A man wakes up bleary-eyed and begins to slowly move through random rooms. As life speedily passes him by (people making breakfast, going grocery shopping), the man remains still except for when he is sipping a variety of beverages. Finally, after he becomes drunk and his eyes are bloodshot, he falls over the balcony of a house and sinks to the bottom of a pool while women in bikinis swim by him.
While this depiction of a man drowning in his ennui and the meaninglessness of life might sound like it should appear in an indie film at Sundance, this sequence actually appears at the beginning of Netflix’s newest series, BoJack Horseman.
Netflix is known for its award-winning dramatic series, such as House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black. Now the streaming service has added an adult animated comedy to its stable with BoJack Horseman, a show that, while raunchy to its core, is both addictive (a great feature for a Netflix audience of confirmed binge-watchers) and surprisingly emotional. BoJack was renewed for a second season a mere four days after its premiere on August 22, so it appears that the show has become something of a success for Netflix. If you aren’t squeamish about sex, drug use, and profanity (this is an adult animated program, after all), BoJack Horseman has a lot to offer.
BoJack is a has-been anthropomorphized horse voiced by Will Arnett, the actor who played G.O.B so winningly on Arrested Development (Seasons 1-4 are also on Netflix) and who recently provided the perfect growly voice for Batman in The Lego Movie. BoJack’s heyday included being the star of Horsin’ Around, a spot-on parody of a ’90s family sitcom with a plot that seems to be a Full House/Charles in Charge mash-up. The saccharine lessons taught on the TV show appear at various times throughout the 12-episode season, mostly when BoJack is watching reruns at home (yet again) and reliving his past glory, like when he gave the “old BoJack spin” to the show’s catchphrase “Neigh way, José.”
Because of his instantaneous success with Horsin’ Around, BoJack is fabulously wealthy — check out his sweet Hollywood pad and his ability to purchase an entire restaurant on a whim — but that apparently unlimited supply of cash comes at a price. BoJack is a washed-up D-list celebrity who craves attention at all times but can find no satisfaction in his life and is completely unable to move forward. Thus, the plot emerges: BoJack will write a memoir so that he can become a star once more. But will this endeavor be successful and bring him the recognition he so desperately seeks?
A colorful cast
In addition to Arnett’s pessimistic protagonist, BoJack Horseman is chockful of wonderful actors and comedians voicing its wide array of characters. Along with horses, this animated world is populated with many other distinct creatures. You’ll see bears, deer, birds, cats, lizards, and all kinds of animals who are viewed the same way we would consider a person of a different race or skin color (akin to Ugly Americans and its use of demons and zombies in New York City). One of the strongest characters in the show is Princess Carolyn, voiced by Strangers with Candy’s Amy Sedaris, who is a cat and is also BoJack’s on-and-off girlfriend . . . and his agent. Sedaris fully inhabits her character, giving Princess Carolyn catlike characteristics (like coughing up a hairball and hissing) while keeping her refreshingly human.
Paul F. Tompkins plays Mr. Peanutbutter, a golden retriever who is a frenemy of BoJack — he starred in a similar ’90s family sitcom — and provides a sunny and optimistic counterpoint to BoJack’s cynicism. Mr. Peanutbutter’s human girlfriend, Diane Nguyen (voiced by Alison Brie of Community and Mad Men fame), looks like a Vietnamese Daria Morgendorffer and is also BoJack’s ghostwriter/potential love interest. Rounding out the cast is three-time Emmy winner Aaron Paul as human freeloader/permanent houseguest Todd, a man who is the closest thing BoJack has to a friend and who hopes to write his own rock opera despite his slacker tendencies.
Additionally, BoJack Horseman features some fantastic cameos, including Patton Oswalt as Pinky Penguin, an editor who works at a failing publishing company (can you guess which one?); Kristen Schaal as BoJack’s former costar Sarah Lynn, a child-star-gone-bad character along the lines of Miley Cyrus (she has a scandalous music career) and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen; and Stephen Colbert as Mr. Witherspoon, a toad who is Princess Carolyn’s boss. Hopefully that final cameo will lead to a true Strangers with Candy reunion — Paul Dinello as another Hollywood agent for Season 2!
With a diverse population such as this, the animation is really a treat, offering vibrant colors and enriching details, such as BoJack having a framed magazine cover of himself and Urkel — another famous sitcom star of the ’90s who has not aged well — displayed in his house. The colorful animation style is based off of the work of artist Lisa Hanawalt and is very inventive in its use of animals. The paparazzi in this world are scuzzy-looking birds and pigs, while actual celebrities are reimagined as their beastly equivalents — Cameron Crowe is a raven, Quentin Tarantino is a tarantula, and Christina Hendricks is a chicken. The music is also impressive, especially the jazzy intro and the catchy end credits theme song by Grouplove.
Raunchy, but with heart
While the early plots can be very silly and are often played for laughs only, BoJack Horseman takes a dramatic turn after episode six that changes the trajectory of the show and one’s impression of the characters. Princess Carolyn, for example, is better fleshed out in the heartbreaking “Say Anything,” and all of the main characters become more fully realized and sympathetic as the season moves forward. “Downer Ending,” in particular, is the best of the series so far and is the most powerful exploration of BoJack’s psyche and why he does the things he does. (This particular episode even features an ingenious reference to Peanuts, for any Schulz fans out there.)
If you are looking for something new on Netflix while waiting for its acclaimed dramas to return, BoJack Horseman is worth a look. It’s by no means a perfect cartoon show, but it is provocative and surprisingly thoughtful in its depiction of the twists and turns that make up any person’s life, horseman or not.