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Essay: Hollywood is a zoo, the animals take Xanax

Unwrapping the third season of Netflix original BoJack Horseman


Published in Swarthmore College's Review Fall 2016 Issue

During the summer, I took the time to pick up a thin, orange book—George Mike's English Humor for Beginners (1980)—and read it. One curious line stuck out to me like a hairy Marxist at a yacht club: "...all humor is cruel." I stopped, slipped in a bookmark, and then, unrelated to the moment, I checked to see if the third season for BoJack Horseman was up on Netflix. It was and I binge-watched it for most of the rest of the day. I'd previously sped through the first two seasons of the show with mild interest. By the end of the third, I was not only hooked on the show's tasteful, absurdist comedy; I also realized it validated that little line I'd read only hours previously.

The eponymous protagonist is BoJack Horseman, voiced by the inimitable Will Arnett (who sounds like he swallows scalding coffee before delivering each line). He is a stallion, a washed-up sitcom star from the '90s who reliably battles substance abuse and self-inflicted emotional harm. The setting is a cartoonish Los Angeles populated by both animals and humans, all sentient, many dumb, and by and large career carnivores, BoJack included. By the second season and against the odds, he lands the lead in his dream project, a biopic of the race-horse Secretariat. But the third season opens with a stunning, sardonic realization: the studio has secretly replaced his acting with a CGI rendering of his likeness. Undeterred, he embarks upon a quest to nab a coveted Oscar despite the fact that he doesn't appear in the film, at least in the flesh.

He desperately wants to be seen as a serious actor deserving of recognition, respect, and maybe even of love. Yet scandalous situations (that typically arise from his past mistakes) force him back into the role of a callous individual. He returns to the familiarity of liquor, cigarettes, casual sex and fast food—the clichéd merry-go-round of a B-grade, albeit wealthy, existence. Real happiness eludes BoJack. Hedonistic pleasure surrounds and traps him. Pretty heavy stuff, suffice to say, if not shockingly original. It is, however, very human and surprisingly entertaining in its honest exploration of its subject.

The ten episodes of season three epitomize the dramedy of “failing upward.” No matter how numerous or desperate his attempts, BoJack never seems to improve his well-being—the great peril of addiction, as it were. There’s a feeling of hopelessness in his situation that underlies the series. He’ll never finish a movie; he won’t get a role; he won’t work to maintain the relationships he takes for granted. His attempts to escape that hopelessness—because they are often ludicrous, inane stunts placed in a world with witty marmosets—engender laughter. In fact they are quite saddening at heart. Case in point: He tries to cancel a subscription to the LA Times, and after an entire episode of funny banter, his efforts reward him with some cheap manipulative therapy from a customer service rep via cell-phone.

The show deals in a particular type of cruelty, one not forcibly injected into the plot. It is one that emerges from the characters, and especially from BoJack's crippling insecurity and obsession with self-image.

If this wasn’t an animation, this would be the most depressing show on Netflix, hands down, which doesn’t do it injustice. It’s because of the immature animation that the mature themes are allowed to develop surreptitiously. While you’re wondering about the satirical and sincere storylines, you’ll also wonder how all the animals (and humans) have compatible genitals so as to facilitate pleasurable sexual intercourse if not actual relationships. The medium of an animated sitcom belies the serious content, which in this season entail a fake abortion by a teenage dolphin pop-star and a perverted, almost Gatsby-esque bender to fix the past.

The visual artistry particularly shines with a psychedelic strength during the raucous and almost stereotypical party scenes, but also during long, daringly introspective shots of the titular character alone. (The alienating but catchy title sequence is a good example). It doesn’t cloak BoJack’s difficulties or trivialize them; it enhances a despair made palatable by his witticisms. He is handled as a damaged but pitiable character rather than as a carnival attraction. His actions, often insensitive and selfish, don’t materialize out of nothing. The show deals in a particular type of cruelty, one not forcibly injected into the plot. It is one that emerges from the characters, and especially from BoJack’s crippling insecurity and obsession with self-image.

And the characters are by far the best attributes of the show. BoJack’s core cadre of friends drive the story as much as he does: Princess Carolyn (a pink Persian cat, a workaholic talent agent and BoJack’s off-and-on sex-kitten), Diane Nguyen (a professional ghost writer turned professional ghost tweeter), her husband Mr. Peanutbutter (BoJack’s fun-loving frenemy, a famous Labrador Retriever), and Todd (a beanie-wearing, nonsensical deadbeat who lives on BoJack’s couch since before the show begins, and is arguably the closest thing BoJack has to a legitimate pal).

Vicarious side characters pepper the season as well. Two of my personal favorites are Cuddlywhiskers, a Harvard educated hamster, and Tom Jumbo-Grumbo, a whale of a news anchor who is often irritated at the recurrent mishaps occurring off camera in a parody of MSNBC. The show’s literal animalistic jabs at celebrity personas are equally smile-inducing: Quentin Tarantulino (basically if Tarantino was an arachnid) and Copernicus (the feline stand-in for L. Ron Hubbard of Scientology) are but two silly Easter eggs that satirize the larger silliness of Hollywood. The most glaring indictment against such culture may be in an earlier season when the D is stolen from the famous sign, and the place officially becomes ‘Hollywoo’ for everyone. It’s never replaced.

Early on, Cuddlywhiskers offers a nugget of wisdom to both Diane and BoJack over Indian tea: “Only when you give up everything can you begin to find a way to be happy.” For BoJack, who carries a literal horse load of emotional baggage, it seems that this is the only way forward because he has no more excuses to fall back on—a potentially frightening meditation, and not too bad for what began as just another online sitcom.

It is, I’m glad to say, one of the rare shows that betters as it progresses. It abandoned the clichéd tropes that riddled the first season for a struggle of human proportions by the end of the third. It uses cruelty to color its comedy, and to lend it lingering gravitas. Of course some of the show’s staples may be misfires for some. The chuckling puns and gags are still aplenty and usually effective. Certain subplots can wear a viewer’s patience down to zilch. And while it’s not perfect, it has definitely improved over the span of three seasons. To my delight, a fourth has been green-lighted and is set to debut next summer.

I keep remembering one scene in particular from the first episode of season three. BoJack is being interviewed by Amanda Hannity, a fashionista from Manatee Fair (you can guess this jab), and out of left field, she asks, “So, what’s next for BoJack?”

He responds without hesitation, eyes circular and indignant, “Whaddya mean what’s next? Why does everything have to have a next?”

That, BoJack, is a cruel fact of living life.

Written by Abhinav Tiku

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