'BoJack Horseman' delivers dark, introspective commentary in its third season

A Playground Commentary

<p>The third season of "BoJack Horseman" debuted on Netflix July 22.</p>

The third season of "BoJack Horseman" debuted on Netflix July 22.

Last week, the third season of the Netflix original series “BoJack Horseman” was released, continuing the chronicle of the show’s titular character BoJack Horseman. Following the precedent set by the first two seasons, season three is as good as ever: sometimes incredibly silly, sometimes spellbinding and poignant and often both simultaneously.

When I first started watching “BoJack Horseman,” I was skeptical of the premise of the show; the introduction for the show describes BoJack, voiced by Will Arnett, as “washed up, living in Hollywood, complaining about everything and wearing colorful sweaters,” which implied that BoJack was a grumpy, horse version of Cliff Huxtable. Reading this description, I expected the show to be nothing but animal puns wrapped up in a half buddy comedy, half pop culture parody.

I was half-wrong. Throughout the series, “BoJack Horseman” frequently pokes fun at Hollywood culture—a recurring character is an obnoxious and nosy entertainment news reporter named "A Ryan Seacrest Type," whose name demonstrates the show’s sometimes-blunt flippancy. As for being a buddy comedy, storylines often emerge from the antics of BoJack’s deadbeat (human) houseguest Todd, voiced by Aaron Paul, or BoJack’s sometimes-friend, sometimes-competitor Mr. Peanutbutter, a cheerful yellow lab voiced by comedian Paul F. Tompkins. And yet despite being everything that I expected it to be, “BoJack Horseman” is also one of the most gripping, profound and emotional shows that I have ever seen.

Saying that BoJack is washed up is like saying that the ocean is wet: it is true, but it’s also a vast understatement. BoJack is one of the most miserable characters ever to appear in a TV show. Despite their simplicity, the opening credits of the show give viewers amazing insight into BoJack’s life: the camera follows BoJack as he robotically proceeds through his day in a blank haze, his life unfolding around him, under no apparent control. The credits culminates in a drunk, bleary-eyed BoJack falling off his own balcony only to land in a pool, where he begins sinking to the bottom, surrounded and overlooked by a faceless crowd.

Suffice it to say that BoJack is a far cry from an ironic, millennial-friendly parody of Bill Cosby. In fact, if you trace any plotline in “BoJack Horseman” back to its origin, there is a good chance that it stems from BoJack’s severe depression. In one of the sillier setups of season three, BoJack attempts to cancel an unwanted subscription to a fictional newspaper, the L.A. Gazette. Eventually, he ends up talking to a customer service representative referred to as “the Closer,” who is more of a psychologist than a salesperson.

“When you do bad things, you have something you can point to when people eventually leave you,” she explains to BoJack, after he relates a story about how his self-destructive behavior damaged his relationship with Todd. “It’s not you, you tell yourself, it’s that bad thing you did. Do you often keep people at arm’s length? Are you afraid of being known and knowing others?”

Moments like this abound in “BoJack Horseman,” but while it is probably the most blatantly introspective adult animated show to date, it is far from the only cartoon to feature mature, adult themes. The genre of adult animation is a relatively recent development in television; since being pioneered by “The Simpsons” in late 1989/the early 90s, there have been many animated series that deal with more ambiguous, disturbing and realistic content than their children’s cartoon counterparts. Several of these shows, such as “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy” have been successful and have established adult animation as a genre unto itself.

“The Simpsons” in particular is a household name and regarded as a living classic, but it has not always been perceived so well. In the early nineties, the show drew significant criticism for its portrayal of a severely dysfunctional family and for the poor behavior of Bart Simpson, which was regarded as a bad influence on children by conservative commentators.

BBC journalist Martin Rosenbaum quoted Andrew Neil, who he credits for having brought “The Simpsons” to the UK, sharing just such sentiments, which demonstrate the severity with which early critics judged “The Simpsons.”

“This is quite an anarchic and liberal-left assault on that idea of the family, but it's done with great humor, and although ideological, it isn't preaching,” Neil said.

Adult cartoons released after “The Simpsons” have continued on the trajectory that it set, and later shows delve into topics that make early seasons of “The Simpsons” seem tame by comparison. “Futurama,” which was also created by Matt Groening and shares some comedic and artistic sensibilities with “The Simpsons,” is one such show. However, while “The Simpsons” portrays a nuclear family in an unambiguously Middle-America town, “Futurama” takes place around the year 3000 C.E in a science-fiction world, which is a crucial difference that affects both plots and themes of the show.

In the “Futurama” episode “Godfellas,” the normally crass and selfish robot Bender becomes the god of his own microcosmic universe while lost adrift in space. This scenario creates a myriad of problems for Bender, which in turn allow the show to probe not only issues of morality and consequence but also discuss religion from an unusual perspective. Bender even meets a cosmic entity that he identifies as the “real” God and has a discussion with it about the dilemmas that being God creates.

“Being God isn’t easy. If you do too much, people get dependent on you, but if you do nothing, they lose hope,” God muses to Bender. “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.”

In broaching sensitive topics like faith, “Futurama” is a spiritual successor of “The Simpsons,” which similarly took American family values and playfully turned them on their heads. However, “Futurama” is also an important evolution away from adult animation as established by “The Simpsons.” Because of its science-fiction setting, “Futurama” intrinsically places its characters into alienating situations, such as Bender being stranded in empty space, a premise that wouldn’t fit into the world of “The Simpsons”. To advance the plot, characters have to react to these eclectic and unfamiliar scenarios, which allows writers to develop complex characters and explore themes that might be out of place in shows that take place in a show that more closely resembles the real world.

Recent adult animated programs such as “Rick and Morty” have continued the tradition established by “The Simpsons” and “Futurama” and are diving even deeper into mature and disturbing subjects. “BoJack Horseman” is an exemplary example and is a fascinating study in depression, selfishness and many other themes besides.

Like “Futurama,” “BoJack Horseman” takes place a setting that is as much a vehicle for serious discussion as it is for humor. Having a cast of mixed anthropomorphic animals and humans creates many opportunities for wordplay, which is one of the driving comedic elements of the show. However, it also makes the world absurd and alienating, despite all the similarities between BoJack’s Hollywood and the real-life version.

This absurdity in turn is massively important to the show as a whole: Los Angeles in “BoJack Horseman” is both a satire of American culture’s fascination with celebrities and entertainment, and also a setting in which ridiculous events can occur without breaking away from the established reality of the show. As in “Futurama,” these scenarios allow the writers of “BoJack Horseman” to explore the flaws and personalities of the characters, which has allowed the creators of the show to turn a cast of goofy animals with silly, joke names into some of the deepest, most flawed, complex and relatable characters in modern TV, animated or otherwise.

While commentators and fans have already described “The Simpsons” and “Futurama” as revolutionary and important to the development of modern entertainment, “BoJack Horseman” has yet to receive the wide critical acclaim that these shows have. This might be because the show has just begun its third season, or maybe because the subject of depression is too bleak or alienating to appeal to a wide audience. However, if “BoJack Horseman” continues to examine the difficult topics that it does, and begins to reach a broader audience, I believe that it will eventually be recognized as part of the series of adult animated shows that changed entertainment in America.


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