BoJack Horseman

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ based on 5 reviews.

tl;dr: A dark, depressing and morbid classic with an unexpected amount of heart, nuance, and finesse. Wonderfully crafted and utterly riveting, even whilst it kicks your hopes and dreams to shreds.


Animated Sitcoms

Season One

Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

In the first few episodes, I wondered if BoJack Horseman was going to grow into something truly interesting, or if it was just another adult cartoon with prerequisite foul language, sexualisation, and sitcom humour. Here were my initial thoughts on the show:

So far it's made me chuckle a few times but not exactly the most intelligent show. Time will tell if it's a slow burner or just a boredom watch.

Well, considering I've blown through more than a single season this month, I think it's fair to say initial impressions did it a massive disservice. In fact, I'd go so far to say I was flat-out wrong.

Whilst the story felt like an overly-meta analysis of celebrity culture, with a lead protagonist who was funny because of his failings, BoJack Horseman somehow keeps managing to actually grow and develop. I mean, the plot of season one is ostensibly classic "horse meets girl, horse falls for girl, girl doesn't realise" love-triangle fare. It's a fun formula, provides plenty of scope for loosely relevant adventures and, combined with the Hollywoo(d) setting, is perfect for cultural jokes, pop analysis, and celebrity cameos. That's a setup which could have easily run for two seasons, three with a bit of fluff and some likeable characters. Yet BH just piles straight through and out the other side. I had to keep checking I hadn't accidentally just skipped on to season two because the story kept on progressing, the character's kept on developing, and the plot slowly pivoted from sitcom normalcy to a much deeper character analysis. Are there still pop-culture jokes, stupid background gags, and celebrity cameos? Of course, but they are the icing on the cake, not the fruit-filled centre. Which is to say, BoJack Horseman has a surprising amount of heart and a solid handle on the characters it has created. Hell, within a single season I actually gave a damn about Todd on more than just a comedy level; HIMYM took two seasons to flesh Barney into something more than a walking one-liner machine.

Which isn't to say that BH is revolutionary or worthy of high praise. At the end of the day, this is still a show about pop-culture references and body humour, but the episodes are cleverly written, it's surprisingly lacking in formula and the characters are well built. It helps that they've – without any reason – set up a world where animals and people just coexist as humanoid entities and they aren't afraid to embrace that absurdity. Sure, there are plenty of stupid gags, like making Matthew Fox a wolf, but they also poke fun at the world through the animals. It's not often that a show puts as much effort into the gags going on in the backdrop, most of which I'm certain I missed. BoJack can be midway through an important explanation and I'll notice one of the goats at the party has drunkenly started eating the topiary; the show is riddled with little one-shots and clever concepts that leave me giggling frequently.

It also doesn't rely too heavily on cringe humour or unbelievably bad luck to keep BoJack in a state of near-depression. Sure, he has moments of poor timing and he frequently digs himself into a hole just to ensure plot progression is possible, but the screenwriters make it feel natural enough that I haven't minded (yet). As mentioned, they also seem happy to let the plot progress logically. Whilst they had me rooting for BoJack and Diane, I like that they also developed Mr Peanutbutter into a likeable character and made their ultimate marriage feel right. There was no big "I love you Diane" scene, just a darker mistake that had some consequences but ultimately got moved through. I'm certain they'll loop back around to this plot point again but, for know, I'm enjoying getting to the "Ted and Robin are friends" phase within the first season. A damned fine start and I look forward to more!

Season Two

Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

Damn, this has turned into a really fun show! Depressing, morbid, and utterly unafraid to take all your dreams and trample on them in front of your eyes, but still really fun. The characters feel much more intelligent and fleshed out than in season one – particularly BoJack – and the pace continues to blister along. I'm glad they shifted away from the BoJack/Diane thing, though it is understandably still simmering in the background. That kind of forbidden love, temptation arc is exactly what the show is good at.

Todd, too, has really come into his own this season. The whole cult business was brilliantly funny, but even smaller subplots like his body switch with the Prince of Cordovia were genuinely interesting moments that gave new insight into his character. I really like that he has branched out from just being someone who hangs around BoJack, and Aaron Paul is doing a great job. To be fair, all of the cast continue to do a brilliant job, and I hadn't really realised how star-studded it was. Alison Brie, Will Arnet, Patton Oswalt, J. K. Simmons, Lisa Kudrow! And that's before all the cameos: Daniel Radcliffe, Joel McHale, George Takei, John Krasinski, Rian Johnson, Liev Schreiber, Olivia Wilde, Ricky Gervais, Aisha Tyler, Paul freakin' McCartney! I'm sure there were many more I missed as well.

