The bitter, promiscuous, drug-addled, narcissistic, pathologically self-sabotaging sad sack protagonist of Netflix’s terrifically twisted sitcom BoJack Horseman returns for a third season, cementing the show’s deserved reputation as one of the most ambitious programs on television.
For those yet to come to the party: the eponymous BoJack (voiced by Will Arnett) is a sort of half-human half-horse, hopelessly wading through life in Hollywood as a fading celebrity who used to star in a crappy ’90s TV show (think something like Full House). The program takes place in a bizarro world shared by humans and talking creatures.
Among other things it is a fascinating exploration of depression and mental illness. This critic is hardly the first to observe its eclectic roll call of oddball characters seem genetically incapable of living relatively moral and/or relatively happy lives.
Last season the half-cracked Mr Ed for a different and more cynical generation was told – by his mother, no less, such is BoJack’s less than ideal support network – that “You were born broken. You’re BoJack Horseman. There’s no cure for that.”
What a hell of a line to level at the protagonist of a sitcom. What a hell of a format for us to contemplate first world soul-searching.
“We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t,” the character Tyler Durden growled in author Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club. Played in the film adaptation by Brad Pitt, he was speaking about the “middle children of history”, pissed off that their dreams never came true.
But what if these dreams did come true – success, fame, material wealth – and happiness didn’t follow? Or the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was there for the taking, well within reach, but we couldn’t help but run in the other direction?
These are questions at the heart of BoJack Horseman, which is why, for all its in-the-zeitgeist savvy and pop culture hat-tipping, a label like “post-modern” doesn’t begin to cut it.
In the second season BoJack attempted a career comeback with, shall we say, mixed results. The new season begins with him on the press circuit spruiking a new film called “Secretariat”, which has Oscars buzz. But the bounced back star has nothing to be proud of. Unbeknown to audiences, his entire performance was digitally constructed.
BoJack can’t hide his intolerance of conveyer belt one-on-one interviews with journalists. “Any awards recognition is just gravy,” he says. “The real joy is sitting in this hotel room answering the same questions over and over again.”
Thus the suggestion early on that BoJack will again thwart his own chance at success. The show is a character study by way of a slow-moving train crash, nothing if not about how our greatest enemy is almost always ourself. More pronounced this time around, at least for the first few episodes, are its showbiz satire elements.
The star woos Academy voters despite a recent and rather implicating murder, and a flashback reveals the hollow circumstances in which his former lover — and pink feline — Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) became a Hollywood agent. On the walls of her scowling boss’ office (“No there will not be blood!” he hollers, rejecting Paul Thomas Anderson’s film on the basis of its long title) are posters of “Frisky Business” and “His Squirrel Friday”.
From the start of the show, creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg embraced a structure that affords the writers room to tangentalise into novel – sometimes hilarious, sometimes sad, occasionally jarring – digressions. In an episode in the first season, ten minutes of a 25-minute running time was devoted to capturing a spectacularly bad trip; BoJack haunted by visions of his deceased best friend he fell out with and a tombstone declaring nobody will remember him when he’s gone. Where do you go from there?
As it turns out, a 20-minute, dialogue-free stretch in this season’s fourth episode that explores an underwater universe BoJack visits to attend a film festival (he’d prefer to go to Sundance but is not welcome there due to comments he made about Robert Redford’s film The Horse Whisperer). This ridiculous scene overstays its welcome — a weird, vaguely Fantasia-esque act of attrition — but redeems itself with a final, deliciously reductive gag.
Pathos never lies far from the surface. The one thing BoJack is proud of, his old show “Horsing Around”, with its canned laughter and cheesy jokes, is the main (but not the only) thing people ridicule him for. In an attempt to win something he doesn’t deserve, the Oscar, he learns to rubbish the one thing he loved, which comes with a certain understated sting. That pathetic, somehow still endearing equine has done it again: if you haven’t tuned in yet, it’s time to start horsing around.