When you look for beauty in life, the most rewarding moments are the unexpected. And for the third season in a row, the Hollywood comedy “BoJack Horseman” has surprised us.
That’s weird to say about a show which stars a cartoon celebrity horse (voiced by Will Arnett) whose personal morals are pretty much nonexistent. But Netflix and creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg have made something profound, re-watchable and dense — and yes, also beautiful and traumatizing.
Start with the very first episode of “BoJack,” and you’ll find that the show’s initial, somewhat nihilist message was that TV exists not to solve your problems, but to suppress them. (That’s what happens, after all, with a series about a washed-up TV star coasting on quickly-acquired fame.) What’s so daring and bold, though, is that it’s never strayed from that message. Instead, rather than remain static, it’s instead pushed beyond to what happens when TV isn’t enough.
In Season 2, “BoJack” examined the question of happiness: What does it mean to get what you want? When you achieve your goals, does that success solve your problems? It’s a big question, but also an easy one. Meanwhile, nothing about Season 3 of “BoJack” is easy. “BoJack,” instead, just challenges us to be better.
Season 3 picks up with a number of the cliffhangers introduced during the Season 2 finale, including the question of what it means to BoJack now that he’s a genuine Oscar contender for “Secretariat,” his dream film. That journey is actually not as dominating as you’d expect, for the betterment of the series. After all, bashing the awards cycle doesn’t really feel fresh anymore (especially in the heat of Emmys campaigning). It’s an important storyline, but a different show would put his journey center stage. Instead, Season 3 keeps its focus on life beyond the awards race.
Because, as Bob-Waksberg has proven so keenly aware, what matters is the actual viewing experience. For years now, critics have been trying to figure out how to approach, on an episodic level, the binge-viewing model. The concept of thinking of a season of television as a novel, rather than a collection of episodes, has exploded thanks to us no longer having to wait weeks for the full story. But “BoJack” Season 3 might be the platonic ideal of a Netflix show that also still celebrates the concept of stories told in installments.
Many Season 3 episodes are definable in simple terms (“the one where BoJack goes on a press tour,” “the one where BoJack fights with Princess Carolyn,” “the flashback episode”). They actually function as stand-alone on a level that you honestly don’t see too often.
This leads to some jaw-dropping installments, which iris in on character on levels that range from hilarious to heartbreaking. For example, the fourth episode, in which BoJack goes to a film festival beneath the sea, is largely dialogue-free and inspires comparisons to the film “Lost in Translation” in the best sort of way; the way where it’s not imitation, but inspiration.
And yet it’s the more character-focused stories that stick in your craw, as Todd tries to launch yet another business idea, Princess Carolyn tries to find love and Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter work on their marriage. It’s an ensemble we now care about like they’re friends. After all, we’ve seen them at their best and their worst.
The guest voice work is incredible, with a short list that includes Angela Bassett, Candice Bergen, Abbi Jacobson, Diedrich Bader, Wyatt Cenac, Weird Al Yankovic, Constance Zimmer and Character Actress Margo Martindale!!!!!!! — all of them pushed beyond tropes or stereotypes, often given a chance for vulnerability that you don’t normally expect from this sort of work. This sort of show.
“BoJack Horseman” is a show that’s not afraid of being mean. Mean to its characters, mean to its viewers, and especially mean to its protagonist. And maybe he deserves it? However you feel about the fact that TV’s Golden Age has corresponded with the rise of the antihero, the fact is the two tracks remain relatively interchangeable. But while shows like “The Sopranos” and “Mad Men” never truly tore down their heroes, “BoJack” is fearless in acknowledging that wanting to be a good man is no guarantee you are one — especially if you’ve made your share of mistakes.
“BoJack Horseman” Season 3 premieres Friday, July 22, on Netflix.