In a world in which television is increasingly relocated to the Internet, a titan of online streaming emerged to provide content on demand. But Netflix has since transcended its initial purpose, becoming well-known for providing original programming. Its many prominent offerings, which compete for awards with prototypical television, include political dramas like House of Cards, documentaries like Making a Murderer, and the dramedy Orange is the New Black.
But here, I’d like to ignore all of the network’s most recognizable titles and focus on one that has won one sole Critic’s Choice award. I’d like to make a case for Netflix’s best but least-loved original show—Bojack Horseman.
Horseman, created by cartoonist Raphael Bob-Waksberg, is an animated dramedy about a depressed and washed-up sitcom actor struggling to find love and meaning more than 20 years after his show is cancelled. It’s not necessarily recent—season two debuted last summer—but season three is set to release this year.
The cast of Horseman is truly star-studded, and for this reason alone it deserves more attention than it gets already. The main horse himself is voiced by Will Arnett of Arrested Development, while Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul voices the human Todd who sleeps on his couch. Amy Sedaris shines as Princess Carolyn, Bojack’s feline talent agent. And Paul F. Tompkins and Community’s Allison Brie star opposite each other as canine Mr. Peanutbutter, Bojack’s optimistic, also post-sitcom foil, and Diane, Mr. Peanutbutter’s human ghostwriter girlfriend. Other voice actors include, to name just a few, Patton Oswalt, Stanley Tucci, Stephen Colbert, Lisa Kudrow, Paul McCartney, Ben Schwartz, Kristen Chenoweth, and Daniel Radcliffe.
Bojack’s world exists in the tension between fantasy and reality. Its themes are recognizable, but its watercolor animation and cast of anthropomorphic animals lend it a certain trippy whimsy. Its title sequence has a dark, dreamy effect and a saxophone solo, and its ending music is indie-sounding and atmospheric.
But beyond its aesthetics and acting, Horseman’s genius lies in its grand character study. The reason it might not have the attention it merits is the relative weakness of its first six episodes (despite the BC shoutout in one of them). But this rocky start serves to show the rockiness of Bojack’s personality—his alcoholism, sleaziness, abrasiveness, and narcissism, hallmarks of humor on other animated adult shows that feel passe coming from Bojack.
But as Bojack works with Diane to write his memoir over the course of the first season, he’s forced to confront his past and, more importantly, his past mistakes. In the second season, he works on his dream movie playing Secretariat (now a horse-headed runner avoiding the Vietnam draft) only to realize it doesn’t make him happy. And as Bojack goes through his darkest moments and is forced to reflect on how to become a better person—or whether he can become a better person at all—the characters around him reevaluate themselves as well.
Sure, the show seems pretty outlandish at times, as animated shows have some license to be. Princess Carolyn dates one guy during both seasons, a man Bojack notices is obviously three kids stacked on top of each other under a trench coat. Bojack dates a woman who has recently emerged from a 30-year coma who has thus never seen his television show. But despite its preposterous setups, the show never feels like it’s confronting artificial issues between its characters, whether it’s Princess Carolyn’s immaturity or Bojack’s burdensome celebrity and jealousy.
Horseman is even topical in its own indirect way with its character archetypes. Kristen Schaal (Louise on Bob’s Burgers) voices Sarah Lynn, who played the youngest daughter on Bojack’s sitcom but has since become a sexualized pop music icon, in and out of rehab. A beloved father-figure actor, hippo Hank Hippopopalous (voiced by Philip Baker Hall, with too many credits to name), is accused by his former assistants of sexual harassment, and Diane’s campaign against him is futile in the face of his celebrity. Beyond real-life incidents, it even reflects on typical movie stereotypes and norms. It was refreshing to watch Princess Carolyn, rom-com obsessed and unlucky in love, realize that she isn’t afraid of being alone.
Horseman is a meditation on Hollywood, celebrity, and finding authentic happiness. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny and surprisingly hard-hitting. Its visual jokes, some of which I caught only on the fourth or so viewing, fill up 100-plus-item Buzzfeed lists. And the combination of all these small contrivances, which many shows can’t achieve one of, makes Horseman a horse of a different color.
Featured Image By The Tornate Company