There’s a throwaway gag early in BoJack Horseman season 3 about John From Cincinnati, the shortlived surf-Messiah dream noir HBO launched in 2007, right after the finale of The Sopranos. That show was a big swing and a glorious whiff; it tried to solve God, immigration, 9/11, and America using surfboards, parrots, and ‘90s teen icons styled identically for no apparent reason. No sane producer would admit to a John From Cincinnati influence, but looking back, that show started a new television age. Budgets got bigger, ambitions went wild, classic episode structures went out the window, filmmakers and movie stars started doing glossy TV dramas at the precise moment that glossy TV dramas started to feel like slow movies.
When BoJack Horseman launched a couple of years ago, it seemed like a comparatively modest endeavor. The title character is a faded sitcom star, living in a Hollywood where animals walk around like humans, but otherwise everyone is still terrible. The first episode quickly established the supporting cast: a wacky stoned roommate, a smiley frenemesis, a long-suffering agent, a spikey will-they-or-won’t-they love interest. There were showbiz jokes, and there was a vague notion that the show was riffing on the structure of Full House era sitcoms, with their easily-resolvable kerfuffles and their kindhearted end-of-episode messages. It was animated, and staffed with voices from cult comedy: Will Arnett, Alison Brie, Amy Sedaris, Paul F. Tompkins, so the show sounded vaguely like Arrested Development, Community, Strangers with Candy, and every comedy podcast since podcasts were invented.
But BoJack was a stealth missile. What initially seemed like a gag of celebrity excess became a panoramic epic of ego, frequently hilarious and deeply sad. BoJack is famous, and the show can be caustic and sharp in its portrait of Hollywood egos run amok. But on BoJack, fame always symbolizes something else: The desire to be known, the fear of being forgotten, the hope that making your dreams come true will make you happy, the underlying suspicion that dreams are better when they don’t come true. “I don’t know if I believe in it,” someone says in BoJack season 3, “Real lasting happiness.”
The irony is that, as season 3 begins, happiness seems within reach for everyone. BoJack has a buzzy role in a movie that’s getting serious Oscar talk; his long-suffering agent Princess Caroline is now running her own agency; Mr. Peanutbutter and Diane seem to have found something like domestic tranquility; even goofball Todd suddenly has genuine professional and romantic possibilities.
But the show’s graceful storytelling finds the hidden tragedies in its characters – broken dreams and lost ambitions and a general sense that something has gone wrong. It’s an unforgivable cliche to compare a great TV show to Sopranos, but BoJack scratches at several of the great ideas that motivated that series: The idea that any kind of happiness is a brief illusion, the Therapy Age urge toward self-realization mixed with the darkly comic belief that the only realization is that you don’t like that self. “It’s so sad that when you see someone as they really are; it ruins them,” says BoJack toward the middle of the season.
Thematically, this is the stuff of bleak and maybe boring drama. In actuality, BoJack is fast-paced, blissfully realized, a candy-colored world of grinning sinners. This is a show filled with animal puns, rapidfire wordplay, backdrop freezeframe jokes, meta-puns about animal puns. (The characters shop at “Beast Buy,” “Bed, Burrow and Beyond,” “Crate and Kennel,” and my favorite, “Lowes But Like A Animal Version.”) Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg and his writing staff have created, in BoJack, one of the densest comedy delivery systems of the new millennium. The new season builds the show outward from “Hollywoo,” sending BoJack to New York and points beyond. The fourth episode finds BoJack very beyond, in a kind of Lost in Translation situation, a story with almost no dialogue in a visual style that homages Charlie Chaplin and Super Mario Brothers.
I have a weird and very old-man problem: I don’t like a lot of shows designed for streaming. Too many of them feel, to me, like the producers took a couple hours of material and stretched it. This isn’t only true of streaming shows – True Detective season 2, Game of Thrones season 5, and this past season of The Walking Dead were all endless nothing-happenings filmed in glorious locations – but that just reflects how even nominally made-for-TV television has absorbed the lessons of the binge era. That’s true of nominal comedies, too – although Casual, Togetherness, and their ilk vibe more like indie dramedies than sitcoms. In both cases, it sometimes feels like whole episodes are just excess content, empty calories mixed into a bigger meal they know you’ll finish anyways.
Me and Jeff Jensen talk about this a bit in this week’s episode of Entertainment Geekly – which you can listen to below or download here – but suffice it to say that BoJack is something quite different. The show rewards close attention, hopes that you can keep track of A-plots and B-plots and subplots buried inside of subplots. (There’s a joke in the new season with a setup that lasts for eleven episodes, until the setup explicitly becomes a joke.) BoJack is one of the few shows that actually deserves credit for building out its “mythology,” with the added twist that BoJack world mixes bizarro-Hollywood goss with dense character histories. In that sense, it’s a show for the binge era, ideal for an all-in-one-sitting viewing experience.
But the show has also absorbed the spirit of ’80s and ‘90s sitcoms: It honors TV traditions, even as it explodes them. It can do, say, a bottle-ish episode focusing on BoJack tormented friendship/relationship/worklationship with Princess Caroline – a tale told practically in realtime, like one of those old Sam-and-Diane office conversations, except with a kitchen fire and a food critic thrown. The show will shake up the structure of an episode as only commercial-free TV can do – but it obeys the old rule of landing on a message, with the twist that the message is usually frustrating and poignant and cosmically sad. (“Only after you give up everything can you begin to find a way to be happy” is a typical episode-closing thought – an idea that makes nobody onscreen even remotely happy.)
This season is more digressive than the show’s first two years, and much more open-ended, sending core characters in different directions. But there’s a precision in the show’s expansion, a sense that the creative team wants to explore every corner of their comedy world – and every corner of the character’s psyches. And season 3 builds to one of the funniest, weirdest, and most profound moments I’ve ever seen in a television show – and that’s before the season finale.
Deep down, BoJack Horseman is just proof of that sanctified phrase from our modern Tabloid Era. Stars, they’re just like us: Frustrated, confused, desperate, hopeful, yearning for everything they can’t have! And sometimes, they’re a horse. A