It’s not easy being a horse in Hollywoo.
So back when I talked about Your Name’s new standing as the greatest anime of all time, I expressed a little disbelief that the people who’ve been praising some recent anime (especially the light novel adaptations) for the suffering of its lead characters have never referenced Bojack Horseman. I mean I find it hard to believe that if you’re an animation fan, you haven’t at least heard of Bojack Horseman. It’s considered among many animation circles to be one of the best cartoons in recent years for its shitty main characters and the depressing story lines that occur from their personalities, particularly in regards to its half-man, half-horse protagonist: a former sitcom star named Bojack who’s aiming to make it big but keeps screwing up because of his cynical attitude and remarkable ability to ruin what few friendships he has due to his own selfish desires and addiction to alcohol.
The show has a reputation for mixing the bizarreness you can only find in animation with human stories so powerful that the best visual novel writer in the business would swear fealty to it, and before we get into what the Japanese consider good animation centered on self-loathing protagonists next week, I figured I’d give attention to the much more well-known American version of that tale. Oh and since I know some people are going to ask, no there isn’t a given reason for why penguins are living alongside humans, how horses and owls can breed with each other, and all that other stuff that comes from having a setting full of anthropomorphic talking animals. It’s just the way the world works and yes, there are a few throwaway gags related to how cows can buy meat at the grocery store without being referred to as cannibals. Hahaha, let’s get on with this.
Bojack Horseman starts out simply enough to the point that most people mistake it for another throwaway “crazy” American cartoon similar to Brickleberry or anything Seth McFarlane has ever made. When we first meet Bojack, he’s partaking in standard animated sitcom gags and talking about making a comeback after being away from the screen for so long due to the huge amount of money and success he got from Horsin Around, a sort of old-school Full House-y sitcom that’s hated by today’s crowd but he stands by as a good show because people clearly watched it enough to the point that it got nine seasons. Part of his comeback involves writing his own memoirs, but since the dude can’t write for shit, he hires a ghost writer named Diane Nguyen who it turns out is also the girlfriend/fiancee of his happy-go-lucky rival, Mr. Peanutbutter. Of course, he wants to glorify himself whilst Diane wants him to be humble, and it leads to a lot of arguments that end up with Bojack gaining feelings for the only female who can stand to be around him. This is a situation that gets wrapped up by the time the first season ends, but it also functions as the catalyst for the show to jump into other story lines fueled by Bojack’s insecurities/self-loathing behavior, as well as come into its own as one of the most mature cartoons you’ll ever see.
I’m not really sure how long Bojack Horseman is going to be, but given the way the show grows and improves with each season, I wouldn’t mind if it stayed on for at least 2-3 more years. Admittedly though, I and a lot of people had a bit of trouble getting into it at first, and despite its consistent increase in quality, Bojack has never been able to make it into my favorite TV series list. Why? Because quite frankly, I don’t think this show is very funny. I’m not really into that King of the Hill-style of dry humor that characterizes most of the critically acclaimed sitcoms we’ve been getting as of late, and I’m also not into self-aware humor, which Bojack also frequently delves into. If you want a good understanding of what I mean, here’s the trailer for the second season.
If you think the jokes in that trailer are hilarious, then congratulations, because that’s the highest level of humor you’re really going to get from this show other than the occasional moment of brilliance.
At the very start of the show, and to a lesser extent at the beginning of each new season, Bojack runs on that outdated (and quite frankly, stupid) principle that you need to use comedy and fun moments to characterize the cast beforehand so that when the dramatic moments come, you can care about the characters’ struggles. To which I always reply, “bull-fucking-shit”. You can easily characterize the cast whilst starting the drama – let alone the story – at the very beginning, as some of the most successful television dramas in the world have managed to accomplish. And whilst the “happy moments first/dramatic moments later” route isn’t inherently awful, make sure that the fun moments have more to them than just characterization for its own sake. All Bojack manages at the very start are a few cheap potshots at celebrity culture and that our main character is a jackass with no real indication of where the show is going to take that behavior, which was why it initially got mixed reviews.
