In a recent interview over at Vulture, “Bojack Horseman” creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg lays out the mission statement for his show: “what’s interesting is that he [the titular anti-hero voiced by Will Arnett] does cross the line, and then he crosses back, and then he crosses again. You’re kind of rooting for him, but you’re kind of not.” Even though the show is getting more critical and commercial respect now, it’s exciting to hear its creative pulse comes from a desire to transgress, subvert and push things to the edge. Sure, the modern television drama is no stranger to unlikable lead characters, so much so that, it’s become a cliché. But in an animated comedy series? Not so much. Then again, “Bojack Horseman,” with its second season now available on Netflix, is looking more and more like a drama. While it’s a bit more spotty in execution and lacking the sense of discovery that made the first season such a delight, it’s certainly a worthy continuation of the wacky, anthropomorphized world that Bob-Waksberg and his team created last year.
After a flashback to Bojack’s childhood, the second season begins not long after the first ended. Diane’s (Alison Brie) memoir, which drove most of the season 1 plot, is a resounding success, ushering Bojack back into the spotlight. He’s got his dream role playing childhood hero Secretariat in a splashy Hollywood biopic. But make no mistake, what may have appeared to be a hopeful ending, with a chance for Bojack to find actual happiness, was merely a window into a new existential nightmare: what are you left with, and where do you go, when you get exactly what you want and you’re still not happy? It’s heady, serious stuff. “Bojack Horseman” is at its best when it’s diving deep into that sort of all-encompassing ennui, basically the stuff that most of us would rather not think about.
In an odd way, season 2 reminded me of the opening to David Fincher’s much maligned “Alien 3,” where any semblance of hope and the few living characters from the previous film we’re pretty much tossed aside during the opening credits. If, like me, you hoped that Bojack would eventually find his estranged friend (and missed opportunity for love) Charlotte, then I have good and bad news. They’re reunited in episode 11, “Escape From L.A.,” but it doesn’t go at all how you would think or probably hope. It’s crushingly disappointing in so many ways, but it turns out to be one of the strongest episode of this sophomore season, precisely because it’s unafraid to make viewers uncomfortable. Liking this show can feel downright paradoxical. “I’m sure we lost people over that episode,” Bob-Waksberg said in the Vulture interview. “But that’s okay; it’s not for everybody.”
Indeed, this is the kind of sequel that relishes (and in some ways is actually about) burning bridges. There’s almost no safety nets to let the audience off the hook. Will that be a turnoff to some viewers (even those who liked the first season)? I wouldn’t be surprised if that turns out to the case as more people catch up, but it’s heartening to know a show that strives to do something different is being rewarded with mostly positive attention so far from critics. We need more challenging shows that are actually about ideas while still striving to be entertaining. Bojack is a rare breed (sorry I couldn’t resist).
The overarching plot of season 2 is built around the making of “Secretariat,” allowing the show to indulge more in its mean-spirited but often very funny takedowns of Hollywood (err, I mean Hollywoo): celebrity culture, modern quick fixes to our problems, and so much more. Lest I make it all sound angry, depressing and tough to watch, though, there’s no denying that “Bojack Horseman” is also very funny. The show is able to juggle varied tones in every episode, but does find a brutal truth or sad reminder of life’s unforgiving cruelty to laugh at. The humor falls flat every now and again when an episode becomes too tangential, spinning off into filler subplots that can feel like narrative dead weight. This is nothing new to the show, but was usually left for Aaron Paul’s lovable loser Todd. Season 2 has too many other characters spinning off into dull non-sequiturs. Unfortunately, this takes away from new characters to the show (Lisa Kudrow as Wanda, the Owl who becomes Bojack’s girlfriend, gets short shrift).
Then again, season one only got better the more I rewatched it, and the same may be true for this latest. It’s still a show packed with visual gags in nearly every scene (highlighted in this post by Indiewire), rife with punnery of the highest order and a love for language and over-elaborate wordplay. This the meat of what makes it such a strong, rewatchable show. There are layers to unpack, both comedically and dramatically — and the cameos continue to get more random, esoteric and hilarious (my favorite this season is “Star Wars Episode VIII” director Rian Johnson as a jerky member of an improv cult).
The more you dig in, the show seems like a successor to Judd Apatow’s “Funny People,” one that more smoothly pulls off the odd tonal and emotional shifts through the medium of episodic television, as opposed to an overstretched 2½ hours. I’d bet good money that Raphael Bob-Waksberg is as enamored with the work of James L. Brooks as Apatow. Consequence looms large in this cartoon for adults, and though things spin off occasionally into dead ends, the show’s icy, black heart is not dead inside, just unafraid to reveal brutal truths and laugh at their absurdity at the same time. It’s not an easy road with Bojack, but then again, why should it be? [B+]
Bojack Horseman season 2 is now available on Netflix.