Animals have long been used as symbols in fiction. Humans have always projected certain qualities onto different species – the cat represents self-sufficiency, the dog loyalty, the fox cunning. Bojack Horseman is a unique animation series that manages to explore these concepts from a different angle.
The first season received mixed reviews. Some critics were expecting another cartoon adult-comedy along the lines of those often produced by Adult Swim. Something that relied heavily on crude humor and whacky characters to reach an audience.
However, Bojack Horseman is a horse of a different color. It’s a scathing examination of middle age, the entertainment industry and self-sabotage dressed up as a dark comedy. The humor is off-beat and some of the jokes leave a bitter aftertaste. People who watch comedy as a form of escapism will be disappointed. People willing to invest in complex characters and well-structured narrative arcs will not.
Critics expecting easily digested animated fare were nonplussed by the dark tone and slow pacing of the first season. But if you throw aside your preconceptions, you’ll be won over by the unique premise of the show and its brilliant character interaction. The key is to watch the show as a sometimes gruelling drama series rather than an animated comedy. The second season fared far better with the critics who’d had time to adjust their expectations.
The premise is an interesting one – the titular character is a washed-up Hollywood has-been. He’s also an anthromorphic horse. As someone who used to horseride, I can tell you that horses are complex, intelligent and sometimes difficult animals. Bojack possesses all these traits as well as a dose of heavy self-loathing and a tendency to self-destruct. In his fifties, he has neither a thriving career nor a family. He is a perpetual teenager, defined by his need for self-gratification and attention. But in the first season, one is unsure whether this is what drove him to become famous or simply the product of being famous.
Season Two explores more of Bojack’s childhood. His parents failed to meet certain crucial needs, resulting in his stunted emotional development. But the show never glosses over personal responsibility. It makes it clear that Bojack has choices, even if he constantly makes the wrong ones.
The animation is functional rather than impressive. Like Archer, the show relies on stock angles of the characters and limited movement. This isn’t a criticism, simply an observation. Bojack Horseman is built around exploring themes and relationships rather than visual spectacle. It neither needs or relies on flashy animation.
What makes Bojack Horseman stand out from shows like Archer is the quality of the character interaction and realistic consequences of these interactions.These consequences aren’t resolved within an episode – their impact is felt throughout each season. Many of the characters choose to repress their emotional issues rather than acknowledge them. However, this inevitably impacts on later interactions.
Bojack Horseman’s humor is a departure from the usual fart jokes and sex gags found in adult cartoons. Much of the comedy is derived from characters still maintaining certain animal characteristics. But the humor always comes second to the drama.
The characters are complex and nuanced. Diane, Bojack’s autobiographer, is first introduced as a moral beacon in the shady Hollywood setting. But the second season reveals that she’s just as flawed as Bojack. She lacks the emotional resilience to put her moral views into action.
Princess Carolyn, a Persian cat, is Bojack’s agent. Like most felines, she is self-sufficient. But in a human world, those qualities translate into an inability to sustain long-term relationships. A driven career woman, Princess Carolyn is also desperately lonely. Only by confronting her fear of being alone is she able to move forward.
Other characters are less capable of such emotional growth. Todd, Bojack’s human housemate/couch surfer, embodies the worst qualities of today’s youth. He has potential but lacks the drive and discipline to harness that talent. Instead, he choose to maintain a dysfunctional, borderline abusive relationship with Bojack in exchange for not having to take initiative in his life.
Mr Peanut Butter is Diane’s boyfriend (and later, husband.) A Golden Retriever is the right choice for this character – he’s loyal, likable and gives unconditional love without expecting anything in return. But in a realistic setting, this create an inbalance in his relationship, resulting in marital difficulties.
None of the characters are unlikable. They’re simply flawed. They have fears and faults and failures. Another words, whether they’re animal or human, they’re people.