‘BoJack Horseman’ Is One of Us

The perfect binge is like a life fully lived.
Binge Header Bojack

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Imagine this: three boys stacked on top of each other buried in a trench coat that belongs to a very tall man. Collectively, their name is Vincent Adultman, and “he” works in “business.” Vincent (voiced by Alison Brie, who also voices one of the show’s five main characters) dates a cat who can’t tell that he’s clearly three children on top of each other, despite how obvious it is with Vincent’s tween face, constant toppling around, high cracking voice, and inability to piece together an intelligible sentence about his past. You’d think this cat’s brain is corroded, but alas, the opposite is true. This is no ordinary cat. This pink Persian cat is Princess Carolyn (voiced by Amy Sedaris), a self-made, whipcrack smart, no bullshit Hollywood talent manager (not to be confused with an agent) whose longest-standing, most difficult client is the eponymous celebrity stallion: BoJack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett).

In the grand scheme of things, Vincent Adultman is only a wonderful flash in the pan subplot in BoJack Horseman. But he’s a high starting point for understanding the dynamics of the series. His narrative is only one plucked from a deep pool of side characters that ebb, flow, fade, and remain within the series (many of which are delightfully voiced by celebrities making fun of themselves). They show that creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg fashioned a world that doesn’t play by the rules. It’s equal parts relatable and absurd. Princess Carolyn isn’t assumed to be brain damaged because she can’t recognize the obvious. Everyone in BoJack has moments of comically blatant disregard. It’s just how the show works and one of a thousand ways it achieves a unique tone. Bob-Waksberg uses all tricks, all the time because animation allows for it.

The L.A.-set series is categorized as an animated sitcom, but it’s much more than that. The show is defined by its intricacies and innovations. Most sitcoms stick to one broad sense of humor and many, like Seinfeld, rarely, if ever, strike a serious tone. The average sitcom is built without essential plot so that you can hop into any episode. But BoJack is different. It’s an emotional rollercoaster, a life fully lived. In effect, the narrative of BoJack is a dark drama, one compelling and cliffhangy enough to keep you up several episodes past when you’d planned on stopping for the night. But it’s a dark drama with a perpetual influx of parody, punnery, satire, slapstick, and all other types of comedy (observational, surreal, sarcastic, referential, etc.) dipping in and out. In that sense, it’s an animated dramedy, albeit an utterly singular one brimming with rich, diverse characters we care about.

Usually, when we talk about characters in sitcoms, we’re talking about humans. But in BoJack, animals are anthropomorphic, so people are humans. Still, they’re also Persian cats, happy-go-lucky Labrador retrievers, tree frogs that stick to everything, blue whales who work for MSNBSea, asexual axolotls, auteur tarantulas (e.g., Quentin Tarantulino), and everything in between. They function in society like everyone else, each adding a touch of humor in the ways they employ their unique characteristics in otherwise relatable mundanity (e.g., a man thinks he’s been shown up on a blind date and walks away disappointed, only for the camera to reveal that his blind date was a chameleon woman who showed up early to blend into the wall to decide for herself). That’s the name of the game for Bob-Waksberg: original but relatable, like BoJack himself.

BoJack Horseman is one of us, after all. Sure, he’s a 6’7″, 1,200-pound, grossly selfish, always plastered, ex-sitcom star, thoroughbred-mix horse. But at his core, he’s one of us—a wandering, talented, self-destructive, beautiful, funny, and fucked up person drifting through the saddening inexplicability of life with a simple hope: to be happy, to be good, to love and be loved. Yet, BoJack is reputable for his willful negligence. He self-destructs through drug and alcohol benders, emotional detachment, and rash behavior, among other things.

Through his story, the series deals dexterously with difficult topics like child abuse, alcoholism, suicide, and racism (often paralleled through species, like in Zootopia). Likewise, it serves as a ruminative coping mechanism for more common banalities, such as modern dating, social media anxiety, keeping up with technology, and the mess of mass media. And it does so in ever-changing modes. Bob-Waksberg’s wildly imaginative, no-holds-barred approach means BoJack is responsible for some of the most mind-bending television we’ve ever seen.

