For its first six episodes, Bojack Horseman is exactly the series you think it’s going to be; animation with talking animals who exist in a world alongside humans, with jokes surrounding sex, bodily functions, drugs and foul language.
The domain of adult animation can be a fun and entertaining one, but sometimes the more adult quality of the jokes can be wearying if that’s all the show is relying on (I’m looking at you Family Guy). For the first half of that opening season, Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s adult comedy was witty and fun, but could have been in danger of simply being another Family Guy. It was when it decided to put a little bit of drama into the mix, the story of the former star of Horsin’ Around became something of a modern classic.
The touchstone texts for Bojack Horseman are undoubtedly shows such as Californication and Curb Your Enthusiasm; middle aged men, famous at one time for that great piece of pop culture they did and now somewhat miserable at how the world plays out around them.
Like Hank Moody in Californication, Bojack drinks way too much, has too much consequence-free sex and is generally miserable, but when the series opted to explore his backstory and dive into what it was that makes a lead character of a television show like this tick, the series became something different, unique and very special.
In an era when male anti-heroes are a dime a dozen on television, Raphael Bob-Waksberg took Bojack beyond the realm of silly, adult animation and gave the genre its own equivalent to someone like Don Draper or Walter White. The fact that Alison Brie and Aaron Paul were doing voices for characters here actually gave the show just a touch of meta that made it the icing on the cake, but that they were playing fully fledged, three dimensional characters here with their own sets of issues were one of the many little joys the made Bojack an increasingly brilliant series, with each season ending up being better than the last.
Unlike other animations that essentially reset themselves at the beginning of each new episode, Bojack Horseman essentially played out almost like a modern prestige television series, like so many on the streaming service it was a part of, in this case Netflix.
Events from each episode played into the next instalment, the show becoming increasingly serialised as it went on, while the backstory to the characters became richer and riper for story telling possibilities. The drama and exploration of toxic masculinity was notched up with each passing season and instead of simply letting the audience sit back and enjoy the antics of its lead character, the writing actually had you considering how awful his behaviour was and whether or not such a character ever dared to reach something approaching redemption.
As the series continued through each season, and particularly when it reached the final run of episodes, the episodes tangled themselves up in knots asking itself that very question. That it explored themes related to mental illness and depression while also throwing in pun laden jokes involving animals and borderline surreal moments of slapstick just made the tightrope it walked on all the more precarious and yet the writers always made it work magnificently.
That Bojack was surrounded by characters as silly in terms of comedy such as Mr Peanutbutter and Todd made the show a light joy, but when it came to his scenes with his biographer and closest friend Diane, the series could explore its themes in a darkly satisfying matter, sometimes directly expressing the dialogue that viewers would have been having about the lead character himself.
Bojack himself is voiced by Will Arnett in what might very well be a career best performance from the actor. Frequently the star of television comedies that usually end up in the chopping block (even his most famous and iconic show was a cult oddity on the Fox Network), that gravelly voice of his is used to devastating effect here. Yes, the one liners land fantastically, but the more grittier aspects of the character are played superbly, not least in season five’s ‘Free Churro’ where the character delivers a eulogy at his mother’s funeral and the only voice in the episode is Arnett’s, essentially becoming a one-person play, with Arnett giving the type of performance that, if it were live action, probably would have gained an Emmy.
In fact, every voice performance here is superb. Allison Brie as Diane, Amy Sedaris as Princess Carolyn, Paul F Tompkins as Mr Peanutbutter and Aaron Paul as Todd are possibly better here than they are for the roles they are more famous for playing prior to this show, while it might prove hard to ever look at Character Actress Margo Martindale the same way again without thinking of her enjoyable and increasingly criminal version of herself that she played here.
By the time the series reaches its final stretch of episodes, it starts to double down on exploring men in power, #MeToo and #TimesUp as powerfully as any drama, the dawning realisation amongst the show and viewers that Bojack is somewhat of a toxic character who might not be deserving of a happy ending fuelling the series into increasingly serious waters that it never shies away from and commits to wholeheartedly.
It builds to a brilliant and subtle finale that says as much as it wants to, but also says a lot unsaid in a manner that is more satisfying than if it opted to lay it all out. That a show featuring a sex robot crying out ‘I like it when you call me father’ could reach these levels of profundity makes Bojack Horsemen something of a miraculous, brilliant piece of work that, at six seasons, had one of the most perfect runs of any modern television series.
Bojack Horseman is available to stream on Netflix and is also available on DVD.