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The Netflix comedy Bojack Horseman is a seeming paradox: a glib tragedy that manages to eke considerable pathos out of the existential angst and bottomless self-destruction of its title character, a raspy-voiced horse, voiced by Will Arnett. Bojack starred in a Full House-like show called Horsin’ Around in the 1980s and 1990s before descending into an alcohol and drug-fueled decades-long personal and professional tailspin he’s still immersed in as the show begins. Imagine Mr. Ed as a haunting, sometimes bitterly sad exploration of the grim shadow of unearned fame and you have a sense of the show’s tricky tone and strangely successful alchemy.
Bojack Horseman is a show of surprisingly profound superficiality that finds Bojack Horseman trying to make sense of his life while dictating the details of his booze-sodden misadventures to Diane Nguyuen (Mad Men’s Alison Brie), his ghostwriter and an unabashed feminist who finds herself attracted to Bojack despite being the girlfriend and later fiancé to Bojack’s frenemy Mr. Peanut Butter (comedian Paul F. Tompkins). Mr. Peanut Butter is Bojack’s antithesis, a radiant bundle of joy whose relentless positivity is no act: while Bojack luxuriates in boozy self-hatred, Mr. Peanut Butter genuinely seems to love everyone and everything; his enthusiasm knows no bounds.
Bojack Horseman begins on an appropriately irreverent note as a wacky show-business spoof, but it doesn’t take long for it to plumb into darker waters. Bojack reconnects with the child actress who played his daughter on Horsin’ Around (before devolving into a Britney Spears-like whirling dervish of sexual provocation) and tries to make amends with his old partner, Herb Kazazz, who refuses to forgive Horseman for abandoning him after he was outed as gay and dropped from the show. Bojack has seemingly hurt everyone he has ever touched, but he seems to have saved his most intense loathing for himself.
Underneath all the goofy wordplay, visual gags, and irreverence lies a fundamentally serious question: Is Bojack Horseman beyond redemption, or is he too damaged even for an industry that thrives on giving people second chances? Bojack Horseman is consistently funny but is boldly willing to go long stretches without anything approaching gags, to allow the bitterness and sadness of Bojack’s life to really sink in.
The Netflix original is not averse to silly horseplay; in one gag, Bojack’s on-again-off-again agent/girlfriend Princess Caroline (Amy Sedaris, part of a murderer’s row of brilliant voice actors, which includes Patton Oswalt, Stephen Colbert, Kristin Schaal, Wallace Shawn, and many others) attempts to sustain a relationship with “Vincent Adultman,” three little boys stacked atop each other in a trench coat to provide the illusion they are an actual full-sized man. The Little Rascals-type gag sustains itself longer than should be possible, but Bojack Horseman’s relationship with Princess Caroline, who sees right through him and is attracted to him all the same, has surprising emotional depth, as does Bojack’s relationship with Diane.
In its final third, Bojack Horseman gets exceedingly Manson-family dark, particularly during an epic, violent drug freakout. But it is paradoxically never darker or more moving then during a sequence where Horseman fantasizes about the life he didn’t live, a bucolic existence where he chose the road less traveled and married a deer named Charlotte (Olivia Wilde), and became a loving father and husband in real life, not just on the set of a cheesy television show. It is this brief glimpse of the road less traveled, the one where he abstained from vices and became the good man he always had the capacity to be, that ultimately gives the show its surprising emotional resonance. In the end, it is not the voluminous darkness in Bojack—the drugs, the sex, the bestiality, the bottomless potential for self-destruction—that’s heartbreaking, but the brief glimpses of goodness.