“House of Cards” and its awards-caliber casting and polished direction boldly announced Netflix’s transformation from on-demand media library to original television provider. “Orange is the New Black” and its provocative ensemble took things even further, proving the streaming service was capable of launching a series into the media zeitgeist and shattering any perception that its game-changing plans for online-only content would live in one-hit-wonder infamy. But while Kevin Spacey’s Shakespearian plotting and Jenji Kohan’s progressive storytelling have successfully redefined Netflix as a major television force with programming in the same critical and commercial ballpark as that of cable titans HBO, Showtime, AMC, etc., it’s currently an anthropomorphic cartoon horse and his severe egomania that’s bringing out the very best of what Netflix can do in the age of binge-watching.
“BoJack Horseman,” created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg and executive produced by voice stars Will Arnett and Aaron Paul, has been gaining an enthusiastic fan base in the month since its unusually quiet August 22nd series premiere. Featuring Arnett as a washed up, self-absorbed horse trying to recapture his glory years of sitcom stardom by hiring a ghostwriter to help with his memoir, the 12-episode first season received mixed reviews from television critics who were only allowed to screen the first six installments, with Indiewire’s own Ben Travers awarding the series a C+. Although critical of the conventional material beneath the show’s enjoyable personification of animals, Travers concluded, “‘BoJack Horseman’ may need some time to find its own rhythms and establish its focus. It was getting into a groove in its final two episodes available for review, and even if that’s as good as it gets, it sure beats being kicked in the urethra” (a nod to the show’s opening line).
The show unquestionably gets stronger in its back half, where a deeper sense of character pathos emerges underneath all the absurd bursts of Hollywood satire and anthropomorphic humor, but it would be unwise to dismiss the earlier, more traditional episodes given their structural importance. The reason the first season as a whole is so memorably entertaining is because “BoJack” is not just a comedy show on Netflix, it’s a comedy show for Netflix.
The Netflix Shows That Aren’t Really Netflix Shows
Much has been written about the revolution of television via binge watching ever since Netflix dropped the 13-episode first season of “House of Cards” all at once in February 2013. Hate it or love it, the move was inarguably game changing, inspiring countless conversations about how we consume television in the digital age. While Netflix has been a pioneer of binge watching, its original programming has been ironically light on binge-friendly constructions.
Let’s face it, the only beneficial aspect of binge watching “House of Cards” is that it makes its nitpick-worthy plot holes less glaring. If you were to put Beau Willimon’s political drama on HBO, it would more than likely retain the same dramatic pulse week-to week that it does when binged multiple episodes at a time. Many would even argue that “House of Cards” could benefit from a week-to-week release given the complex insider politics that can grow exhaustive after a single episode.
Similarly, “Orange is the new Black” would lose none of its comic spirit if it were a part of Showtime’s dynamic lineup of complex, female-led dramedies. Sure, fans love to rapidly binge “Orange” because the colorful ensemble is so addicting, and if one episode focuses on a bland character you can binge until an episode showcases a prisoner you love — but these habits are predicated solely on the viewer’s bingeing preferences and not on the construction of the show itself. Fans may love to binge these Netflix television hits, but their story structures in no way demand for the shows to be viewed this way.
Why “Arrested Development” Got It Right (And “BoJack” Does, Too)
Out of the handful of original series and show continuations Netflix has offered prior to “BoJack,” only the fourth season of “Arrested Development” has made the streaming service’s binge-watching platform vital to experiencing the show as a whole. When Mitchell Hurwitz resurrected the beloved FOX comedy on Netflix, fans and critics were vastly divided on the results, mainly because what they got was an entirely different show with a structure tailored for the Netflix platform. The first half of season four is a laborious experience at times given the slow moving setup and the many visual gags and callbacks being thrown up in the air, but its structural importance becomes intelligently clear once the later episodes reach up and twist every storyline into each other. Season 4 is essentially a meticulously constructed single episode split into 15 parts, one that must be binged to achieve its maximum comedic effect.
Watch “Arrested Development” Season 4 week-to-week and most viewers will check out within the first month as the show seemingly goes nowhere. But binge a couple episodes at time and the cyclone of inside jokes and interconnected plots spin faster and faster until nearly every story, every character and every gag has a howling comic payoff. What Hurtwitz’s Season 4 master plan gives way to is a comedy constructed specifically for the Netflix digital age. The laughs are inherently built into the binge-watching process, and the binge-watching process gives way to a storm of uproarious laughs.
“BoJack” doesn’t come close to the convoluted extremes of “Arrested Development” Season 4, but it absolutely follows suit in structuring binge watching for comedic effect. The show’s traditional first half has lots of setup. There’s the characters to introduce, including BoJack (Arnett), his roommate Todd, his agent Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), and so many more. There’s a world to be established, one in which animals and humans coexist in a madcap Los Angeles. And there’s also a humorous comic pacing that has to take shape, in which scenes often begin out of context (i.e. showing Mr. Peanutbutter with his canine head out of the window before the camera zooms out to reveal he’s driving) and end with a surreal blast of random humor (i.e. two birds trying to fly out of a building but slamming into the glass window).
