What does it mean to be a good person?

Review: Bojack Horseman

Starring (the voices of) Will Arnett, Alison Brie, Amy Sedaris, Aaron Paul

Watching Bojack Horseman from season to season is something of a cycle: a time of waiting for the show to drop, followed by the initial hilarity of the new season, quickly giving way to the sadness that the show evokes so much. Once the season is over, the cycle begins again, with waiting…

Created by comedian Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Bojack Horseman is the tale of an anthropomorphic horse who is also a washed-up 90s actor. Going through cycles of disappointing people and alienating those closest to him, Bojack (voiced by Will Arnett) struggles with what it means to be a good person (or horse) in a world where he is now virtually irrelevant. Bojack lives with his houseguest/roommate Todd (Aaron Paul), who has a lot more potential than his shiftless layabout demeanour would suggest, but who is held back by Bojack himself. Bojack also struggles to garner the admiration of his friend, the struggling writer Dianne (Alison Brie). Diane’s partner, the anthropomorphic dog Mr Peanutbutter is another former TV actor, albeit one who takes a different tact in life (and who may be the most decent character in the entire show).

Through the course of the show’s four seasons (so far), Bojack will have a biography written about him, have the shot at playing his dream role, try to reconnect with an old flame, and alienate many people through his self-sabotaging ways. When things appear to be too bleak, he gets some unexpected news: he may be a father.

Why the long face?

There are many aspects of Bojack Horseman that are sad, even depressing, as the show plumbs the depths of fame and the cult of personality. The show is not the light piece of entertainment that its presentation may suggest and is at times hard going.

There are also times when the show seems to revel in nihilism. And yet, it has much to say about many topics. These include the value of friends you can count on, and the potential of family to overcome times of trial. The latter is a repeated theme in Season Four, with Bob-Waksberg suggesting this as being one focal point in an interview:

We’re looking at what we do to our family, what we do to be in a family, as well as biological and created families. Another theme is the stories we tell, particularly the internal story: how we define ourselves to ourselves, and who we think we are versus who we want to be.

All of this would be quite hard to watch and enjoy if Bojack Horseman wasn’t so funny. The show is full of sight gags, quick wit, and genuinely humorous characters whose arcs are ridiculous, yet enough to sustain an episode in themselves. Todd and Mr. Peanutbutter’s friendship alone brings enough subplots to sustain a show, as the two launch failed bad business idea after failed business bad business idea.

The show’s voice cast is excellent at carrying this material. In particular, Will Arnett has great range as Bojack, a character whose arc covers everything from the heights of fame to the grief of losing loved ones.  Aaron Paul manages to deliver a memorable performance as Todd, one that should serve to make him as known for this role as he is Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman. Amy Sederis is hilarious as Princess Carolyn, a cat who is also Bojack’s agent and ex-girlfriend.

An innovative show

Several of the Bojack Horseman’s episodes are innovative in their presentation. Season three’s now-famous “Fish Out of Water” episode contains no dialogue, with Bojack forced to interact with others without visual cues. Season four has an episode devoted to Bojack’s mother’s dementia from her point of view, a novel presentation that creates genuine empathy for a character who is otherwise presented as terse and unlikable.

As with so much of Netflix’s content, Bojack Horseman comes highly recommended, albeit with a content warning. The show has course language, drugs, and sexual references aplenty, and is at times rather dark. All of this is wrapped in a humorous shell that makes it more palpable, and those that bear with it in the long run will find the odd wholesome or teachable moment (the very end of season four!) all the more rewarding.

With Bojack Horseman renewed for a fifth season, now is a good time to revisit the show. It has potential to provoke thought about fallen humanity and whether redemption is possible.

Bojack Horseman is rated MA. Seasons one to four are streaming now on Netflix.

Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor

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