Image: Netflix

BoJack: The kids on Horsin’ Around didn’t need boundaries. All they needed was some good, old-fashioned love.

Todd: BoJack! This is not a TV show, okay? This is real life.

Lemur On Fire: Ah! Lemur on fire! Lemur on fire! [Crash]

BoJack: Some good old-fashioned love.

While there have been a few growing pains in the early episodes of BoJack Horseman, the one idea that’s working consistently is the level of darkness underneath the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. It was present from the start when BoJack talked about Horsin’ Around being a reprieve from life kicking you in the urethra, and it expanded when he allowed a muffin-related snub to metastasize into a PR nightmare rather than open up about his unhappy childhood. The show obscures those themes in its sea of bright colors and animal puns, but it’s still there flowing under the surface, the uneasy idea that things aren’t as wonderful as they might seem to anyone watching on TV.

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“Prickly-Muffin” is the first episode of BoJack Horseman to sink its teeth into the gulf between the happy world of the TGIF shows where BoJack made his name and the bleak realities of his life afterward. Not coincidentally, it’s also the strongest episode of BoJack Horseman yet. If “BoJack Hates The Troops” erred by leaning too heavily on sitcom conventions, “Prickly-Muffin” succeeds because it subverts and discredits those conventions. It’s a darker and meaner episode of television, one that embraces the ugliness rather than trying to sugarcoat it, sticking a finger in the eye of the idea of a happy ending once the credits roll.

No one understands the harsh realities of the business better than Sarah-Lynn, who played adorable youngest child Sabrina on Horsin’ Around. She rode the rocket of TV stardom to international pop stardom, only to come crashing down when she reached the dreaded Hollywood age of 30. Voiced to perfection by Kristen Schaal, she’s a mashup of every child star cautionary tale ramped up to its most cartoonishly shrill elements. A public breakup with Andrew Garfield is followed by swallowing handfuls of pills, stabbing herself with a letter opener, and taking a dump on a sofa made from a reclaimed propeller. It’s simultaneously hilarious in its excess and unsettling when you acknowledge how close it is to real-world celebrities like Lindsay Lohan or Amanda Bynes.

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Image: Netflix

The resulting fallout leads her to seek shelter at BoJack’s house, a place where she can take her dexitriathylphenolbarbatol in peace and not need to confront her problems. BoJack’s ecstatic to take in his TV daughter despite dropping her off at rehab hours earlier; and given what we know about him, it makes total sense. He’s spent two decades reciting punchlines back to himself, now he gets to literally relive the beats of those old sitcom stories. Now he’s making chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast, laughing at Sarah-Lynn’s punchlines, and letting her have no-good friends over when she pouts. (Though Sabrina’s friends likely never replaced spare rooms with cocaine booth/sex closets.) Whether through naïveté or self-delusion, BoJack genuinely believes a day at the boardwalk and an emotional gift will fix what ails her, up to the point he can see the credits roll over the nearby sunset.

You’d think that BoJack Horseman would be content to leave things there, enough subversion of the happy sitcom lifestyle for anyone. Instead, it goes the extra lap around the track as the message doesn’t stick with Sarah Lynn, and rather than doing anything responsible, their relationship goes to the next level. (BoJack tries to make it okay with context: “We’re just a man and a lady living in a house together, and we’re both adults, and we’re both a little drunk.”) It’s an encouraging early sign for BoJack that it’s willing to push the boundaries this way, and that it’s also not shying away from BoJack’s culpability in this situation either. He could be the adult in this situation, and he chooses not to be.

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Image: Netflix

What makes “Prickly-Muffin” work as well as it does is that for as much time as it spends emphasizing the cartoonish aspects of Sarah-Lynn, it doesn’t shy away from showing the things that made her who she is today. There’s the expected dismissal from the Hollywood media once she turns 30 and the callous rejection by a mother more interested in the spoils of success than her daughter’s wishes. (“Sweetheart, Mommy didn’t do what Mommy did to that Star Search producer so that you could be an architect.”) What hurts the most—and makes her present-day reactions all the more distressing—is seeing the off-camera version of BoJack shut down any efforts at connection, his speech to her under the table legitimately terrifying in its juxtaposition with his cheerful crowd work. Spending one day with her as an adult doesn’t wash away dozens of childhood instances of brushing her off.

It’s good that the relationship between BoJack and Sarah Lynn forms such an effective spine for the episode, as the rest of the cast is largely incidental this week. Princess Carolyn operates on the fringes of the episode, gently prodding Sarah Lynn to switch agents under the guise of a “no-presh rap sesh.” There’s some clever visuals as she stalks her prey, but nothing beyond ambition to define the character. Diane has a discursive speech about the ambiguous role a figure like Sarah Lynn plays in feminism, and otherwise settles into her established straight woman role. Todd occupies a similar position, not a good fit after two episodes of being an amusing distraction, though the episode does have the decency to lampshade that fact by stressing him out so much he has to take an angry nap. And Mr. Peanutbutter only gets one scene, albeit one where he comes across as pathetic in his own way by buying up every pawnshop award he can get his paws on.

