There’s kind of something a little wrong about Christmas specials, isn’t there? They’re often beloved, heartwarming episodes of television, sure (for starters, you can pry “Ludachristmas” from my cold dead laptop). But they’re also often pretty nakedly exploitive of whatever the Christmas spirit is supposed to be, ploys to get everyone in a family huddled around a television instead of doing whatever it is they would otherwise be doing on a collective holiday. (Don’t ask me what this is, though—I’m Jewish and my family spends Christmas at the movies every year.) It’s not that that’s an unusual criticism of television in general—but those latent tendencies can just be a bit more off-putting around this time of year. And that’s the subject of the initial thesis statement of the BoJack Horseman Christmas special, in the form of an opening rant from our alcoholic, washed-up, callous hero:

“Christmas episodes are always stupid. Cynical cash grabs by greedy corporations looking to squeeze a few extra Nielsen points out of sentimental claptrap for mush-brained idiots who’d rather spend their Christmas watching a fake family on TV than trying to have a conversation with their own dumb families.”

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So, yeah. That’s pretty dark. But on the other hand, it can just be nice to have a collective experience, even it’s passive; one that plays on the heartstrings in predictable, easy ways, even if it’s clear how manipulative the product is. (And if I really thought watching TV was always emotionally empty, I’d sure be in the wrong line of work.) Much like BoJack Horseman itself, “Sabrina’s Christmas Wish” has it both ways. In its first few episodes, the series presents itself as a standard, uninspired insider satire of Hollywood. But as it goes on, BoJack shows its true colors as an unflinchingly bleak, clear-eyed yet compassionate character study. It’s not a general showbiz sendup (though it is partially that) and it’s not a weird animated show about animals acting like people (though it is also that). It’s about pain and self-destructively fumbling at human connection and the attempt to bridge the gap between the way we see ourselves and what we present to others. It’s about depression. And also weird cartoon animals on acid. (It wasn’t on our year-end list, but it did get mentioned in this roundup of great shows that didn’t quite make the cut, and I gave it a nod on my ballot!)

So it might seem counterintuitive for BoJack Horseman to present a Christmas special that’s mostly a framing device for an entire episode of Horsin’ Around, the successful ’90s sitcom about a horse raising three orphans that briefly made BoJack a star. After all, shouldn’t we want to see the more complicated, interesting, and human (you know what I mean) version of BoJack from the end of the first season? The guy in this episode is a BoJack out of time, an asshole mostly for the sake of being an asshole. But the use of “Sabrina’s Christmas Wish” is a simple and brilliant way to satisfy a fan craving. In the course of the show, we’ve seen a few clips, but never had a good reason to see an entire installment. Besides, who would want to in an episode we could spend with present BoJack? That’s where the Christmas special framing, which eschews the fantastic opening titles and everything, comes in.

Using the first Horsin’ Around Christmas special is an excuse for BoJack Horseman to turn its cutting eye back onto TV, and boy does it ever. “Sabrina’s Christmas Wish” busts out every single hacky joke imaginable, including a runner where Horse, BoJack’s character on the show, references increasingly absurd idioms expecting everyone to get the joke. And often, they do, because there are frequent interjections from the studio audience. (“He’s doing the thing he said he wasn’t going to do!” Astute.) In addition to really showcasing Kristen Schaal and letting Will Arnett ham it up with the overly broad multi-cam delivery, the episode gives us a better sense of what Horsin’ Around (and BoJack’s life on the show) was like. Previously unseen supporting characters are introduced and an obvious comparison is set up between Horse—who learns to love after being desensitized by his job—and the real-life BoJack.

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It’s not like that all goes unnoticed. BoJack and his goofy roommate/best friend/leech Todd (Aaron Paul) provide periodic Mystery Science Theater 3000-style commentary showcasing BoJack’s cynicism and Todd’s unthinking love of everything. And as intentionally hacky as “Sabrina’s Christmas Wish” is, it still manages to be a pretty rich, moving philosophical/theological investigation of Christmas, ethics, and family. And it ends in one of the darkest scenes I’ve seen in any Christmas episode: The wish Sabrina makes to Santa Claus is for her parents to come back to life, something Horse accidentally suggests in his zeal to get his adopted children excited about the holiday. And when Santa doesn’t bring her parents back, Sabrina loses faith entirely, forcing BoJack to accidentally explain to her the existence (or non-existence) of God.

The confusion of Santa with God works pretty well, because Santa is basically what a lot of kids are told to think God is: an omnipotent, omniscient old white man with a beard who gives presents for being good and punishes evildoing. So when BoJack first tells Sabrina to trust him (and Santa/God), suggesting that Santa/God has a “plan” for everything, we get a sitcom version of the problem of evil. But that doesn’t make any sense, so Horse admits that there is no Santa/God. “You have to be good just to be good,” he says. (He’s not wrong, if you ask me.) And besides, Sabrina and the other children have made Horse’s life immeasurably better, which leads to this gutbusting, horrifying sappy punchline: “I’m glad your parents are dead and are never coming back.” (Cue the audience’s collective “Aww.”)

You almost get the sense that this scene was ad-libbed within the fictional production of Horsin’ Around, because BoJack is really giving a great performance—he’s just as unsure of the answers to the big questions as Sabrina, and all he can do is try and connect with her in the only way he knows how. (Buying her stuff, as it turns out!) Somehow, a fake episode of a bad ’90s sitcom about an anthropomorphic horse can contain genuinely moving acting? And having all of this framed by a “True meaning of Christmas” bullshit scene is a pretty fantastic achievement, one that only has me more excited for season two of the show.

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But the thing that has me the most excited about the future of the show is in its (ambiguous) present—the relative easiness of BoJack’s relationship with Todd. One of the nice things about Christmas specials is that they take place in a floating time, untethered to the rest of the show. BoJack is maybe even more acidic to Todd than normal. Does this take place before the main events of the show, which make BoJack a bit less abrasive? Is he just the same guy, and season two will pick up with him back at square one? For the purposes of this episode, it doesn’t really matter. Todd is just so sweet, and his uncomfortable friendship with BoJack is the key to the show’s well-hidden heart, particularly when BoJack uses ragging on the other Horsin’ Around specials as a way of justifying hanging out with his friend. When BoJack gives that rant at the beginning of the special, Todd responds, “I like it when people on TV hug each other.” I might not like it when characters on TV hug each other, but it’s pretty great when they hatewatch together.

Stray observations:

  • “Because the themes of family and togetherness are a reminder of your own isolation?” Oh, Todd. His theory about Reginald VelJohnson’s characters on Family Matters and Die Hard is pretty funny, and an excuse to link to this great Key & Peele sketch.
  • Great lines from Adam Conover’s Ethan: “Oh Charles Krauthammer, you have done it again!” “On Dancer, on Prancer… on Necromancer?”
  • “Fire that Jew!”
  • On the next Horsin’ Around special: the episode where “Sabrina had a black friend,” which “really started the conversation about racism.”
  • This show stuck with me in a way I was not expecting when I first watched it. Anyone else have this experience?

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