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To Binge or Not To Binge Episode 20: “Bojack Horseman”

Hannah Allred
(Graphic by Hannah Allred | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

“Bojack Horseman” is simultaneously one of television’s most idiosyncratic shows and one of its most crowd-pleasing. To the uninitiated, the premise sounds like a bad comedy sketch or a mad scientist’s concoction of Netflix genre categories. “Bojack Horseman” is both a goofy animated comedy with talking animals and offers a cutting meditation on grief and mental illness. Episodes balance goofy puns with devastating monologues about aging. Sometimes the series will engage in vicious satire – the prescient episode “Hank After Dark” addressed societal protection of abusers, and “Thoughts and Prayers” skewered debates over gun control. The series is equally influenced by art films and multi-camera sitcoms. Over four seasons, “Bojack Horseman” has built a detailed universe and mythology which could rival any brainy sci-fi epic. “Bojack Horseman” has something for everyone, but its approach is wholly peculiar.

When it premiered on Netflix in 2014, “Bojack Horseman” was part of a wave of series that blurred genre lines and experimented with unexpected shifts in tones. These series, from “Jane the Virgin” to “Master of None,” differed wildly in style and subject matter, but shared a willingness to try new things and break the “rules” that viewers had come to expect from TV shows. “Bojack Horseman” is perfect on Netflix — it would struggle to fit in on a major network, but on a streaming service where attracting millions of viewers at once is less important, it has been able to find a niche. “Bojack Horseman” is aided by an incredible array of voice actors — the main cast includes comedy favorites Will Arnett, Amy Sedaris, Alison Brie, “Breaking Bad’s” Aaron Paul, and most episodes include at least one great performance from a guest star. Although it took “Bojack Horseman” some time to find its voice — the first season is easily the weakest of the bunch— it is now a cult hit which stands out even among Netflix’s overcrowded lineup.

Previous Season Recap:

“Bojack Horseman” is set in a world where humans and anthropomorphized animals live side by side— they talk together, work together and even have sex. The series’ titular character (Will Arnett) is a horse/actor who gained fame on the corny 1990s sitcom “Horsin’ Around.” Bojack is rich, bored and prone to self-destruction — as the first season begins, he spends most of his time drinking alone in his Hollywoo mansion. (The series is set in an alternate version of Hollywood called Hollywoo — the origin of this name is one of the series’ many elaborate, ridiculous jokes). The series follows his relationships with his agent Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), his friend Diane (Alison Brie), his roommate Todd (Aaron Paul) and his rival Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins). Throughout the series, Bojack makes many attempts at self-improvement but tends to disappoint or alienate himself from most of those around him. Bojack also makes many attempts to jumpstart his acting career, while battling addiction, depression and repressed trauma.

To Binge or Not To Binge:

The challenge of “Bojack Horseman’s fourth season is keeping the material fresh when audiences are familiar with its characters and rhythms. This series has never been plot-driven, and the show has the extra burden of making repetition interesting— the characters in this show are defined by patterns of bad behavior. Audiences could have a limited appetite for watching Bojack make the same mistakes. Luckily, the series’ writers have used this familiarity as a launching pad, rather than a hindrance. “Bojack Horseman” has by now created a fully realized ensemble of interesting characters, and the fourth season’s best moments expand the show’s mythology and dive into the perspectives of new characters. Certain plots this season worked better than others, though some of the wacky comic relief from Todd and Mr. Peanutbutter is starting to feel stale. But the series’ willingness to experiment and tell different kinds of stories suggests that “Bojack Horseman” has lots left to give.

Few series on television, let alone sitcoms, offer the level of insight and honesty that “Bojack Horseman” provides.  The series is far too psychologically astute to turn into tragedy porn, and the show tackles difficult subjects with clear-minded, unblinking candor. The entire creative team of “Bojack Horseman” is doing top-notch work. The show has patiently built an engaging visual language, and the animation provides ample opportunities for bizarre visual gags and unexpected beauty. The cast is consistently excellent — though most of the actors have a background in comedy, their work contains a surprising soulfulness. Arnett is particularly great this season — his voice performance vacillates between sarcasm and vulnerability in a way which is both difficult to watch and entirely convincing.

This season builds both an origin story and a new narrative for Bojack. Episodes that focus on Bojack’s parents are some of the most heartbreaking material the show has ever done, and it is now clear just how profoundly Bojack has been damaged by his family’s dysfunction. Yet Bojack also makes some steps toward genuine healing, and he finds hope after building a tenuous relationship with a teenager who claims to be his daughter. This season’s final episode contained moments of deep sadness, but it also allowed glimmers of hope to poke through Bojack’s noxious worldview. It felt like a relief and a pleasant surprise — for a show that has been so unapologetic in depicting heartbreak, suggesting recovery as possible becomes a radical move.

Best Episode: “Time’s Arrow,” the fourth season’s penultimate episode, is an excellent example of the series’ creative risks — and its power as a stealth drama. Through the perspective of Bojack’s aging mother, viewers learn more about the toxic dysfunction and resentment that shaped Bojack’s childhood. It’s devastating, clever and visually inventive — in other words, it’s “Bojack Horseman” in a nutshell.

 Similar Shows: “Mad Men,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “Rick and Morty,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “The Comeback,” “Arrested Development,” “You’re the Worst” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”

Trigger Warnings:“Bojack Horseman” contains strong language, sexual content, and frank discussions of mental illness.

4/5 stars
“Bojack Horseman”
Available to stream on Netflix.
49 episodes, Approximately 20 hours.

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