How BoJack Horseman became the 21st Century’s best animation
The Netflix show has consistently been one of TV’s most incisive shows on subjects from women’s rights to mental health. As it returns for a final series, Chris Mandle pays tribute.
Warning: contains spoilers for the final series of BoJack Horseman
BoJack Horseman has been proof that the best shows take time to grow, even in a streaming-dominated era where the sheer volume of content released from week to week has led to an obsession with the new. When it launched in 2014, Netflix was still relatively new to the original programming game, and its initial successes – House of Cards, Orange is the New Black – were the kind of dense, addictive dramas familiar from prestige cable channels like HBO (Mad Men, Girls) or AMC (Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead). On paper, a crudely illustrated cartoon set in Hollywood about an alcoholic, depressed horse actor (voiced by Will Arnett), with a supporting cast of anthropomorphic animals, however, seemed like something thrown together in the eleventh hour of a brainstorm.
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But over time, it has grown in confidence and scope, while getting the knives out, particularly, for Hollywood – known in the show as ‘Hollywoo’ – and the broken systems supporting the world of celebrity. Come its second season, BoJack Horseman was hailed as ambitious and audacious – and since then its creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg has used it to delve into hot-button subjects from gun legislation to women’s reproductive rights and dementia.
One of the show’s most damning storylines remains season two’s Hank After Dark, in which journalist Diane Nguyen (Allison Brie) attempted to expose beloved talk show host Hank Hippopopalous for his alleged abusive behaviour. Not only was it a powerful story about a fictional man’s abuse of power, but Diane’s monologue to Hank saw her reel off a list of men who have faced real allegations of harassment or abuse, too; Christian Slater, Bill Murray, Woody Allen. It was a scathing shot fired not at a hippo in an imagined world, but at all the real men protected by an industry that stands to lose out financially were alleged abusers really held to account.
Whether it is ending before its time or not, it’s impossible to tell from the first eight episodes of the final series, which are as carefully plotted and meticulously arced as ever
Suddenly, BoJack wasn’t just a show featuring talking animals in a fantasy land, but a warped looking-glass intended for us to view American society through, the better for us to see its ugliness.
This week, the show begins its last act; launching on Friday, the sixth and final season has been split into two halves, with eight episodes airing now and a further eight coming in January 2020.
Was the decision to wrap it up a creative one? Given that it is one of Netflix’s most acclaimed shows, you might have thought so, though Breaking Bad star Aaron Paul, who voices BoJack’s friend Todd as well as producing, recently said on Twitter that the show had in fact been cancelled by Netflix – joining the ever-populated graveyard of content that the streaming service had no interest in pursuing any longer.
View image of (Credit: Netflix)
Whether it is ending before its time or not, though, it’s impossible to tell from the first eight episodes of the final series, which are as carefully plotted and meticulously arced as ever.
After the fifth season culminated in BoJack being driven to rehab to deal with a painkiller addiction which saw him assaulting his partner, season six seeks to explore BoJack’s difficult journey with himself – while also bringing a couple of long-simmering storylines from previous seasons back into the foreground.
One of the savviest ways it does that is through a new intro, which switches the usual sequence of BoJack stumbling through his house in a stupor for a more cerebral one that sees him witness some of the memories that have scarred him. It features an appearance by his embittered now-dead writing partner Herb (BoJack cut him off after he was outed by the media), a chilling shot of his mother’s coffin (BoJack left her, dementia stricken, in a shabby care-home as punishment for his own childhood) and even a callback to one of the show’s most shocking moments – the night he tried to seduce his friend’s seventeen-year-old daughter after getting her drunk at her prom.
The show’s consistent assaults on the rotting, soul-sucking entertainment industry continue to deliver some of its best work.
It sets up a run of episodes where BoJack has to confront the depth of his own failures and realise his own childhood of abuse and neglect has spread, pox-like, and damaged countless people he has come into contact with. These seem to be setting things up for a redemptive finale, in theory at least, though one snagging plot strand from the show’s third season – that of his friend and former co-star Sara Lynn’s heroin overdose and BoJack’s complicity in it – seems set to rear its head in the ugliest way imaginable.
BoJack Horseman has always been particularly acclaimed for the way in which it has explored human trauma, and this season it continues to do so in interesting ways. BoJack’s Persian cat ex-girlfriend and agent Princess Carolyn, who finally became a mother via surrogacy in the last series, has a maternal storyline that feels more honest than nearly every equivalent storyline on TV. The show explores her anger, resentment, and sense of duty in her new role, while carefully skewering Hollywood and the media’s fetishisation of successful, sassy, fearless, empowered women at the same time as it deftly yanks the ladder up behind them.
In fact, the show’s consistent assaults on the rotting, soul-sucking entertainment industry continue to deliver some of its best work. In one of the new episodes, a writer’s assistant’s strike reveals the powerful execs running Hollywood to be totally incompetent, while a withering storyline about a female superhero franchise called ‘Fireflame’ (“As soon as we run out of popular male characters, we have to make a movie about her”, says one exec) is well-timed given Marvel and DC’s current gender equality push.
With the end now in sight, it’s going to be fascinating to see where a show this committed to raw honesty will finally leave its central character. BoJack Horseman is not a particularly happy show – though audiences have found a sort of catharsis in its resistance to schmaltz and sentiment. And whether its lead deserves a redemptive end or more true to life is something fans may find themselves reflecting on. Can a happy ending exist for a show so steeped in real-world misery? We’ll find out come January.
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