But as the show hits its back half, its character building pulls into clearer focus as all of the first half setups reappear and transform our understanding of the characters. This certainly rings true for BoJack, particularly during a rambunctious Episode 11 drug trip that takes into account images and plot points from the series up through that point, but it also applies to characters like Princess Carolyn. After spending much of the season as a nagging supporting player, Carolyn is given a character-centric Episode 7 that functions as an emotional breakthrough for the character by recycling all the frustrated phone calls and feline-specific sight gags that have preceded it.
The Hidden Beauty of Binge Watching
Similar to “Arrested Development” Season 4, “BoJack” is one long master arc split into two halves — setup and payoff — and binge watching is the key to consuming it most successfully. (None of this is to say the show has to be viewed this way.) While “BoJack” certainly has linear character building, its story operates in a way where traditional plot elements and sporadic characters ultimately wrap around to show their effectiveness on the story in the back half of the season. The longer the viewer waits between episodes, and between halves for that matter, the longer it takes for jokes and characters to have their indelible payoff. Importantly, the binge-watching possibility Netflix offers its viewers is integral to facilitating “BoJack’s” structural effectiveness.
Many of the recurring characters we meet early on, for example, don’t become essential until they reappear later in the season to rattle BoJack’s world. Sarah-Lynn (Kristen Schaal), BoJack’s pandemonium-causing former costar, is introduced in the show’s first three episodes, but her role as a mania-enabler doesn’t pay off until her darkly twisted reappearance in Episode 11. We are a treated to a few scenes with BoJack’s mentor Herb Kazzaz (Stanley Tucci) early on, but his emotional anchoring of the series doesn’t land until Episode 8. Even plot points, such as BoJack’s constant sabotaging of Todd’s plans to move out, are introduced rather conventionally before becoming character-building obstacles episodes down the road. All of these attributes would be intact if “BoJack” was a weekly series, just as they are in numerous broadcast and cable shows, but taking advantage of the show’s platform and bingeing the season allows the characters and plot points to reoccur organically, in funny and surprising ways, and not just as clunky, late-in-the-game reintroductions so that BoJack can learn an opportune lesson-of-the-week. The quicker the viewer consumes the season, the more he or she is bound to see how “BoJack” uses its streaming platform to spin conventionality into its own uniquely witty comic pacing.
The binge-watching process also energizes the endless sight gags and gives all the Hollywood mockery a delirious, rapid-fire rush. “BoJack” is a show so jam-packed with Easter eggs, you could overstuff a hundred baskets and still have enough gags to fill a hundred more. Certain bits are one-and-done hilarious, such as anytime the show presents the animalized counterpart of a Hollywood star (a typically erratic Quentin Tarantino as a tarantula is a highlight) or features a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it world-building gag (rebranded magazine covers, Princess Carolyn drinking catnip tea), but most are delightfully intertwined throughout the entire season. Watch closely as small gags slowly evolve into bigger punch lines across the season (there are a ton of throwaway “Breaking Bad” jokes that always pay off at the expense of Paul’s Todd), or as major set pieces end up reverberating jokes through subsequent episodes (here’s looking at you, David Boreanaz).
Episode 6 finds BoJack stealing the “D” from the Hollywood sign in order to impress Diane, but the action doesn’t become mind-splittingly smart until its used as a sly recurring joke in Episodes 7-12, be it as a major plot point like turning the theft into a movie or as a smaller hidden gem like newscast banners referring to Hollywood as “Hollywoo-.” Recurring gags are a staple of nearly every comedy series on air, but bingeing “BoJack’s” many jokes makes them do more than just humorously reappear, it lets them have their own comic pacing that soars and dives through the season like a gut-busting melody. Viewers consuming multiple episodes at a time not only uncover the show’s constant gags, but they also feel the comic pulse of them in the process.
Ultimately, the show even begins to toy with scene presentation, breaking up certain events between episodes so that binge watching gives way to the comedic or dramatic punch line. A scene in which Todd is assaulted by two bikini-clad babes straight out of “Spring Breakers” feels random in its context, but it yields a clever joke once you binge through the cold open of the following episode. It may be a useless gag plot-wise, but bingeing the two episodes gives it a structural humor that proves “BoJack” is always two steps ahead of the viewer.
Episode 8 is the emotional turning point of the entire season, and a major reason it works so well is because it subverts the viewer’s expectation of what might have happened to BoJack and Diane as teased at the end of Episode 7. Instances like these are vital to the binge-watching experience, for the emotional fake out in Episode 8 only works when the viewer’s emotional attachment is at its peak. Waiting a full week between these episodes would result in a loss of steam that would lesson the dramatic impact of the story.
Television for the Online Age
While “BoJack” may never be as critically adored or commercially sound as “House of Cards” or “Orange is the New Black,” it joins the equally-as-divisive fourth season of “Arrested Development” as a prime example of what makes Netflix such an exciting provider of original content: it takes into account the streaming service platform in which it is presented on and benefits structurally from said platform’s binge-watching possibilities. Put “BoJack” on FOX’s Animation Domination lineup and it will lose its comic bite and brisk pacing. Binge “BoJack” on Netflix, however, and it suddenly becomes a rich character piece moonlighting as an energetic spy game of Hollywood lampooning.
Now that “Cards” and “Orange” have cemented Netflix’s television status, here’s hoping more shows like “BoJack,” including its promisingly set up second season, will take full advantage of the binge-watching model to become television structured specifically for the online age.