“Sometimes I feel like I was born with a leak, and any goodness I started with just slowly spilled out of me, and now it’s all gone. And I’ll never get it back in me; it’s too late. Life is a series of closing doors, isn’t it?”
The second season of BoJack Horseman went up last week. A Netflix original, it’s a cartoon sitcom about a talking horse who starred in a Full House-like sitcom twenty years ago, and his various friends and hangers-on. I hadn’t watched all of the first season, when it went up last August, because it hadn’t grabbed me. But with the second season out, I decided to give the show another shot, and I’m glad I did.
Looking at BoJack Horseman, I expected something in the vein of 30 Rock, or Arrested Development, or perhaps Parks & Recreation, or even Community. It’s a sitcom about show business, it’s set among rich people in California, it stars Will Arnett, it also stars Alison Brie and Paul F. Tompkins and Amy Sedaris. I didn’t know Raphael Bob-Waksberg at all (this is basically all he’s done), so I judged it by the standards of shows I associated with those actors.
And judged as a Michael Shur comedy, or a Mitch Horowitz comedy, or a Tina Fey comedy, or a Dan Harmon comedy, it’s not that great. It lacks a steady drumbeat of escalating punchlines, it goes for long periods without a laugh line, and it doesn’t reveal an essential underlying optimism at the end of the day.
Now that I’ve seen the first season and most of the second, I have a better idea of what the show is going for, and it’s not going for any of that. If I was going to compare it to something I knew, I’d compare it to Curb Your Enthusiasm, but in a lot of ways, that’s as deceptive as comparing it to the US version of the Office.
This is a show that depicts a suicide onscreen. BoJack’s mother calls him up at the end of the second season premiere and tells him that the reason he’s so unhappy is because he’s a fundamentally broken person. BoJack spends most of the first season pining after Diane, his biographer, even though he barely knows her and she’s engaged to a friend of his; on a lot of shows we’d eventually see them get together, or at least we’d see him convince her to call of her engagement. On this show, BoJack’s infatuation is called out as shallow and infantile, and his attempts to break the engagement depicted as selfish, jerkass behavior.
Kristin Schaal guest-stars as a junkie burnout former child star with no redeeming qualities, and (in flashbacks) as a miserably lonely child star. Stanley Tucci guest-stars as Herb Kazazz, BoJack’s former best friend; he created the television show that made BoJack famous thirty years ago, but was kicked off the show in a move BoJack could have stopped, but didn’t. BoJack learns Kazazz is dying of cancer and visits him for the first time in decades, hoping to make amends; not only does Kazazz refuse to forgive him, the two of them end up in a fistfight.
It’s a grim show, is what I’m saying. It directly addresses that grimness, asking whether unhappiness is intrinsic to one’s circumstances, or one’s nature, and comes down on the side of the latter. This isn’t something that you can sit next to the dog episode of Futurama. Most Netflix shows are built to be binge-watched, but BoJack Horseman‘s unremittingly dark tone works against that. It’s best in small doses.
Is it funny? Yeah, it’s funny. There are absurd notes that recur (memorably, one supporting cast member, Vincent Adultman, is clearly three children stacked on top of one another inside a trench coat, only BoJack notices this) and the acting talent is unbelievably top-shelf. I haven’t mentioned Patton Oswald, Aaron Paul, or Lisa Kudrow.
The weakest part of the show is the occasional animal pun (acting siblings Jake and Maggot Gyllenhaal are a human man and a giant larval worm, respectively; Quentin Tarantula is a hideous spider-man slash gifted director) but that’s not what the show is built on. The show is built on a bunch of unhappy people who worry, justifiably, that they’re wasting their lives and aren’t capable of joy without self-sabotage. It’s the blackest of black comedy, bleak and dry and it’s not quite like any other show I’ve ever seen.
“Why does anything matter? Love is an illusion, and happiness is fleeting, and there’s no such thing as God, and all your favorite musicians beat their wives. Allegedly.”