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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

BoJack Horseman is more early Seabiscuit than prime Secretariat in a shaky pilot

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“It’s not Ibsen, sure, but look, for a lot of people, life is just one long, hard kick in the urethra, and sometimes when you get home from a long day of getting kicked in the urethra, you just want to watch a show about good, likable people who love each other, where, you know, no matter what happens, at the end of 30 minutes, everything’s gonna turn out okay. You know, because in real life… Did I already say the thing about the urethra?”

The best thing about watching a television show long-term is that there’s always the chance that it’s going to improve. They’ll recast or kill off a terrible character. They’ll lean into the previously unknown chemistry between two actors. They’ll get more money to correct some questionable production choices. They may even take a chance and completely jettison their premise, only for doing so to be the thing that gives them direction and focus they previously lacked. Even if that show stays terrible to the end, it never fully snuffs that flickering hope that somewhere down the line, it’ll learn to be better.

Television viewers hold onto that hope even after all the times they’ve been burned, because when that hope gets rewarded, it’s a truly special thing. Such is the case with BoJack Horseman. When it premiered as Netflix’s first adult animated series, The A.V. Club was quick to shoot it down, claiming it “spoofs the emptiness of celebrity, but does so without any novelty or true insight” and saying the show made no convincing case to exist past six episodes. Three seasons later, we’ve eaten our words many times over, as BoJack climbed the upper tiers of programming in 2014 and broke through in 2015 and 2016. With an incisive take on divisive issues, rapid and shameless punchlines, and an unflinching take on depression, it’s become one of the smartest, silliest, and saddest shows on television—often all in the same episode.

With BoJack Horseman now firmly in the winner’s circle, The A.V. Club is going back to those early episodes, asking a question: Does knowing what BoJack will become change the experience of what BoJack was when it began? At the very start, not so much. Even with the benefit of hindsight the pilot episode of BoJack Horseman is more Seabiscuit than Secretariat, no gorgeous colt running out of the gate but a shaggy and knob-kneed affair. There’s potential there, to be sure, but it’s kicking up mud and rocks, running in the back when it should be catching the audience’s attention.

Image: Netflix
Image: Netflix

To be fair, “BoJack Horseman: The BoJack Horseman Story, Chapter One” is a pilot that’s trying to check a lot of boxes. It needs to establish an entire universe—or at least an entire Los Angeles—where anthropomorphic animals and human beings co-exist, competing for roles and relationships. It needs to set up its main character as someone we’d be interested in following around, and build a cast of similarly interesting characters in his orbit. And it needs to find something new to explore in its LA, not the material tapped in other LA-based comedies such as The Comeback, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Action.

Its success on all of those goals is mixed starting out. When it comes to appearance, there’s definitely a lot of imagination on display. Production designer Lisa Hanawalt’s world is sharply drawn and full of different quirky animal details. Combined with a palette of bright and unblended colors, the world comes into focus relatively early. It gives the impression there’s no part of the animal kingdom that’s off the table, peppered with sight gags—penguins running publishing houses, pigeons scattering at yells, a mariachi band that’s two-thirds frog and one-third frog-like human.

The main characters are less sharply drawn, falling comfortably into archetypes. BoJack (Will Arnett) is the quintessential washed-up actor chasing his peak, the former star of a TGIF show who’s spent the two decades since drinking away his residual money and reliving the glory days on DVD. He dismisses most everyone around him with casual insults or disinterest, including his girlfriend/agent Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), his stoner houseguest Todd (Aaron Paul), and his fellow 90s actor Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins). There’s stabs at the emptiness of his celebrity and fragile ego despite all his successes, but most of the jokes simply rely on his self-centeredness: he’s surprised that anyone would have clients or patients other than him, and ready to blame everyone else for his weight.

Image: Netflix
Image: Netflix

The one person he doesn’t turn away is Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), a biographer hired to ghost write his long-promised autobiography. Getting the book off the ground and BoJack’s desire to be liked again because of it drives the majority of the pilot, making for a mixed bag of an arc. The search for relevance in a Hollywood that’s passed you by is explored by many other projects—including the aforemented Comeback—and despite the animation and animals the beats feel very familiar.

The pilot is also burdened by structural issues. BoJack Horseman is the first original show from creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg, whose writing credits up to this point (according to IMDB) include one TV movie, one episode of Save Me, and a comedy/documentary called The Exquisite Corpse Project. His inexperience shows up in the occasionally disjointed pacing of the episode, an irregular pace of flashbacks and misdirects. One particular early clunker is a Family Guy-style cutaway gag about BoJack not wanting to have a baby with Princess Carolyn, a flashback within a flashback that goes on long enough to not be funny. If BoJack and BoJack truly want to tell their story, this many digressions at the outset doesn’t work.

