By Josh Axelrod
This show had been on my radar ever since I saw that voice cast. Will Arnett as an anthropomorphic horse who happened to be a 90s sitcom star? Aaron Paul as a stoner slacker? Alison Brie as a Vietnamese Annie Edison? If nothing else, the cast (which also includes Amy Sedaris, Paul F. Thompkins and Patton Oswalt) was proof that everyone in Hollywood now jumps at the chance to work for Netflix.
Last Friday, Netflix rolled out a 12-episode first season that was, to put it gently, all over the place. “Bojack Horseman” is the definition of an acquired taste. It’s equal parts satire, sitcom and extremely dark psychodrama. If I had to describe this show in two words, it would be: “Excuse me?”
Arnett voices the titular Bojack Horseman, who starred in the hit 90s sitcom “Horsin’ Around.” Eighteen years later, the man is depressed and drowning in drugs, random sex and his own self-loathing. His best chance to turn his life around comes in the form of the memoir he just can’t quite seem to start.
That’s when his publisher brings in Diane (Brie) to ghostwrite said memoir. The two quickly bond, and Bojack begins to develop feelings for her. Unfortunately, she’s dating his frenemy and fellow former 90s icon Mr. PeanutButter (Thompkins, voicing a talking dog). Naturally, lots of animated hijinks ensue.
First and foremost, this show takes place in a world where humans live side-by-side with talking animals and no one questions it. Heck, they even have relationships and no one ever seems to care about beastiality. So if you’re not into surrealism, then you should probably go back to watching “Two and a Half Men” reruns. This is a high concept sitdramedy (trademarked) that takes place in an entirely unique world. “Bojack Horseman” gets lots of points for originality.
The rest is more of a mixed bag. The first six episodes are absolutely hilarious. Getting to know all the characters, which also includes Bojack’s stoner roommate Todd (Paul) and agent/former cat lover Princess Carolyn (Sedaris), is a joy. The show is about 60 percent animal puns (MSNBSea, hosted by a Keith Olbermann-voiced whale) and sight gags (Bojack pukes…a lot), so be prepared for that.
The humor is probably most comparable to “Archer” and “Bob’s Burgers” in that what doesn’t come from puns/sight gags all stems from inherently awful people either insulting each other or…really, no one on this show ever has anything nice to say (except Diane, the voice of reason). It’s a credit to Arnett’s vocal talents that Bojack, though a complete jerk, remains likeable enough to root for even when he’s doing despicable things.
In addition to a humor all its own, “Bojack” makes some solid points about celebrity culture and our societal obsession with it. It also shows off the seedier sides of the entertainment industry, kind of the way “Entourage” did in its depiction of how movies get made. Princess Carolyn is basically a furrier Ari Gold. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it adds another layer to an already fascinating show.
So far what I’ve described sounds like it should be a pretty light diversion, right? Well, there’s more. Like I said, after a certain turning point six episodes in, the show morphs into a shockingly intense psychodrama about Bojack’s life, the choices he made that let him to that point, and his uncertain future. The humor is still there, but the drama overshadows it.
Things get dark. Like, Secretariat (voiced by John Krasinksi of all people) jumping off a bridge dark. We learn way more about Bojack’s past than we ever wanted or needed to know. The show also includes one of the trippiest drug trip sequences I’ve ever seen. It highlights Bojack’s sadness and regret, and he comes out the other end looking for redemption that may or may not be there.
Season 1 of “Bojack” ends on such a melancholy note that I wondered whether Netflix has any idea how to classify its shows. This wouldn’t be the first time Netflix marketed something as a comedy that clearly wasn’t (looking at you, “Orange is the New Black”). Unlike that fantastic show though, the drama in “Bojack Horseman” doesn’t resonate enough to make it feel warranted. I mean, it’s a show about an animated horse trying to revive his Hollywood career. If I wanted to watch a show about an anti-hero with a tortured past trying desperately to become a better person, I’d watch “Mad Men.”
“Bojack” has already been renewed for a second season, so we’ll be seeing more of this weird-ass show in the near future. Season 1 certainly has its merits, and it’s worth it for the excellent voice cast alone. But hopefully Season 2 remembers that this show is first and foremost a comedy. As much as I appreciate the attempt to dig deeper into its hero’s psyche, “Bojack Horseman” should stick to the animal puns.