The lunatic brilliance of Bojack Horseman
How a tragicomic cartoon about a talking horse became one of the most fascinating shows on TV
Bojack Horseman — Netflix's wildly bleak cartoon about a washed up sitcom-star who happens to be a horse — is back for a third season of winks and angst. On Friday, 12 new episodes will drop on Netflix. The new season celebrates Bojack's hardscrabble climb back to stardom (via the biopic Secretariat) by making its iconically flat opening credits just a little bit glossier. Its shadows are deeper, and so are some of the show's more amusingly stilted lines, as when game show host Mr. Peanutbutter (a sunny yellow lab played by Paul F. Tompkins) intones: "A raven on a wire. A gloomy portent precariously perched. And as the sun sets so does it spread its deathly shadow across the just and unjust of the outdoor seating area of the California Pizza Kitchen."
Fans of the first two seasons know that gravitas can't survive in Bojack Horseman's Hollywoo (the D was destroyed). Everyone floats up into the industry's narcissistic fog and gropes for an anchor as they grapple with greed and self-hatred. You wouldn't expect a show about joyless wheel-spinning to be especially funny, but somehow — maybe because Bojack Horseman is a cartoon, maybe because animals coexist equally with humans while retaining aspects of their animal natures — the show mixes silliness and sadness into a pretty special dramedic risotto.
Still, this is a serialized show about the existential crisis of a middle-aged man (horse). It's the kind of thing that could go stale quickly. Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg felt the pressure even as he was trying to find a direction for Bojack's second season: He went to Joshua Tree to take psychedelic mushrooms to find some new direction for their second season. "The answer that I came to that night: Language is a virus and narrative is a trap," he told Vanity Fair. "Which did not help me at all."
But it did help. It's the kind of empty insight that makes Bojack good — the show is a shell game of epiphanies that keep emptying out into swimming pools and skies and mirrors. The effect of those glittering reflective surfaces (especially against the watercolor-inflected flatness of Lisa Hanawalt's animation) is unexpectedly heartbreaking.
This is especially true in Season 3, which is more about decadence and decay than stardom. The new season routinely betrays the cartoon's typically empty surfaces and clean lines to show increasingly chaotic or filthy rooms, furniture, and institutions. Mr. Peanutbutter's house is inexplicably filled with spaghetti strainers, Bojack's gifted but depressive ghostwriter Diane Nguyen is writing celebrity tweets, and Candace Bergen guest-stars as a closer for the LA Gazette, a moribund newspaper she single-handedly saves by counseling people until they forget to cancel their subscriptions. (The newsroom is haunted by a lone customer service representative who panics each time the phone rings.)
As for Bojack (Will Arnett), he's trying. He still insults Todd, but he's checking the impulse. "You're my friend and you don't stink of failure," he tells him. "Your stink is of good intentions and youthful exuberance." He hates doing the press junket for Secretariat, but he learns to gamely repeat "it's a dream come true" every time someone asks him what it's like to have starred in the biopic, only confessing to his agent Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) that the experience was "endless, like the second act of a Judd Apatow movie."
That these efforts at self-improvement fall short will come as no surprise to fans of the show, but one of this season's smarter choices is sticking closely to the parallel psychologies it created for Bojack and Diane (Alison Brie). Their shared allergy to joy, like their mutual tendency toward self-sabotage, spares the show from unhelpful comparisons between Bojack and other members of Television's Gallery of Sad Men. That Diane (or "Asian Daria," as the show self-consciously labels her) is faring a little better than Bojack is purely a function of Mr. Peanutbutter's uncomplicated jouissance. "New York City! They make such great salsa," he yelps. Or — quoting his grandmother — "feelings are the ceilings of our hearts."
This might also be Bojack's most zanily experimental season: From a bottle episode featuring Bojack and Princess Carolyn in a restaurant to a surprisingly moving episode that takes place mostly underwater, the third season is even more dedicated to punning on its meta aspects. Bojack is a fish out of water in the water; Diane (like the show) gets nailed for being a self-righteous critic of the very system she's feeding (and that's feeding her).
That said, the show's tendency to try to have it both ways and avoid didacticism doesn't always land. An episode that prominently features a fake celebrity "abortion," for instance, seems to ratify Hollywoo's habit of hijacking an important cause just to boost a celebrity's career. If it helps someone, it's worth it! the show seems to say — a conclusion as saccharine and weightless as any reached in Horsin' Around. Still, the episode's real achievement (here as elsewhere) is its tone: Abortion never becomes a true moral crisis. Instead, it's recruited into a show that features a lot of tragicomedy, gets slotted very briefly into both ends of that spectrum, and wanders out again, as if to suggest that it's neither. It's just a thing that sometimes needs to happen.
If the show sometimes feels like a dissertation on the art of the anticlimax, Bojack Horseman is at its lunatic best when someone takes action — when Character Actress Margo Martindale takes over or Todd gets an idea or Princess Carolyn dates. ("Opportunities are like sneezes from God," as Grandma Peanutbutter says.) Still, the third season hits hardest when it tackles passivity. Its treatment of inertia and addiction and regret is as stark and lovely as ever, and so is its approach to stardom, which — in its third season — takes an unhappily literal turn.