Every season has at least one totally outlying episode, whether that means we’re submerged underwater with no dialogue, traveling back and forth through composite memory (or watching different memories overlap each other in the same space), tripping chaotically through time and space on one of BoJack’s great benders, or standing at a podium for an entire episode in what turns out to be BoJack’s embittered “This Is Water” speech.

As a testament to the show’s depth, consider how few shows can say they’ve come close to matching the profundity and intentionality of David Foster Wallace. “This Is Water,” Wallace’s Kenyon College Commencement speech, is 23 minutes long, so any show that would want to attempt something like that would need to be confident enough in deft writing and deep characterization to leave one person ranting at a podium for at least that amount of time (Bob-Waksberg does it in the context of a funeral eulogy and stretches it to 26 minutes).

In all of this drama and comedy, Bob-Waksberg and his team of writers are also chiefly concerned with references, one of the show’s greatest strengths, which is twofold. First, they are masters in the art of self-reference. No doubt you’ll be calling Hollywood “Hollywoo” after five seasons of the “D” missing. BoJack is the kind of show that gets exponentially richer as it goes along because every episode contains more references to past episodes, enough to be sure that refreshes will feel fresh as you pick up on things you didn’t before.

Second, BoJack is referential in that it’s written to be a sort of modern pop culture lexicon. The nails of the show are sunk deep into the heart of the entertainment industry in Los Angeles and everything it encompasses, and it’s so quick-witted that each episode probably contains upwards of 50 references, some more inside-baseball than others. A reference might be someone mentioning an old movie that’s tangentially relevant, or an entire Naomi Watts (voiced by Naomi Watts) plotline in which she complains, “I just keep getting pigeonholed as these complex characters in highly acclaimed movies. For once, I would just love to phone it in and play a two-dimensional girl in a Rom-Com with no inner life of her own,” as a reference to her standout career in an otherwise woman-demeaning Hollywood.

BoJack Horseman is one of the best shows of all-time, but the best shows aren’t necessarily the perfect binges. For example, I could gush about the brilliance of The Simpsons, but 679 episodes in 31 seasons is a long-term project. “The Simpsons” clocks in at an overwhelming 340 hours compared to BoJack’s smooth, conquerable 21 hours (77 episodes in 6 seasons), a terrific binge-length that’s neither too intimidating nor too brief. If you wanted to stiff-arm sleep, social interaction, and all semblance of self-care, you could watch BoJack in a day. However, it’s better to draw it out over a week or weekend because the passage of time accentuates the consistent pace and quality of the show from episode to episode.

If there’s one kink in BoJack’s claim to the One Perfect Binge crown, it’s the pilot. The pilot, the lowest-rated episode of the series on IMDb, makes for a slow start and potential premature voidance. But it’s a short-lived issue. The rest of the season blossoms immediately, and the dreariness of the pilot is quickly overshadowed by the feeling of getting attached to the characters, which are written with greater complexity and sincerity than most live-action shows about human beings living in the real world could hold a candle to.

For as complex as BoJack and company are and as outlandish as the no rules cartoon world of Bob-Waksberg gets, if we boiled the series down to one inextricable through-line, it would be existentialism. Ultimately, it’s a show about the strange difficulty and beauty of being—in its vague guidelines, lawless nature, and bizarre uncertainty. It’s about having self-awareness enough to laugh at ourselves. It’s about trying to find peace in the fact that we’re here, and we don’t know why, and we’re all in the same boat (even if we act like we know why we’re here). It’s about how finding that peace in a wild world is a messy, painful, lifelong process shrouded in fear, doubt, depression, ill-advised decisions, self-loathing, and the like. It’s about how the moments in between the pain, in which we access and embody that peace, are moments of true ontological liberation—moments of happiness, goodness, and love in which being finally feels comfortable and right. And bingeing BoJack Horseman is like sinking for 21 hours into the bliss of those momentary in-betweens.

Luke Hicks: Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist by way of Austin, TX, and an arts enthusiast who earned his master's studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke. He thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him @lou_kicks.