BoJack Horesman, one of Netflix’s string of acclaimed original series, is about a Hollywood, or, Hollywoo, as it is referred to in the show, in which people and people-like animals work, live, and love together. Neither of these salient premises show any particular originality. Beit in literature—from Kenneth Grahame’s romantic The Wind in the Willows, to George Orwell’s pointed Animal Farm—or television—from Cat-Dog to reruns of Mister Ed—we’ve anthropomorphized animals in our narratives for years. We’ve also had our fair share of stories based in Hollywood: Entourage, Hail, Caesar!, Trumbo, just to name some more recent ones. And yet, despite simply mushing two well-worn ideas together, the showrunner (Raphael Bob-Waksberg) created a character and a universe where and with whom anything goes. Despite some derivation at its core, BoJack Horseman pioneers new space for the cartoon.
The show, which began streaming its third season in late July, revolves around the life and celebrity of the once-and-now-again-famous eponymous horse, BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett). The first two seasons focused on BoJack’s return to fame. Season three focuses on how he manages fame; on how once-familiar fame changes him, for better or for worse; and on his chase for attention incarnate: an Oscar. Of course, fame is not binary, and throughout the third season, the increased fame hyperbolizes the star: his heights are higher and his depths lower compared to the first two seasons, in which BoJack resigns himself in public to the status of a has-been. Now, he must compete for attention, both public and personal, with the likes of Jurj Clooners, Bread Poot, Mitt Dermon, and Lernerdnerner DiCapricorn. But while the sharp satirical tongue towards celebrity demonstrates serious wit and generally buoys the shows humor, the dramatic stakes of being famous or slightly more famous are placidly low. This lack of dramatic energy along with the equine protagonist’s are the third season’s major pitfalls.
Over the first two seasons, BoJack sharply defined himself as an unstable substance abuser, too rich to ever need to stop and too egotistical to ever want to, but with just enough of a conscience to feel bad about his actions. He also defined his worldview; he prescribes to the most juvenile form of nihilism in which no-one matters since we’re all going to die, etc., but especially anyone other than himself matters least of all. The depths of BoJack’s depravity no longer surprise us, but we bear witness nonetheless. His apologies mean little to those around him and even less to us, who cannot be sure if this repetitiveness is a flaw of formula or stinging look in the mirror. In the first two seasons, season two especially, the audience watched BoJack because we see our own human selfishness and shallowness in him, and yet, through the lens of the two-fold absurdity of BoJack’s fame and animality, we stay on the comfortable side of the two-way mirror. And that tension, the near voyeurism and intimacy with which we watch a famous cartoon horse, didn’t hold as well in season three, but I’m not sure if the tension was eased, or if they pulled so hard it snapped.
The show’s keen tongue for the politics of the Oscars is no better embodied than the nomination Jurj Clooners for Best Actor for his performance in The Nazi Who Played Yahtzee. It can turn around though, and get a genuine laugh from a cheap animal pun, out of a family of donkeys who sit down for a dinner of hay and bless their food, “And now, we bray.” Sometimes, the show’s comedy jabs with silliness; sometimes, it hits with wit. Unfortunately, the comedy’s jokes don’t always land though. It relies too heavily, and has relied too heavily in seasons past, on meta-comedy, in one case even meta-meta-comedy. The former device hits and misses, while the latter device misses so badly the show briefly falls on its face. But any half-baked meta can be forgiven for the season’s merits, including what I consider to be one of the most daring episodes of TV I’ve ever seen.
Dropped in the middle of a show about the spurious, capricious Hollywoo is an artful, dreamlike episode, “Fish Out of Water,” about communication that transcends the show’s buffers of fame and the animal kingdom. BoJack travels underwater to Pacific Ocean City for a film festival as part of his Oscar gambit. Fish speak a different language, and for the bulk of the episode, the only sounds are their muffled incomprehensible spatterings. BoJack, in a swirl of confusion, is carried off to the city’s outskirts and must find his way back to the hotel. More dramatic and thematic consequence takes place in this surreal 21st-century odyssey than in the rest of the season, arguably the rest of the series. The silence mixes with the backwards below-the-ocean physics to create a truly trippy, yet completely comprehensible one-off universe. With BoJack unable to speak, to apologize, as he does so often and so emptily, he must accept the finality of his actions. Though he never explicitly accepts this condition, he is, for 20 minutes, caring, honest, and free.
In the end, BoJack Horseman the show and BoJack Horseman the character suffer from the same problem: an identity crisis. Is the former a surrealist experiment with a satirical twist, or a Hollywood comedy that tripped acid for a minute? Does the latter’s celebrity define him? Of course, the answer could be all of the above or none of the above. Neither have to have an answer, nor should they. Art demands nuance. But the problem, artistically, with Netflix’s season-dump streaming model is that episodes like “Fish Out of Water” get muddled with our insatiable desire to binge. “Fish” is a drop of 100-year-old wine in a $25 bottle. We cannot sip on this taste of genius because we get drunk on the decent bulk. Netflix, and its major counterparts Amazon Prime and Hulu, draw customers with the promise of a good binge, but the binge can be a detriment. “Fish Out of Water” says more about the human condition than most shows with all human characters do in their entirety. And yet, as we automatically accept and digest the next episode in continuum, the brilliant episode’s truth can be drowned out, engulfed by the pretty funny and the pretty good.