Stars: They’re just like us. Fictional stars, however, are just like each other: petty, insecure, addicted, vindictive, and/or any combination of these and many other negative personality traits. Even, apparently, when they’re humanoid creatures with heads, habits, and abilities imported from Animal Planet.
So it goes in the world of BoJack Horseman, Netflix’s first stab at adult animation—and the latest evidence that the streaming service has yet to perfect its comedy-development strategy. Netflix wants to be seen as competition for premium-cable giants like HBO and Showtime, a goal it’s achieved with original dramas House Of Cards and Orange Is The New Black. Results are more mixed on the comedy side (though people are bound to eventually come around on season four of Arrested Development), where the programming ideal appears to be “HBO in the mid-’00s.” While Derek is a Ricky Gervais-led U.K. import, just like Extras, the new BoJack Horseman is The Comeback mixed with the misanthropy of Curb Your Enthusiasm plus The Life And Times Of Tim’s experimentation in Adult Swim-style late-night cartoons.
To that end: BoJack Horseman stars Will Arnett as the titular part horse, part man, 100 percent ass, a literal one-trick pony who flamed out after starring in the cornball ’90s sitcom Horsin’ Around. Much fun is had at the expense of the Miller-Boyett-produced pap of the era, but that’s unfortunately as sharp as the show’s sense of showbiz satire gets. With a look designed by artist Lisa Hanawalt, BoJack Horseman only occasionally rises to the rich universes and reservoirs of character in Hanawalt’s illustrations and comic panels. So-so scripts place most of the burden of characterization—the lifeblood of adult animation—on the show’s visuals and performances.
Arnett’s a good fit for BoJack, as the actor practically emits these types of characters in his post-GOB career. As BoJack’s eternal houseguest Todd, Aaron Paul voices a burnout who’s basically Jesse Pinkman without the meth; Alison Brie and Amy Sedaris attempt to reverse BoJack’s booze-soaked downward spiral as the ghostwriter of his memoir and his feline agent/ex-girlfriend, respectively. (All three are just as liable to fly off the handle as BoJack.) Yet Paul F. Tompkins outshines them all as dog-man Mr. Peanutbutter, the protagonist’s former prime-time rival who’s so outwardly well adjusted because he’s stolen all of BoJack’s thunder (and none of his self-loathing). Tompkins and Arnett make great foils, BoJack’s throaty grumbles clashing with sunny, man’s-best-friend yapping from Tompkins.
BoJack Horseman’s most dependable gag involves its characters foregoing their anthropomorphized nature and heeding the call of the wild: Mr. Peanutbutter’s short, canine attention span, for instance, or the irrepressible agility of Sedaris’ Princess Carolyn. Otherwise, the big laughs come from cheap sources: pop-culture references (following a public spat with boyfriend Andrew Garfield, one of BoJack’s former cast-mates reveals The Amazing Spider-Man star loves lasagna and hates Mondays) and visual puns (a feathered Bostonian wearing a Larry Bird jersey). It’s those animalistic touches, and the animation that makes them possible, that distinguishes BoJack Horseman from other showbiz satires. Without them, creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg would’ve just made another comedy about how everyone in entertainment is kind of stupid and deliriously self-involved. BoJack Horseman spoofs the emptiness of celebrity, but does so without any novelty or true insight. BoJack’s storylines portray fame as fleeting and fickle, meanwhile suggesting that the famous maybe aren’t worthy of the attention and adulation heaped upon them by the public. All standard-issue critiques there, ones that aren’t disguised by BoJack’s horse head.
Nobody here, least of BoJack, needs a redemption story, but they could use an arc that makes their journey together feel less hollow. A few episodes into the season, the show appears to recognize this: Concessions to binge-viewers (a recurring blackmail plot BoJack’s too oblivious to fall into, Todd spending an episode-and-a-half in jail) eventually perk up the show’s sense of storytelling. But it’s too little too late. With BoJack Horseman, Netflix is courting a viewer who’s either looking for an episode to watch at the end of a long night, or a show to marathon throughout the entirety of that long night. Even with its inventive setting and all-star cast, there’s not enough reason to stick with BoJack Horseman through the first six episodes. Maybe with stronger jokes, more confident storytelling, and toothier sendups of life in Hollywood—but there are so many other animated series (regardless of their intended audience) that lap BoJack Horseman in these areas. And some of them are even streaming on Netflix!