No one wants to admit when they’re stuck. There’s some embarrassment in having to say that you don’t know what you’re doing or, worse yet, that you never did. This particular brand of ennui is all too familiar ground for television, with its graveyard of midlife crises, twentysomething panic, and bored housewives. So it’s particularly noteworthy when a show can tell a purposefully static story without boring the hell out of its viewers who at this point probably know the existential crisis script all too well.

The second season of BoJack Horseman opens shortly after the last ended with everyone pretending that they’re moving forward. Despite BoJack’s best efforts and most obnoxious self-help tapes (narrated to faux chipper perfection by George Takei), there’s never a doubt that everyone on this show is still stuck in the same patterns they were last season. BoJack got his dream job of playing Secretariat, but he’s still terrified he’s a phony. Diane turned down an offer for a journalism job (albeit one that amounts to following a Sean Penn stand-in around impoverished countries for publicity) and is now watching cables on BoJack’s set. Princess Carolyn finally has success with BoJack, but she’s still getting invested in a guy who takes advantage of her and can’t offer anything beyond dead-end flirting. Mr. Peanutbutter, meanwhile, is actually, physically stuck in a post-surgery cone. Maybe the only person without any real angst in this episode is Aaron Paul’s Todd, but that’s negligible, since Todd can find the joy in just about anything. (Shut up, Todd.)

Still, BoJack Horseman might just be the most unlikely heir to the existential crisis throne, given that it centers on the myopic world of Hollywood and features characters that sound like bizarro world Sesame Street characters. But the show sets itself apart by peeling back the acidic snark just enough to reveal a beating, if bruised, heart. Most impressively, it manages to make the plight of a self-centered, filthy rich ex-sitcom star sympathetic.

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We already knew BoJack had a shitty childhood, a fact the cold open hammers home with a bleak flashback. Tiny BoJack is trying to hear Secretariat answer his letter we heard last season (“What do you do when you’re sad?”), but he can’t hear a thing over Dickensian parents throwing plates at each other in the next room. It’s a bit much, and we don’t need his mother coming in at the end just to dismiss his “stupid television program” to get the point, but it turns out this is far from the last we’ll see of Bea Horseman (a dry and weary Wendie Malick).

And so we cut to BoJack, doing his best to become a better horseman in the face of his greatest challenge yet. His new and sparkling attitude keeps him from verbally pulverizing Mr. Peanutbutter (Diane: “Who are you?”) and motivates him to jog (sloooowwwlllyyyy) up hills. It does not, however, put him in the right frame of mind to play Secretariat at his lowest. It’s obvious when he springs up with a multi-cam grin and yells, “What are YOU doing here?!” that BoJack’s going to have to revert back to the despaired self that auditioned for this part if he’s going to keep it, but the way “Brand New Couch” gets there is less predictable. Much to his horror, BoJack realizes that he has maybe never acted a day in his life. He wasn’t acting when he auditioned for a depressed Secretariat, and all he did on Horsin’ Around was hit his mark and yell some punchlines. And so he comes face to face with a universally haunting possibility: What if his dream is based on bullshit?

The extra punch that makes this crisis land even harder is the final phone call with his mother, which is horrifying. She calls him from what looks like a hospital room, tells him she read his book, and issues an apology for passing along defect genes. “You’ll never be happy,” she sighs. “I’m sorry.” For a second, both BoJack and I think we heard wrong, but no: “You were born broken. That’s your birthright.” Again, it’s on the nose, but it’s more effective than the paint by numbers cold open because she’s verbalizing the fear that’s plagued BoJack since the beginning. And that is the moment when he finds the despair he needs for Secretariat, but at what cost?

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Like I said, though, what makes BoJack special is that it manages to deliver gutwrenching moments like this one alongside sharp punchlines, like how the second his mother hangs up, the phone fades back in to his useless self-help tape. Also, this episode would be bleak if there weren’t some serious jokes, and luckily for us, this script from creator Raphael Bob-Waksburg has plenty. There are several expertly crafted runs, like BoJack’s panic that he might have to ditch acting to take over a textile plant, Princess Carolyn reacting to a possible joke voicemail, and Mr. Peanutbutter’s Mighty Mighty Bosstones fandom (“Is that the impression that I get?” “That is the impression that you get”). Will Arnett, Amy Sedaris, and Paul F. Tompkins respectively all nail the escalations. Then there’s the disastrous aftermath of Diane failing to warn people about the cable, which is the perfect example of the kind of straightforward chaos that BoJack does best.

While the main cast’s vocal performances continue to be aces, there are some guest turns that almost steal the episode away. There’s Takei and Malick, Phil LaMarr, Brandon T. Jackson, and James Adomian. Then there are the returning players: Keegan Michael Key, Stanley Tucci, and J.K. Simmons. BoJack’s director Kelsey Jannings looks to be a bigger part this season, and thank God, because Maria Bamford can sell the hell out of deadpan show of confidence (“I do the crossword in Sharpie”) as well as sudden bursts of glee (“I love your face, it makes me happy to look at it!”). Ben Schwartz uses his experience as Parks And Recreation’s Jean-Ralphio to play the oily charmer you can’t help but find adorable in his own weird way as Princess Carolyn’s backstabbing married work flirt, Rutebega Rabiowitz. Frankly, though, there are too many stellar character and worldbuilding moments here to call out without this review becoming a list, which is an awesome problem that I hope continues forever.

Stray observations

  • Welcome to regular coverage of BoJack Horseman! I’m super excited to dive into one of my favorites, and will be doing so every day until the end (so you might as well start those madness watches now). If you’ve watched ahead, cool! But please keep spoilers out of the comments.
  • Nice touch, updating the credits to include the Secretariat set.
  • BoJack’s mother is awful, but her screed against Nike “Just Do It” shirts (“I will not be taking orders from a T-shirt in that tone”) is a beautiful thing.
  • Pretty glad BoJack’s hashtagging was shortlived, because it was #super #annoying (#framkethoughts)
  • I love you, Princess Carolyn, but Rooney Mara would definitely make a better a Jackie O than Emily Van Camp.
  • Eagle eyes on Rutebega’s guitars: they’re signed by “Van Whalen” and ”BB King Cobra.”
  • “I don’t know the shortcut for undo.” “Command Z.” “Don’t need it. Won’t use it.”
  • GIF request: BoJack screaming, “Will someone PLEASE get some ALCOHOL INTO. MY. MOUTH???!” Please and thank you.
  • Today in Hollywoo signs:
Watch out for that cable.

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