When people speak of the artistic freedoms newly afforded to television showrunners in the age of “binge” viewing, they seem to be thinking in terms of big, Emmy-baiting dramas with prestigious stars, such as Netflix’s distributive model-changing House of Cards. Dramatic shows, however, are conventionally shaped in terms of season-long arcs anyway. It’s the comedy that stands to evolve the most as viewers continue to consume their entertainment differently, which the fourth season of Arrested Development proved. Freed from the self-contained, “episodic” constraints of network television, the show’s most recent season offered an adventurous merging of sitcom and soap opera, retrofitting the latter’s twists for a hall-of-mirrors in which glancing jokes were revisited until the reverberations cumulatively shaped punchlines of surprising stream-of-conscious complexity. BoJack Horseman, which features quite a few Arrested Development alumni, follows in this blossoming tradition of genre elasticity.
The animated series follows a washed-up actor/comedian, clearly meant to suggest Full House’s Bob Saget if he lived in the debauched world of Californication, who’s also a rich, talking, upright horse voiced by Will Arnett. The first season offered a bait and switch that’s now more commonly feasible for sitcoms in the age of binge viewing, morphing from an amusing but predictable insider-Hollywood parody into a wounded and more or less straight-faced study of addiction and self-loathing. This tonal loop de loop was all the more effective for its casualness: With each episode, the jokes’ emphases subtly shifted away from the amusement of the initial punchlines to the sting left in their wake. By the end, a horse standing in a deserted ghostwriters’ convention pleading for the love of a human woman became the stuff of un-ironic absurdist pathos.
BoJack Horseman’s second season is an even more confident blend of the various tones it experimentally donned last year, as it’s simultaneously melancholic, angry, goofy, playful, and often uproariously funny in a distinctively ineffable what-the-fuck fashion. The series no longer oscillates between comedy and drama in the relatively clean either/or alternation that defined the first season; those moods are now merged and subsumed into a surprisingly terse satire of capitalism. Specificities of medium are key to the show’s success, particularly to its bracing lack of hypocrisy: Animation muddies the fantasy worship that’s inherent in entertainment concerned with the potentially lucrative contexts of its own creation. Cartoon renderings of luxurious homes, sports cars, and gorgeous women lack the primal pull of their live-action counterparts, because the drawings work as an effective, ingrained distancing device. Removing envy and titillation from the equation of a Hollywood story, creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg and his collaborators home in on the dwindling of long-term concentration and corresponding expansion of faux self-awareness that’s come to define social media-enabled life in the 21st century. BoJack Horseman isn’t exactly a parody of celebrity culture, but rather of the distractions that feed on our narcissism, encouraging everyone to fancy themselves celebrities at the escalating expense of morality and even common courtesy.
This season features a characteristic joke in which the pain and existential crisis of death are laundered depressingly through the superficial Me-worship of Twitter. BoJack’s mentor, Herb (Stanley Tucci), miraculously recovers from rectal cancer only to die in a traffic accident because his car hit a truck full of peanuts, to which he’s allergic, because he was tweeting about his doctor’s appointment while driving. Herb’s last documented thoughts are revealed to be hashtags such as “#cancerfree,” “#invincible,” and, best of all, “#tweetingwhiledriving.” This scene is a deliberately flippant payoff to one of season one’s most poignant episodes, in which BoJack met Herb again after years of estrangement while wrestling with the betrayals that made him a household name as the star of a Full House/Family Matters clone called Horsin’ Around. The joke works on its own inventive, speed-freak terms (reading these tweets is Henry Winkler as himself, who goes on to memorably proclaim that “there’s no shame in dying for nothing, that’s why most people die”), but intensifies, via the increasingly self-referential mode of modern sitcom structure, through one’s familiarity with Herb from the prior season.
BoJack Horseman exudes a tough-love sense of humanity that recalls the later comedy of George Carlin. Like Carlin, the series doesn’t take accepted wisdom for granted. All platitudes are fair game for lambasting, including the liberal clichés that are used as a mode of practicing an insidiously fashionable elitism that begets yet another form of social distance (rich parodic material that’s also beautifully mined by Key and Peele and Inside Amy Schumer). Landing his dream film role of Secretariat (an amusing touch in itself), BoJack collaborates with an “indie” film director who anxiously admits she needs this project to escape the unprofitable dregs of filming movies about well-intentioned lesbians. In a telling touch, we always see BoJack filming variations of one scene: a locker room pep talk that includes the obligatory, Oscar-baiting “magical negro.” More traditional spoofs of dehumanization complement these parodies of insensitivity and appropriation: The characters’ various misbehaviors are often tracked by vapid TV hosts who’re identified as “a Ryan Seacrest type” and “An Actress or Something,” reporting casualties with mock concern while dishing gossipy congratulations to one another. And with remarkably timed matter-of-factness, a character coming out of a coma concedes that “finding out Sinatra was dead was a real curveball. Ditto the rest of my family.”
A high watermark for BoJack Horseman, one episode flirts disturbingly with the show’s purposefully cloudy racial/classist implications of allowing some animals to behave as humans, even mating with people, while others behave simply as animals. Embodying that confusing divide are chickens, which can speak English and hold down jobs like the various birds, bears, cats, and horses that populate this world, unless they’re specifically bred to be eaten by restaurants such as Chicken 4 Dayz, which inject them with the sorts of chemicals that are familiar to real fast-food chains. When a humanoid chicken escapes the corporation’s clutches, a farce is set in motion, with Todd (Aaron Paul) and Diane (Alison Brie) attempting to rescue the bird for reasons that are unsentimentally understood to reflect their needs to reaffirm their own private self-mythologies as heroic, pro-active people.
This narrative succinctly pokes at a number of social fissures at once—most obviously the controversy over the treatment of the animals we eat, but it also more figuratively suggests the plights of the elderly and even of immigrants, both groups that are herded up into institutions that take eerie pride in their transparently flimsy benevolence. The chicken is taken to a place, overseen by traitorous members of its kind, called Gentle Farms, which resembles an abusive old folks’ home, spouting safe homilies while preparing its captives for the swing of a great, bloody, in this case literal ax. This surreal insanity yields a one-liner that embodies the show’s distinctly empathetic, outraged nihilism in a nutshell: “Of all the places that will eventually kill her, Gentle Farms seemed like the best.”