‘BoJack Horseman’ redefines the cartoon with dark humor

BoJack Horseman masterfully delves into the human psyche, exploring a washed-up Hollywood horse. Photo courtesy of Indiewire.
BoJack Horseman masterfully delves into the human psyche, exploring a washed-up Hollywood horse. Photo courtesy of Indiewire.

BoJack Horseman is an animated television show about a talking horse living in Hollywood alongside humans and other anthropomorphic animals. BoJack, the titular character, is middle-aged and famous for his role in a critically-panned yet popular ’90s sitcom. He drinks and parties too much and generally finds himself in sticky situations.

BoJack Horseman is perhaps the greatest show on television when it comes to depicting depression and personal angst. BoJack’s antics are at times funny, but with a dark undertone. Perhaps a show this dark could only be delivered in the form of an animated adult comedy, even though it is the last genre you would associate with anything remotely serious. Without the jokes and gags, its bleakness would make it unenjoyable and its meditations on the human condition would come across as pretentious.

Whether for the purpose of delivering a joke or hitting the viewer with an emotional punch, BoJack Horseman builds deliberately to its final destination. What the viewer may believe are 30-second throwaway cut scenes will sometimes be building blocks, carefully placed over a season, leading to one fantastic punchline. BoJack Horseman will take characters you expect to stay for just moments and turn them into some of the funniest running jokes on TV. Vincent Adultman, a young boy masquerading as an adult in a trench coat, is perhaps my favorite character in the history of comedic television. The same careful planning holds true for BoJack Horseman’s more serious moments. The show manages to create a self-destructive, depressed character without turning him into an unlikeable, predictable one. BoJack’s darkest moments, because they are so carefully constructed, are more haunting than anything you could have ever anticipated coming from an animated comedy. Yet the viewer never finds it difficult to sympathize with BoJack. The emotional journey you have taken and the pain you feel for the characters is unexpected, yet entirely fitting and real. Perhaps this is why it took the show a while to catch on with audiences and critics. Upon the release of its first episode, BoJack Horseman was largely dismissed as tired and unoriginal. By the time the second season came around, BoJack Horseman had become one of the most acclaimed series on television.

The show achieves part of its balancing act through its excellent development of secondary characters. Having to experience the entirety of the show through BoJack’s depressive perspective would become burdensome and exhausting. Several characters, which in most animated comedies would have simple personalities and exist only as vehicles for jokes, have incredible depth. The complexity of these characters is what makes the world of BoJack Horseman, and the emotions contained in it, more real. BoJack’s love interest, Diane, is dating a golden lab named Mr. Peanutbutter, who starred in his own ’90s sitcom and finds joy in every corner of life, essentially making him the anti-BoJack. But the show does not simplify the character of Mr. Peanutbutter or depict his relationship with Diane as nothing more than an obstacle to BoJack, as most comedies would. Instead, it dives deep into their relationship, primarily examining how two people can attempt to reconcile fundamental personality differences and remain intimate. Rather than their relationship existing only to steer BoJack’s storyline, it becomes one of the richest parts of the show. The same depth and complexity hold true with BoJack’s agent and ex-girlfriend, Princess Carolyn, a cat who too heavily defines her existence by burying herself in work and helping other people. Then there is BoJack’s slacker roommate, Todd, who is an immensely talented playwright, but is unable to capitalize on his gifts because of his unhealthy and codependent relationship with BoJack. The show’s outstanding voice acting, which features Will Arnett, Alison Brie and Aaron Paul, aids the well-developed characters.

BoJack Horseman is a show that will allow viewers to connect with different characters and moments depending on their own experiences. It is able to offer an element of escapism through witty jokes, running gags and hidden references. But ultimately, BoJack Horseman addresses the questions that often plague the viewer: Can I ever be anything other than the person I am right now? Am I a good person? How can I reconcile with my own experiences, choices and regrets? BoJack Horseman does not provide answers to these questions. It does not try to. Yet it faces them head on and, as the viewer journeys alongside the show’s characters, provides company, humor and hope as it faces the overwhelming challenges of simply existing.