertain about what her future holds. Essentially, the series has humanised the entertainment industry, and provided it with a complexity most don’t often see.
When not descending into melancholy, BoJack Horseman can be a delight, particularly when it borders on the absurd. Whenever the writing and animation teams are given the opportunity to be creative, they seize it, and the results are often spectacular. A great example of this is the penultimate episode of the first season, “Downer Ending”, which has BoJack re-evaluate his life after overdosing on drugs, resulting in the most epic of hallucinations.
Another episode many admire is the third season’s “Fish Out of Water”, which takes place underneath the Pacific Ocean – with few lines of dialogue, a subdued soundtrack and a slower pace than usual, it’s a very tranquil experience, but one which could better connect to the season’s story-arc. Among the other episodes this author recommends are “Hank After Dark”, “Escape from L.A.” and “Brrap Brrap Pew Pew”.
BoJack Horseman is many things all at once – funny yet sad, silly yet thoughtful, bizarre yet grounded. What appears to be a mockery of celebrity culture is actually a thoughtful examination of the human condition, made enjoyable by its art style, sense of humour and its anthropomorphic characters.