But make no mistake, once Bojack Horseman does get into gear, it more than lives up to its reputation. Now I obviously can’t spoil exact moments, but let me make it clear that there are no circumstantial problems within this show unless it’s being used as fuel to set someone’s characterization on fire. Bojack just can’t act like a good person even when he sets out to be one, always getting drunk at the wrong time or having sex with the wrong person, and making people’s lives worse in the process to the point that the only thing stopping him from committing suicide are his friends. And even then, it’s mostly his homeless roommate, Todd, who has to reign his humanity in because he’s the only one who isn’t dealing with problems as big as the other characters on account of him being stoned all the time (although he has problems of his own as well). Mr. Peanutbutter may be a happy go-lucky anthropomorphic Golden Retriever, but there’s a limit to what he can take, and the faults that come with the celebrity life as well as his relationship with Diane (not helped by the fact that she suffers from conflicts brought about by her own inferiority) kinda reminds me of that that carefree dad that knows how to discipline their kid when they have to. Then there’s the final main character, Princess Carolyn, who has to deal with her own career choices and how much she loses continuing to manage Bojack because of how much she cares for him. Oh, and she’s a purple anthromorphic cat. Should mention that too.
Whilst the focus is mostly on Bojack throughout the show’s run, every single one of these characters has their own life to lead, and the only thing keeping them from giving up on it are the few vital accomplishments they manage to achieve either due to comical luck or personal heart-to-hearts. If we have to compare Bojack Horseman to an anime for all you “only Eastern cartoons are worth paying attention to” nerds, think of Shirobako channeling Yahari except with the kind of heaviness (and wackiness to a lesser extent) you’d expect from a Satoshi Kon anime. Even during its light-hearted moments, this show does not let up in regards to putting its characters through the ringer – and in fact, it’s because of those light-hearted moments in some cases that the heaviness is as effective as it is. After all, what may be casual racism/sexism humor to one guy can mean “I’m a failure” to the person he’s directing said humor towards. That sort of confusion between what’s comedic and what’s dramatic can backfire horribly, but when it’s executed Sideways-style, it can really bring out the best in a “this is the worst” situation. And when you can do it for multiple situations and characters at the same time, that’s just making the soap opera writers cry whilst looking at themselves in the mirror.
Also, the choice to make Bojack an animated sitcom rather than a live-action one is far more than just a style to allow the descendants of Animal Farm to mingle with Naomi Watts. There’s this one episode in the third season that takes place almost entirely underwater where Bojack can’t speak, and thus has to rely on the visuals in order to tell the story. And my god did that episode sucker punch me good, especially in the end with a last-minute twist that’s both cringeworthy and hilariously brilliant. I’m sure there are other episodes where the animation really comes to life that I’m not thinking of at the moment, but that’s the most noteworthy one to guys like me who love animation (and that sort of visual storytelling in general) as a medium, and it’s one of the many reasons I’m looking forward to watching that Koe no Katachi film since I’ve heard it uses quite a bit of wordless exchanges in order to convey its story as well. Even if the overall product isn’t what I’d call great, it’s definitely capable of the occasional greatness that pushes the boundaries of what animation can accomplish to its limits, and any animated product that does is worth giving some praise. Even in a dreck show like Family Guy that had that one pretty cool Disney musical parody.
So while the humor mostly does not appeal to me and probably won’t appeal to you, Bojack Horseman gets my recommendation for its excellent dramatic storytelling and the bizarre animation techniques used to convey it. Also, that opening is awesome and skipping it at the start of each episode should be considered a federal crime.
- First Kimi no Na wa, and now Koe no Katachi. This is a great year for anime movies, isn’t it?
- I should probably watch Sideways sometime. Heard really good things about that movie.
- Not sure if I’d say the celebrity satire improves over time, but it’s mostly on-point without really being ironic about it, if nothing else.