‘BoJack Horseman’ Returns: Inside Season 3 of TV’s Funniest, Darkest Comedy
Netflix’s cult hit ‘BoJack Horseman’ returns for its third season on Friday, full of surprisingly moving satire and existential anguish. Long live this underrated gem of a show.
BoJack Horseman is the greatest show ever produced about an animated anthropomorphic horse who used to star on a sitcom and is now a drunken has-been who yearns to reclaim the spotlight even though he’s constantly crushed by professional and personal disappointment, as well as by profound internal crises regarding his search for happiness, the meaning of life, and his true self. It’s also the most uniquely funny and moving comedy on TV—or, at least, on Netflix, where it exclusively resides. And in its third season (debuting Friday), its profane absurdity remains in complete harmony with its air of existential anguish. Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s cult hit is the rare satire that’s consistently funny even as it grapples with the complexities of fame, contentment, insecurity, regret, and despair. And the even rarer one to be capable of all that via the tale of an alcoholic equine hot-mess buffoon with a (figurative and literal) long face.
That figure is BoJack Horseman, voiced by Will Arnett with the sort of arrogant smarty-pants sarcasm he brought to G.O.B. on Arrested Development. Here, however, that know-it-all attitude is tinged with a melancholy he can’t keep from bubbling to the surface as he tries to reclaim the spotlight he lost after his ’90s network sitcom, Horsin’ Around (about a man-horse who cares for three wisecracking kids), finished its nine-year run. In Arnett’s peerless hands, BoJack—wracked by his horrid upbringing and recurring post-Horsin’ Around letdowns—is something like an animal variation on Don Draper or, more directly still, Archer’s Sterling Archer, another perpetually sloshed horndog narcissist with a gift for fourth wall-breaking insult one-liners. Yet Arnett’s zingers (and angry, foul-mouthed tirades) are heavy with a bone-deep exhaustion born from his morose circumstances, and the weighty questions they raise.
During the course of its first two seasons, BoJack Horseman carved out a distinctively droll niche on Netflix, using BoJack’s attempts to make it big—most recently, via a starring role in his dream vehicle, a movie biopic of famed racing steed Secretariat—as a way to poke fun at show business, as well as to stage all manner of insane shenanigans involving his friends and acquaintances. His third season picks up almost immediately after that film’s completion (thanks to copious CGI), and revolves around BoJack’s award-circuit quest to nab an Oscar nomination with the help of “Oscar Whisperer” agent Ana Spanikopita (Angela Bassett). Unsurprisingly, that narrative affords even greater opportunities to ridicule the cutthroat competitive atmosphere and superficiality of Hollywood (here known as “Hollywoo,” thanks to BoJack’s theft of the L.A. sign’s “D” in Season One). And aside from its second episode—which is set in 2007, and leans too heavily on Family Guy-esque pop culture allusions—it does so with a sharp, caustic wit that spares no one.
For a program predicated on verbal volleying, BoJack Horseman’s third season is highlighted by its virtually dialogue-free fourth episode. In it, BoJack attends the Pacific Ocean Film Festival—which takes place underwater, and requires him to wear an oxygen helmet that prevents him from conversing with anyone (which would be a bigger deal if most attendees didn’t also speak “fish”). Sending its protagonist on a wayward odyssey that sees him become an unlikely caretaker for a baby seahorse, it amplifies the show’s ever-present misery by denying BoJack the one thing he relies on to get himself out of trouble and, more pressing still, to deflect/avoid the heartache lurking beneath his cocky exterior: his voice.
As usual, the beautifully maned hero is surrounded by his regular foils: slothful, doting housemate Todd (Aaron Paul); nerdy biographer-turned-celebrity-social media-writer Diane (Alison Brie); incessantly chipper golden retriever Mr. Peanut Butter (Paul F. Tompkins); and agent and former lover Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris). Furthermore, he’s complemented by an enormous extended group of players who this year are voiced by, among others, Jessica Biel, Fred Savage, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Melissa Leo, Jeffrey Wright, Candace Bergen, Kristin Chenowith, Ben Schwartz, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Rufus Wainwright, Lake Bell, Greg Kinnear, Patton Oswalt, and the still-game Margot Martindale as a crazed variation of herself (sorry, Alan Arkin’s J.D. Salinger and Brie’s “Vincent Adultman” are MIA). It’s an astounding array of vocal talent, though what makes the show such a standout is less its impressive guest-spot cameos than its dogged attention to the inner lives of its myriad characters.
Thus, while BoJack Horseman’s third season is its most industry-fixated to date, its also its most incisively dramatic. In its ludicrous episodes—involving Todd and Mr. Peanut Butter’s all-female “Cabracadabra” car service venture; Princess Caroline’s efforts to keep her new talent agency afloat; and Diane and Mr. Peanut Butter’s marital problems—it roots its madcap action in these clowns’ underlying (or not-so-underlying) sadness, which is the byproduct of their crushing self-doubt, low self-esteem, regrets and resentments. Throughout, BoJack and company wrestle, painfully and unsuccessfully, with life’s fundamental uncertainties: where does lasting happiness come from? Can we genuinely change who we are? How do we find the place where we truly belong? How do we know ourselves, and others? And if the human condition is ultimately one of desolation interrupted by brief moments of joy, how do we find meaning in a meaningless universe?
Terror over death, failure and loneliness—and the equally daunting thought that love might not exist—drives the characters’ every misguided decision. As such, BoJack Horseman is a show whose laugh-out-loud idiocy is a natural outgrowth of its three-dimensional subjects’ mature, complicated feelings and fears about themselves, their relationships, and their place in the larger world.
That it does so via a twisting, turning serialized narrative whose outrageousness never flags only further underscores BoJack Horseman’s exceptional ability to mine tragedy for comedy, and vice versa. Making pit-stops along its winding Season Three route to touch upon abortion, safe spaces, celebrity worship, award-season shallowness, substance abuse recovery programs, and TV and movie storytelling conventions (not to mention dishing out routine animal-centric pop-culture puns), it paints an alternately uproarious and downbeat—and quietly moving—portrait of men and women who want to change, and yet can’t, or won’t, because they’re incapable of seeing past their own interests. “You are all the things that are wrong with you,” someone tells BoJack in a late episode, and that truth hits doubly hard because it applies to everyone involved in this wacko alterna-world.
The fact that I think BoJack Horseman is one of modern TV’s most masterful offerings would no doubt please the praise-hungry horse himself, who continues to be nothing if not desperate for other people’s validation. Then again, given the epiphanies he eventually experiences during his search for self-worth (and some festival-award “leafs” to go on his Secretariat poster), maybe he’d just greet it with a variation of his episode-nine tirade: "Critics are the worst. That’s my review of critics. Two thumbs down. Four percent fresh. One Star. Y’all eat a flat butt.”
And then, undoubtedly, he’d follow it up with his signature, not-fit-for-print catchphrase: