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Like most people, I like to think of myself as someone who is clued up with popular culture and the zeitgeist. Also, as a *COUGH*, millennial, I like to use the word zeitgeist a bunch.
So when Netflix premiered in South Africa, I jumped at the chance to flip the overpriced local satellite TV establishment the finger, and enjoy popular US television from the comfort of my trusty Xbox.
I don’t know what I was expecting. But much like our dams, the South African program offering was pretty barren at the time. Save for a few comedy specials, Chicken Run and Zeitgeist: The Movie.
That’s when I decided to give Bojack Horseman a shot. By which I mean I binged two seasons in a week. And the third was released soon after.
Bojack Horseman is an adult animated series produced under the Netflix Orginal marquee by Tornante Productions and created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg. At face value, it appears to run in the same vein as Family Guy, Bob’s Burgers and the more recent hit Rick and Morty. But it sets itself apart in various ways.
Will Arnett (Lego Batman, Flaked) plays the titular role here. Bojack Horseman is a middle-aged, millionaire, chestnut horse. in the 90’s he was the star of his own Full House-style sitcom, Horsin’ Around: the story of a horse who raises three human orphans. Now he’s 50, washed up, alcoholic and constantly getting into rows with his overworked agent slash lover and the 24-year-old manchild living on his couch. That is, when he’s not drinking and watching old DVD’s of Horsin’ Around.
The first thing that strikes you as a new viewer is the world-building. The streets of Hollywood are filled with humans, including real-life celebrities, and their anthropomorphic animal counterparts. If GTA V and Zootopia had a lovechild, this would be the result, both intellectually and visually speaking. It’s packed with sight gags and a colourful representation of Tinseltown that sinks its claws into you straight away, from the parody animal versions of popular brands to the background animations of anthros awkwardly going about their day in a human-shaped world.
From a technical standpoint, it’s standard ToonBoom puppet animation mixed with occasional 3D cel-shading. Some environments clearly got more attention than others, though most of them look good. And while the colours can be a bit all over the place, some of the more dramatic scenes pull the palette together and manage to maximise their impact in that aspect. Even though the Bojack cast doesn’t sparkle like the hand-animated Steven Universe gang, for example, there’s plenty to enjoy just by merit of the setting rather than the art style.
Story is King
What caused me to binge this on the first watch, however, wasn’t the great visual comedy or observations on toxic celebrity culture. Although the satire here is top-notch and more layered than anything Family Guy or even recent seasons of South Park have delivered, it remains a standard component that most adult cartoons are expected to deliver on. What hooked me, was the storyline.
Instead of following the episodic structure typical of adult animated sitcoms such as Family guy, where the world resets at the end of 22 minutes, each of the 12-episode seasons traces a distinct arc as Bojack stumbles over the milestones of his celebrity midlife crisis.
The first season, for example, follows the writing of Bojack’s memoirs. It’s a process he constantly delays, eventually being assigned a ghost writer by his feline agent, Princess Carolyn, in a last-ditch attempt to restore his relevance and make the agency some money for a change. His interaction with his ghost writer, Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), forms the crux of the conflict for most of the first season, as it requires him to start to unpack his past to a complete stranger, and by extension the world.
Will Arnett portrays perhaps the most human animated horse of all time. I need to stress how superb Arnett is in this role. Bojack is a deeply flawed individual forced to confront parental issues, substance addiction and depression. His ex-sitcom costars, children at the time, have grown into maladjusted adults and one eerily true-to-life Cyrus/Lohan stereotype, played by Kristen Schaal (Bob’s Burgers, Gravity Falls), who often gets into crazy drug-fueled scrapes.
Bojack pushes people away at every turn, yet still craves constant peer validation. And he’s worried about preserving his seemingly cheerful legacy while his memoirist is determined to unearth the gritty details of his past. In later episodes, the show goes to some surprisingly dark and mature places for the format, and it can seriously take you off guard.
While it’s difficult to discern if Bojack is even a good person, and you’re constantly challenged when rooting for him, you probably won’t stop once. This is proof of what a textured protagonist writers Amy Sedaris and Lisa Hanawalt have crafted here.
Supporting characters such as slacker sidekick Todd (Aaron Paul) and fellow actor and golden lab Mister Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins) also get plenty of screen time to provide comic relief and help propel the story forward. Although, this is the one place the show ever hits a snag for me: a lot of Todd and Peanutbutter’s dialogue, as much at it satirises its own sitcom source material, is still distinctly American in flavour and relies a bit too much on the “Oh so random!” factor we often see in American writing. If you prefer British comedy, some of the dialogue from the more oddball characters might not land for you. One or two bigger misadventures also steer in the direction of filler, if only to lighten the mood and help you recover from events of previous episodes.
Watching these characters attempt to navigate stressfully outlandish sitcom situations in an animated Hollywood while delivering some of the best writing on television today, is incredibly cathartic. Even with the steady story momentum supplied by his inner circle, Bojack manages to constantly sabotage himself in new ways. It’s hilarious, it’s dark, and it will keep your Netflix queue rolling late into the night.
Bojack Horseman, once it pulls you in past the wacky cartoon trappings and colourful set pieces, reveals exemplary storytelling that has a lot on its mind and begets bingeing.
Sign up for Netflix, if only to watch this show. It costs as much as a steak dinner.