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‘BoJack Horseman,’ ‘Rick and Morty,’ and Our Love/Hate Relationship with TV

'BoJack Horseman,' 'Rick and Morty,' and Our Love/Hate Relationship with TV

Boob tube. Idiot box. Couch potato. Binge watch. If slang is a side door into the psyche, the language we’ve come to associate with television suggests it may be time to see a therapist. Even better, tune into insanely inventive animated comedies “BoJack Horseman” (Netflix), featuring voice work from the likes of Will Arnett, Lisa Kudrow, and Aaron Paul, and “Rick and Morty” (Adult Swim), from Justin Roiland (“Adventure Time”) and “Community” creator Dan Harmon. They’re both hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking examinations of our love/hate relationship with television.  

Americans now spend half their leisure time watching TV, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the proliferation of new series—not to mention the growing number of classic titles available via Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu—means that there’s more worth seeing than even an insomniac critic can keep up with. Yet the form still provokes ambivalence, apologetic paeans to “guilty pleasures” and the smug clarion call of “I don’t even own a TV,” as if we might need to inoculate ourselves against becoming the blob people of Pixar’s “WALL-E,” floating helplessly in an infinite stream of “content.”

“Don’t sit so close to the TV, it’ll make you cruel,” the young BoJack Horseman’s mother (Wendie Malick) says to this end in one flashback from the second season of Netflix’s surprisingly moving farce, but it turns out her caution’s misplaced. With wicked, knowing allusions to the medium’s past and present, “BoJack Horseman” holds a magnifying glass to “Hollywoo”—an exaggerated version of Hollywood populated by both humans and anthropomorphized animals—until it’s engulfed in flames, yet never fails to treat its stunted characters with care. The series is obsessed with the small screen, but vicious it is not.

The second season follows equine protagonist BoJack Horseman (Arnett) as he launches the next stage of his career, reciting hash-tagged affirmations from self-help audiotapes as if to ward off the inevitable return to Earth. The debauched former star of a humdrum sitcom called “Horsin’ Around,” BoJack retreats from the abyss of substance abuse only to confront the terrifying notion, as Saint Teresa of Avila had it, that answered prayers cause more tears than unanswered ones.

He struggles mightily, for instance, in his return to the screen—a “prestigious” biopic of Secretariat—before the script is watered down in testing, and still watches “Horsin’ Around” in his darker moments, desperate to recapture the past. In “Hollywoo” as in Hollywood, styles and stars fall out of fashion as quickly as contentment itself, saved only, and only fleetingly, by a vogue for nostalgia.

Indeed, the cloudiest lining in the series’ quicksilver humor may be the fact that its least neurotic character, BoJack’s new girlfriend, an owl named Wanda (Lisa Kudrow), has recently emerged from a coma. “Everything feels fresh,” as publisher-turned-TV executive Pinky Penguin (Patton Oswalt) comments, “if you just forget the last thirty years ever happened.”

It’s this attention to cultural amnesia that constitutes the truest arrow in the series’ quiver, and the brutal, fascinating episode “Hank After Dark,” which tackles our tendency to sweep the alleged or admitted crimes of prominent male celebrities under the rug, focuses on a frustrated attempt to remember. When Diane (Alison Brie), the ghostwriter of BoJack’s autobiography, draws renewed attention to eight women who’ve accused iconic performer Hank Hippopopalous (Philip Baker Hall) of sexual assault, she, not Hank, is submitted to hatred and harassment. Even her husband, the otherwise kindly Labrador retriever Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), chooses his revived career over her principles.

The deft construction of “Hank After Dark”—it’s a droll treatment of rape culture that includes nary a rape joke—crystallizes the insidious power that the desire to be entertained sometimes wields over the need to be human. It’s terrifically witty, of course, with a sharply drawn cameo from Christine Baranski and a loudmouth men’s rights activist in the guise of a (literal) pest, but here, as elsewhere, the black humor of “BoJack Horseman” comes infinitesimally close to real life, a portrait of the animals we become when the the screen’s blue glare blinds us to the truth.

This is, as it happens, the very mixture of joy and terror at the heart of “Rixty Minutes,” the brilliant burst of invention that encapsulates the ethos of Adult Swim’s “Rick and Morty.” Based on Roiland’s short films “The Real Animated Adventures of Doc and Mharti,” the series—an animated sci-fi sitcom whose Season 2 premiere, “A Rickle in Time,” might best be described as a Salvador Dalí-illustrated comic strip about a physics experiment conducted by John Barth—follows a similar logic to “BoJack Horseman,” though it’s sketchier in form and function: that of our uncomfortable, slightly ashamed infatuation with television.

In “Rixty Minutes,” from the first season, Rick (Roiland), a mad scientist with a shock of blue hair and a near-permanent slick of spittle and booze on his chin, and his 14-year-old grandson, Morty (also, almost unbelievably, Roiland), surf through a cable box of infinite alternate realities. As the sidekicks revel in a marathon of exceedingly strange, improvisational pop-culture parodies, Morty’s mother (Sarah Chalke) and father (Chris Parnell) see the more glamorous lives they might have lived in a kind of multi-dimensional Oculus Rift, and Morty’s older sister, Summer (Spencer Grammer), learns in the process that her conception was an accident.

“Rixty Minutes,” set entirely inside the family home, at first seems a major departure for the series, and in some sense it is. Most episodes focus on Rick and Morty’s adventures in a grotesque, misanthropic cosmos, including one, “Rick Potion #9,” in which a cascade of miscalculations “Cronenbergs” the world, and Rick and Morty must abandon the resulting dystopia of depraved praying mantis-slug monsters by moving to an alternate reality in which they’re already dead. (If you haven’t figured it out by now, “Rick and Morty” is completely fucking insane, and I adore it unreservedly.)

In its tone and thematic thrust, however—in its eccentric, playful rendering of the existential crisis that is modern life—”Rixty Minutes” is “Rick and Morty” par excellence. As befits Harmon’s checkered past, from the creation of “Community,” a mostly meta-fictional comedy with an ardent cult following, to ugly public spats with Chevy Chase, Sony, and NBC, “Rick and Morty” shifts from deep-cut appreciations of the medium’s conventions to the narcissistic, lonesome ennui of the binge. It’s a series made by and for those who sincerely love television yet despise certain of its worst excesses, which is to say everyone who’s fired up an episode of “House of Cards” and returned to consciousness 13 hours later, greasy and lethargic and more than a little sad.

“Rick and Morty” returns Sunday with much the same outlook, transforming Ursula Le Guin and “Midnight Run” into half-hour tragicomedies of “possible impossibilities” and imminent death, but it’s “Rixty Minutes” that so incisively conveys the paradox of our most common terms for television: the notion that one of the primary drivers of what we call “culture” may also be the end of it.

Near the episode’s conclusion, finding the despondent Summer in the kitchen, Morty gestures toward the shallow graves in which he and Rick buried their alternate selves in “Rick Potion #9” and offers an especially blunt take on the uses of television. Whether you read the moment as a condemnation—that we watch to deaden ourselves to the universe’s cruel indifference—or an affirmation—that we find some necessary sustenance in these silly stories of ours—the crucial point may be that the medium isn’t the message. The medium is what we make of it.

“Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die,” Morty says gently, poised between hope and despair. “Come watch TV?”

The second season of “BoJack Horseman” is now streaming on Netflix. The second season of “Rick and Morty” premieres Sunday, July 26 at 11:30pm on Adult Swim.

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