Bojack Horseman is a masterful bait and switch. It begins as a glimpse into the hedonistic and pathetic life of Bojack Horseman, an actor famous for playing a sitcom dad in the ’90s. The first handful episodes are solid, but offer nothing new. They satirize Hollywood excess, the “selfie culture,” ’90s television, and some other low hanging fruit. They’re funny, but very much something to turn on as background noise. And then, gradually, there is a tonal shift. We laugh at how pathetic and washed up Bojack is, and then the show begins to try and find out why. What made Bojack this horrible person/horse? Who did he step over to get to the top? Where did it all go wrong?
The great thing about this shift is that it is done so gradually that by the time you realize you are watching a giant horse’s existential drama (with dick jokes), you’re heavily invested in all of the characters.
Bojack Horseman is populated with a murderer’s row of voice talent: Will Arnett, Alison Brie, Paul F. Thompkins, Aaron Paul, Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert, Stanley Tucci, Kirsten Schaal, Patton Oswalt, Kristen Chenoweth, J.K Simmons, and a whole heap more, all lending their voices to the show. Arnett is a particular stand out, as he manages to play the arrogant Bojack with such abandon and joy while bringing it down at the right moments (most notably at the end of the 11th episode, “Downer Ending”).
At its heart, Bojack Horseman is a redemption story about someone who had it all and then lost it all, gaining nothing in the process. In terms of a live action equivalent, I would say Eastbound and Down serves as its companion piece, in the sense that we have an unlikable main character (who we somehow end up liking) surrounded by people trying to help him out or bring him down, while they collectively cling to the idea of a past that’s left him behind. It’s hard to imagine that a show about a talking horse who was once the star of a show in which he adopted three children could be as emotive as Bojack Horseman is. But through great writing and performances (and musical cues) you find yourself getting absorbed into the drama of this poor, washed up horse’s life. For me the turning point in the show, when it changed from great comedy with raw moments into something genius, was an episode around the halfway point. Bojack is summoned to the home of his mentor, Herb Kazzaz, who is dying from cancer. We see flashbacks explaining how their relationship soured and who was responsible (Bojack), and the episode builds to the traditional sitcom moment in which apologies are made and all is forgiven. Instead, we get something incredibly real in place of forced emotions that are supposed to make the audience go awwwww. I watched that episode and knew that I was watching something very special. They had lured me in with an alcoholic, talking horse, but they kept me by keeping me constantly guessing. It’s hard not to fill this article with spoilers about favorite scenes, so your best bet is just to go and watch the whole thing on Netflix right now.