What holds BoJack Horseman together in the early goings is largely the work of its cast. Arnett is an ideal choice for BoJack, as the mix of ego and insecurity that powers BoJack’s decisions cuts him from the same $5,000 suit cloth as Arrested Development’s Gob Bluth. Sedaris neatly balances both the frustrated lover and the unflappable agent with ease—an energy she uncovered earlier that year playing a similar character in Jon Favreau’s Chefand Tompkins deploys his extreme cheerfulness in a way that justifies and undermines BoJack’s distaste for him. Neither Brie nor Paul has a lot to do early on, but some moments hint making a better use of the skills they perfected on their more iconic performances—the mild crazy of Annie Edison on Community, the “Yeah science!” goofy enthusiasm of Breaking Bad. In the latter case though, given Jesse grew out of that degree by the end of the series, it feels like a bit of a step back for Paul.

Image: Netflix
Image: Netflix

Then again, maybe after so much seriousness he’s welcoming the chance to go into more absurd territory. Bob-Waksberg and company’s sense of humor is on the level of 30 Rock or Archer, the idea to keep the jokes coming and keep them smart with the expectation that with a saturation bombing approach least some of them are going to hit. And there are some solid gags amidst the clutter: Todd getting out of a cartel execution with a quinceañera, some unexpectedly sharp celebrity puns (“My mulligan was Carey Mulligan!”), and the biting interactions between BoJack and Princess Carolyn. There’s glimpses of a real absurdist wit on display here, with the chance to right the action once all the table-setting wraps up.

At the very top of the episode, Charlie Rose describes the early critical reaction to Horsin’ Around as “broad, saccharine, and not good.” BoJack Horseman isn’t as bad a show as Horsin’ Around was in the early going (at least if the clips we see this episode are any indication of the latter’s quality), but neither is it the instant hit that fictional show became. There’s some promising pieces there, if it can become as innovative or absurd as its setting suggests it could be. BoJack’s going to need to get out of his comfort zone to put this book together, and BoJack the show will need to do the same thing.

Stray observations

  • Welcome back, everyone! In preparation for BoJack Horseman’s upcoming fourth season, The A.V. Club is going back to fill in our coverage of the series with season one reviews. We’ll be reviewing one episode a day for the next twelve days, finishing up right before the season four premiere on September 8.
  • Achievement in Voice Acting: A shoutout to A.V. Club patron saint Patton Oswalt for tackling three different roles as veteran interviewer Charlie Rose, beleaguered publishing executive Pinky Penguin, and the pig doctor attending to BoJack after his anxiety attacks.
  • The Angelfish billboard visible from the diner is a reference to the Angelyne billboards that appeared around Los Angeles in the mid-1980s.
  • Diane’s email address is nguyenistheloneliestnumber@aol.com.
  • Great early sight gag as Princess Carolyn’s tossed out of BoJack’s car to land on all fours.
  • BoJack not only brings his HorsinAround DVDs with him wherever he goes (“Linus walked around with a blanket, no one gave him shit for it”), he also wears his own bathrobe to the hospital.
  • Again, BoJack and Princess Carolyn have the best dialogue. Princess Carolyn: “Does Tuesday work for you, or are you gonna be too busy this week masturbating to old pictures of yourself?” BoJack: “I told you, that’s not what was happening that time. I was masturbating to what the picture represented. You walked in at the worst possible time!”
  • “Mr. Peanutbutter and BoJack Horseman in the same room. What is this, a crossover episode?”
  • “You’re responsible for your own happiness, you know?” “Good Lord, that’s depressing.”
  • For the benefit of viewers who are going through the series for the first time, we’re going to limit discussion of future BoJack Horseman episodes in the reviews proper. Instead, we’ll touch on a few noteworthy points in a spoiler section, which you can see after the jump.
  • Today in Hollywood signs (book jacket cover edition):
Image: Netflix
Image: Netflix

Horsin’ Around DVD Commentary

  • The aforementioned pacing issues are the biggest quibble with the pilot, but they’ll be cleaned up fairly quickly. In fact, the show will get eventually so good at pacing it’ll be able to go on a full experimental storytelling jaunt in episodes like “Stop The Presses.”
  • BoJack’s observation that Horsin’ Around is “no Ibsen” comes from his mother’s curt dismissal of the show, seen in the “Brand New Couch” flashbacks.
  • Given how much mileage BoJack gets of real-life celebrities being willing to poke fun at themselves, it’s mildly surprising that they didn’t get Emily Mortimer to pop in for a brief appearance as BoJack’s hookup. But this is early in the run, before the show realized it could ask celebrities for cameo appearances, as well as what do they know and do they know things.
  • Princess Carolyn’s comment about being able to separate her personal life from her professional one is a downright tragicomic lie in the wake of her complicated relationships with BoJack and Rutabaga Rabbitowitz.
  • It’s the first “appearance” of Erica, Mr. Peanutbutter’s longtime unseen friend who’ll gain more and more absurd salutations from the dog as time goes on.
  • BoJack’s idol Secretariat and his desire to play said idol in a movie, a project that will take over the second and third seasons of the series, is part of the show from the very start. BoJack blames the initial collapse of the project on “all those Prefontaine movies” and audiences not wanting to see more running on the big screen, but as we’ll see, there’s more to that story.

Tomorrow: “BoJack Hates The Troops.” Okay, he doesn’t hate the troops. He just hates one specific troop. He doesn’t even hate him, really. He just thinks that he’s wrong about the muffins.

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