And then there's the finale. Not the final episode, but the penultimate one, with BoJack's ex and her teenage daughter. Yeah, that one. The one where everything happens, and yet nothing really does. The one where BoJack ruins everything and leaves broken. Man, that was the epitome of what this show is and does best. Heart-wrenching. Understandable. Simultaneously sympathetic towards BoJack and angered by his stupid decisions, yet aware that the situation is both of his makings and yet not. It's clever, smart, and emotionally intelligent. It's also really refreshingly honest storytelling and I'm here for it. If BoJack can keep this level of nuance and plot up I think we've found something truly special.

Season Three

Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

Holy wow, BoJack is maturing like nothing else. Season three takes everything the show learned in the previous season and improves it all, whilst adding a new string to its bow. The episode Fish Out of Water – in which BoJack goes to an underwater film festival and ultimately ends up reuniting a lost baby seahorse with its family – just had my jaw on the floor. It may well be my favourite episode to date, not just because of the brilliant punchline or the cleverness of the animation that permits a whole episode to feature zero dialogue, but also because it simultaneously expands the world-building considerably and makes a subtle, yet powerful, impact on BoJack's himself. It's clever, fun and strangely heartwarming, something BoJack Horseman steers largely clear of (and which probably only enhances the character's later depression as a result).

There are a couple of slower moments this season, but most of these are either just fun ideas or used to trick the viewer into a false sense of security. As soon as that feeling of familiarity begins to set in, either with a character or a general plot trajectory, that's when the writers take the apple cart and upset it... by imploding a nuclear bomb on top of it. These twists are what make the show something more than the sum of its parts. They're almost always unexpected, but once you've had time to process them you realise they were inevitable, often even subtly signposted. Whether it's Diane's utter breakdown, Todd's accidental cult membership in the previous season, or BoJack's Oscar upset, the plot consistently treads the darker path and is all the better for it.

Which of course brings me on to that finale. Again, BoJack keeps on proving that its a show that can balance comedy and tragedy so finely and with such precision its almost impossible to understand. The tension throughout the bender with Sarah Lynn just keeps building so incredibly subtly that when the tidal wave hits you're knocked for six. And then after the bombshell, we get an episode about a pasta catastrophe and then BoJack just disappearing into the sunset. Again, the balancing act here is superb and I cannot wait for season four. (Well, actually, I couldn't wait for season four. I just kept watching. I've barely stopped since starting the show)

Season Four

Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

BoJack has always been a show that's best when it treads the darker paths. It has a particular superpower in ensuring that any semblance of a status quo never lasts, but also feels like it earns that moment when the rug is suddenly pulled out from beneath your feet.

Never, however, has this been done better than with the ending of season four. I had been a little unsure throughout about Hollyhock or BoJack's mother, Beatrice, as plot devices, though had enjoyed the character development they had wrought. But the sudden removal of both from the show in such a disturbing yet almost blameless set of circumstances was genius. Having Beatrice be the one who corrupts and almost kills Hollyhock, doing so through delusional reasoning brought on by her dementia, was a great twist. Having it naturally lead to the conclusion of the "who's the mother?" plotline, again with a not-so-obvious answer and further character upheaval, was brilliant. Yet what really made it stand out was viewing the events in retrospect. Little moments, like when Beatrice recognises Hollyhock when they 'first' meet, provide clues that make the final conclusion not just internally consistent but inevitable. The plot twists aren't just devices to further the plot, they're a natural progression of the story. That's not something you can normally say in modern TV (*cough* Star Trek: Discovery *cough*).

Hollyhock's addiction reveal has been the most impressive instance so far, but it has some stiff competition. Sarah Lynn's death and countless other moments also rank up there as brilliant, predictable, yet not expected progressions of the plot. They serve to ground the show, keep it fresh and ensure that the baseline format that works, chiefly BoJack miserably being lead towards greater self-realisation, is maintained without feeling forced.

On the rare occasions that the show backs itself into a clearly uncomfortable plot, no twists allowed, they still often manage to hit you with a secondary gut-wrench, as with Princess Caroline's miscarriage episode; she is clearly, and understandably, traumatised and that impacts the viewer, but the revelation at the end about her future descendent is the twist of the knife just before the show cuts to black.

