BoJack Horseman begins its third season with a leg up on its titular character, who’s still chasing down critical acclaim in a desperate attempt to find meaning in his life. The second season of Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s tragicomedy was as densely packed with jokes as it was despair. But where BoJack is merely poised for a triumphant return, the show has broken out as one of the best on the small(er) screen. The increasingly dark comedy manages to shine a light on mental health issues without losing its satirical edge or dropping its ongoing exploration of what it means to be human—or, in BoJack’s case, a poor excuse for one. BoJack is gut-busting and gut-wrenching in equal parts.
The season-three opener takes viewers through familiar territory, with BoJack (Will Arnett, who continues to do Emmy-level voice-work here) enjoying some measure of success that was once again achieved through significant compromise. Secretariat is gaining traction during awards season, and there’s Oscar buzz around BoJack’s performance, even though it was ultimately engineered by the studio. This gives BoJack some pause, naturally, but with a publicist (Angela Bassett) who’s more power broker than shill, he’s able to offer real competition to critical darlings like Jerj Clooners (the Hollywoo version of George Clooney).
This ascension will be impeded, of course, and there’s an overwhelming probability that it will be of BoJack’s own doing. That air of eventuality extends to the setbacks that Diane, Princess Carolyn, Todd, and hell, even Mr. Peanutbutter experience, but they never feel contrived. Because the writing and characterization on this show has been consistent (and superb), failures are often as hard-won as progress, a revelation that’s all the more stunning for its relatability. Most of the disasters are the result of minor missteps or oversights that snowball into untenable, albeit hilarious, situations. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then it has countless construction crews.
As always, the series tempers these epiphanies with plenty of absurdist humor and sly satire. The episodes are littered with animal puns, which are put to great use in manatee slang and the MSNBSea chyrons, so the soundbites remain abundant. The regular cast, which includes Alison Brie, Amy Sedaris, and Paul F. Tompkins, is already a comedy nerd’s dream, but season three invites Constance Zimmer, Jeffrey Wright, Candice Bergen, and Diedrich Bader (who appears as a kind of automaton with a man bun) to lend some heft to the drama. The show even pulls another long con with what feels like a throwaway setup and a payoff that’s perfectly ridiculous.
Unlike BoJack, the writers haven’t pinned all their hopes on the awards storyline—they send the morose horseman off on all kinds of adventures. The lateral whoosh-jumps and “group storytelling” of How I Met Your Mother are employed to great effect at one point, as everyone is just as likely to go off on a tangent as they are to call each other out for doing so. There are shades of Inception, too, as the phone calls and conversations eventually draw in the only outsider savvy enough to separate the fact from the fiction, much to BoJack’s chagrin.
Although there are moments that are funnier or more devastating, the decision to literally take BoJack out of his element results in the most breathtaking episode to date. The animation is stunning, and the music fairly dances above the muted voices. The nod to Lost In Translation won’t be lost on viewers, but it’s more than just a little flexing of the animators’ muscle—that standalone adventure still ties into the larger story. BoJack has always demonstrated just how well the dual nature of Netflix shows—both serialized and not—can work, but this episode might be the jewel in that crown.
Unfortunately for the emotional constitution of viewers, that beacon shines early on in the series. Old habits die hard, if they ever do in this fictional world, and BoJack is beset by them. His substance abuse issues have been discussed as much as his alienation of his friends and would-be loved ones, with BoJack himself often leading the charge. No one’s more in on that “joke” than the mane character, though his self-awareness just fuels his self-fulfilling prophecy of misery.
Netflix has taken it upon itself to add BoJack to the line of TV’s famous antiheroes, including Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Frank Underwood. It certainly seems apt—the show has teased the comparison all along, from the Mad Men-esque credits to doubling down on the Sopranos references. That’s very impressive company to keep, but BoJack and BoJack don’t seem content to linger there. There’s no impending reversal of the character, but as BoJack the show improves, it wants to bring BoJack the character along. It’s not going to happen overnight or even over hiatus, if it happens at all, but there’s no ignoring the season’s refrain to “do better.”