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The one thing they do contribute is enough nagging to lead BoJack to realize that what’s going on isn’t healthy for anyone, leading him to try one last sitcom trope: the big moment at the end where sincerity triumphs over all. Except neither Sarah Lynn nor “Prickly-Muffin” is able to leave it on a good moment, as she breezes out of the house to find some more sycophantic entities and BoJack misinterprets a comment from Diane to absolve himself of blame. It’s an ending that’s well in keeping with the black comedy of the episode, a neat resolution only in the sense that BoJack’s convinced himself things are resolved.

The final impression, though, is that’s easier said than done. In between all the delusion and drinking and wanton sex acts that went on between them, Sarah Lynn dropped the bombshell that a mutual friend named Herb Kazzaz has terminal cancer, news that seems to rattle BoJack more than we’ve seen in our short time with this character. And those paparazzi birds who wouldn’t stop chirping on his porch (“Any plans for the weekend?” “Still hate the troops, BoJ?” “Why don’t you refill your bird feeder, huh?”) finally get some material worth talking about by filling a camera full of his trysts with his TV daughter. For all BoJack may rebel against learning any lessons from this experience, “Prickly-Muffin” provides some encouraging signs that life doesn’t neatly wrap up after 30 minutes.

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Stray observations

  • Achievement in voice acting: We’ve heard Sarah Lynn before on Horsin’ Around reruns, but this is the first sign of how excellent it is to have Kristen Schaal on this show. Schaal’s an expert at playing little girls with a hint of insanity on Gravity Falls and Bob’s Burgers, and she pushes the insanity to the nth degree here as the Lindsay Lohan/Amanda Bynes archetype. At the time of writing she’s the recipient of the show’s only Emmy nomination, and it’s well-deserved.
  • Sarah Lynn’s career is dismissed early on by A Ryan Seacrest Type and pop star Sextina Aquafina (Aisha Tyler), of the hit song “My Clitoris Is Ginormous,” both great stabs at Hollywood’s soundbite shallowness.
  • The jokes that Andrew Garfield hates Mondays and loves lasagna are so dumb they can’t help but succeed. Todd’s underlining the jokes aren’t necessary, but Aaron Paul’s delight is enough to forgive it. And those details also yield further signs of Princess Carolyn’s savvy: She knows peak client-poaching conditions are at an Italian restaurant over the weekend.
  • Mr. Peanutbutter’s pawnshop award collection includes two Golden Globes and a People’s Choice for Temple Grandin. He should probably get the latter checked out, since it’s one of the only awards that movie didn’t win.
  • “Your family will never understand you, your lovers will leave you or try to change you, but your fans: You be good to them and they’ll be good to you. The most important thing is, you got to give the people what they want, even if it kills you, even if it empties you out until there’s nothing left to empty. No matter what happens, no matter how much it hurts, you don’t stop dancing, and you don’t stop smiling, and you give those people what they want.”
  • “Are those candy pills? If so, that is a lot of sugar.”
  • “People don’t usually want to hang out with me after rehab. I’m really more of a before-rehab friend.”
  • “Ugh! Who are you, the paramedic who restarted my heart at Adam Levine’s Halloween party?”
  • “You’ll get the guest room when you earn the guest room.”
  • “I get letters every day from boys telling me that I was the first girl they masturbated to. Literally, someone tells me that every day.” “That is gross.”
  • Today in Hollywood signs, Weird Science
    reference edition:
Image: Netflix

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Horsin’ Around DVD commentary:

  • I’m trying to keep my feelings about the later episodes of BoJack Horseman largely separate from this project, but it’s impossible for “Prickly-Muffin” to escape from the dark specter of “That’s Too Much, Man!” It’s littered with triggers for BoJack’s darkest episode ever: Sarah Lynn says in an offhand manner it’s too late and that she’ll die tragically young. Her video for “Prickly-Muffin” takes place inside a planetarium. She seductively tells BoJack the only drug she needs is horse. She expresses a childlike desire to be an architect, completely unaware that those will be the last words she ever says. Man. That’s still too much.
  • Speaking of both heroin and BoJack’s love of continuity, it’s surprising that after Todd says this new addiction is going to be a thing, it never comes up again.
  • We’ll see the roots of BoJack’s harsh speech to a young Sarah Lynn again in “Downer Ending,” as his hallucinatory mother finds him in a similar position and offers similarly ruthless words.
  • BoJack mentions he wanted to give his TV Guide award to any kids he may have had. Given the twist at the end of “That Went Well,” we’ll have to see if there’s another candidate to receive it, assuming Mr. Peanutbutter gave it back.

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Tomorrow: We’re off on the search for Newtopia in “Zoës And Zeldas,” as BoJack and Todd form an unlikely creative collaboration.