Netflixing: Bojack Horseman

This post was originally published at my account on Steemit.com.

 

Netflix has come a long way from a DVD rental service. Since its inception, it has redefined the concept of electronic entertainment, as streaming becomes the new (and probably permanent) normal.

And as it has blossomed and developed, Netflix has become the home to new and exclusive content. I have already reviewed Daredevil here on Steemit. But another show has appeared recently, and gained a lot of publicity due to its originality.

This is Bojack Horseman.

bojackhorseman_column_splash650

The story takes place in a world where anthropomorphic animals have lived alongside humans for as long as anyone can remember, and the central plot revolves around one such anthro—a horse named Bojack who lives in LA.

The Protagonistbojack_opening_still_05-2

In the fictional timeline of the show, Bojack was once a TV star on one of the 90’s most popular sitcoms. Decades later, he is a washed-up wreck, trying to make sense of his life.

Yeah, it doesn’t sound fun. And, for the most part, it’s not. Because while Bojack Horseman is arguably¬†a great show, it is not a great comedy.

A Question of Genre

Bojack Horseman is an extremely well-made soap opera. As a drama, it is engaging, consistent, sad, and joyous. The characters have tremendous problems, and those problems evolve with them, instead of repeating endlessly (my biggest problem with most soap operas). Not every struggle is a life-and-death situation, and not every bump in the road makes them doubt everything they know, but they certainly feel every one of those bumps.

Bojack himself is a terrible person who still needs to hear people tell him he is a good person, because that is a basic human need. A lot of commentators have pointed out that he is suffering from clinical depression, and that certainly seems to be true, though the show never says it outright. And, to be honest, his alcoholism and drug use are played up much more than anything else he’s going through.

Because the show is such a good drama, a lot of its humor falls flat. If anime has taught us anything, it is that powerful comedy and powerful drama can coexist in the same show, but the more serious the drama, the more wacky the humor needs to be (to balance it out), and 90% of Bojack Horseman‘s stays in the safe zone of witty situational commentary, instead of bringing out the big guns. What humor is there often doesn’t go far enough to break the series’ ever-present tension.

Which brings me to what is, oddly enough, the best part of the show.

Todd

bh_s01e11_ss_001

A lovable stoner loser who sleeps on Bojack’s couch. Todd is always getting into kooky adventures resulting in millions of dollars of property damage, fitting in much better with the show’s animated-comedy-with-anthropomorphic-animal-characters aesthetic than any other character—especially Bojack himself.

When Todd goes to prison, or gets inducted into Hollywood’s most insidious pseudoreligious cult (also known as “improv”), or builds his own version of Disneyland, there are always good times to be had. It serves as a much needed contrast to all the heartache in Bojack’s own life.

Todd is the only genuinely funny part of the show, and that might not be such a big problem…

And then there’s the Supporting Cast

…because there is a much bigger problem with the series, coming to us in the form of a largely forgettable supporting cast.

Here they are:

Forgettable Supporting Character #1

10298693_629456013837021_4699331713842595100_n

I literally cannot even remember her name (even after watching three seasons of her). They try to make her the everyman of the show, who is the most grounded of all the characters but who often worries if she’s playing it too safe. Her plot threads are well written, and I just don’t care about any of them.

Forgettable Supporting Character #2

mrpb

Mr. Peanut Butter is Bojack’s character foil—a golden retriever who is chronically infected with manic pep and vigor. Played differently, he might have been the perfect antagonist for the show. Instead, he becomes something of a bumbling sidekick to Todd and a love interest for Forgettable Supporting Character #1.

He has problems, much like everyone else in the series, but it’s impossible to sympathize with him in his darkest hours because none of his hours are dark. No matter how big the problem, he always faces it with zest and optimism. Which wouldn’t be bad, except that he is also impossible to hate because he never actually hurts anyone. Not tragic enough to be a hero, not cruel enough to be a villain, he is more like an extra—an uncredited background fixture.

Princess Carolyn

princess_carolyn

Bojack’s agent and ex-lover. Aside from Todd, she is the character I care most about. Princess Carolyn is a self-actualized person who takes control of her destiny and makes definitive choices, even while suffering through a lot of the same anxieties of the other characters. In this respect, she is much more sympathetic than Bojack, and her triumphs elicit more joy from me, while her troubles make me much more somber.

Honestly, she should have been the show’s focus from the beginning.

My Biggest Problem

But the show’s biggest obstacle, the one that impedes my enjoyment at every turn…is the premise itself. This is a world where animals live and work with humans, and can talk, and have jobs. And nothing comes of that. If the show had featured only human characters, it would not change anything. If the show featured only animal characters (a la Zootopia), it would also not change anything.

Aside from a few puns and sight gags, the animal nature of half the show’s cast counts for nothing. And that’s just inexcusable.

There is one episode in season 2 where Todd learns that chicken (the food) is made from chickens (the anthro chicken people), and he forms a relationship with a food chicken, and that almost goes somewhere. But, to be honest, if the anthropomorphic chickens had been replaced with real-world chickens, and Todd formed a relationship with a real, non-human chicken, the episode would probably have been even funnier.

The premise goes completely unused, up until one episode in Season 3 where Bojack has to go underwater to a fish city, and, forced to wear a diver’s helmet, he cannot speak for the whole episode. That story actually explored an area that a real-world story could not have. Other than that, the anthro angle is entirely unnecessary.

Honestly, this should have been a live action series. And I never thought I would ever say that about an animated sitcom.

Conclusion

You might think, after everything I’ve just said, that I’m going to ward you away from watching Bojack Horseman. And there are certainly a lot of reasons not to watch.

However, I stand by the fact that the show works as a drama, and even the forgettable characters are organically written. Would I change the show if I could? In a heartbeat. But the show is not without a few gems.

That said, Netflix has a near-infinite variety of shows. And there are a lot of better things in their catalog. Bojack Horseman, while entertaining and well-crafted, is not one of the “must sees”.

Be advised that this animated sitcom is not for children. Being a Netflix show, it is not bound by TV rules, and swear words—even those forbidden in most TV shows—abound (I’m not exaggerating when I say you may be shocked). There is some nudity, mostly in the form of background artworks (statuary, paintings, etc), as well as a lot of sexual humor.