Scattered amongst these grand arcs and hidden twists are episodes which are practically one-shots. Little gems, focused on a single idea and allowed to fully flesh it out and play with it. Some of these have provided surprisingly nuanced and intimate takes on social and medical issues, which I would not have expected at the close of season one. That the show is very self-aware is clear, but that it would ultimately craft an extremely moving, yet abstract, portrayal of Alzheimer's was unexpected, to say the least. In a similar manner, the episode in which we visually see BoJack's inner monologue is both incredibly cleverly animated and deeply revealing, resulting in an utterly riveting episode.

The show isn't perfect, though. I feel like Todd's character, in particular, has become a bit of a loose end. In the first season he played the fool and a clear foil to BoJack's own character traits, but by season four he's almost entirely inconsequential. That's a shame, because he worked well in his earlier role and was developed nicely during season two. I like that they've made him asexual, largely because it's an interesting and unexpected route to go down, but I also don't feel they've done very much with that plot.

The constant will-they-won't-they of Diane and Mr Peanutbutter is also a little taxing four seasons in. Yes, it's interesting seeing a sitcom couple invert the normal Ross/Rachel trope, instead making you take bets on when they won't be together any more, but there's also not much room for plot development. I like it when they're being a real couple with problems and road-bumps; I like it a lot less when Diane has yet another revelation that her entire life is meaningless. She isn't a toxic character, despite sharing some traits with BoJack, and has very little clear internal conflict, so it feels a little baffling to leave her in the state she's in at the end of the season. I'd also be very happy if the whole BoJack/Diane shipping would just end, permanently. I might have rooted for them in season one, but by season four they work better as friends.

These are relatively minor quibbles though, which in the grand scheme of the things can basically be ignored. It would be easy to say "at its core, BoJack is a fantastic show" and be right, but that would ignore the fact that most of its extremities, padding and weird knobbly bits are also brilliant and worthy of praise. It's rarely as intellectually clever as the likes of Rick & Morty, nor as overtly laugh-out-loud funny as the likes of How I Met Your Mother, but BoJack has a slow-burning emotional heart to it which is rare to find. It's far more nuanced than it has any right to be, the characters are far more interesting than they need to be and what the world lacks in meta/nerdy jokes it more than makes up for in simple details (I will never tire of the clever ways eras are portrayed or the odd animal behaviours which are weaved into backdrops). I believe a season five is incoming and I cannot wait.

Season Five

Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

I did wonder if there would be much more room for growth in BoJack after a pretty stunning conclusion to season four, but I definitely worried needlessly. The show is back on top form and up to all its morbid twists and dark humour tricks once more.

Season five takes the individual relationships within the main cast in a number of new directions, which is generally interesting. The BoJack/Diane shipping is much reduced (thankfully) and, instead, we get Diane and Mr Peanutbutter's relationship evolving significantly. I like the whole Pickles plotline and think it does a lot to give depth to Mr Peanutbutter in general. Todd's asexuality is interestingly built on and treated well, which is great as I worried it might just become a punchline (though, to their credit, this is a show that rarely swerves away from discussing sensitive subjects and does so with nuance and tact).

I'm also a fan of Hollyhock becoming an occasional character. Her main arc last season was a big one so I'm glad she got written out for a while, but I'm just as glad they're keeping her around. Of course, the other big impact from season four on season five was BoJack's mother's funeral and wow, there's another BoJack episode that can go in the category of "best TV ever made". If I thought an episode with no dialogue and just action was astonishing, then a full episode of TV that is just one single monologue was deeply moving and incredibly impactful. There are not many shows that could get away with having an entire episode focus in on a single instance in one character's life, nor have the instance be a eulogy without any further context, interruptions or action. But Bojack not only gets away with it, it makes it fantastic. These moments are what elevate a silly cartoon about a jaded, narcissistic talking horse to a level above 99.9% of television shows ever created.

Occasionally, an episode is just frivolous entertainment; a sequence of gags and funny witticisms; for the most part, it's an emotionally intelligent TV show that uses humour, like a good comedy set, to highlight societies evils, idiocy or fears; and then, once or twice a season (if it's lucky), it will become something more, something closer to art.

BoJack has become a show with a huge amount of depth to it and the talent involved in its creation is continually astounding, but that it has produced individual episodes that rival anything I've ever seen on TV in each of the last three seasons is a terrifyingly impressive feat. That it can do so whilst continuing to prod fun at itself, keep up a steady stream of background gags that are genuinely entertaining, and craft a set of actually interesting characters, where not one feels like a token comedy stereotype, is doubly so. I cannot wait to see where it goes next.

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