Adult animation doesn’t really have the best reputation. Many people consider animation as something that is only for children, while others look at adult oriented animation as an excuse to swear and make dirty jokes in a cartoon. I feel like it’s really unfair to lump all adult animation in the same category, as shows like Family Guy, South Park and The Simpsons use their higher rating as a vehicle for clever satire and humorous adult situations.
However, for every show like Family Guy, there’s another one like Brickleberry. I’m not throwing stones at Brickleberry, as I feel that it’s a funny enough show, but it definitely plays into the stereotype of jokes that really only make middle school aged kids laugh.
In comes BoJack Horseman, a Netflix exclusive adult comedy about a washed up actor who had a really popular sitcom in the late 80’s. At first glance, BoJack Horseman seems to fit pretty nicely into the generic adult comedy genre. The first couple of episodes have pretty stock jokes and characters, which gives the impression that the show is going to be a fairly harmless comedy.
But BoJack Horseman doesn’t stay this way for very long. The first couple of episodes are simply the set up for ones that are much more serialized and character driven, all while maintaining and even improving on the show’s relatable brand of humor. The episodes and seasons that follow are some of the most well written and executed I’ve ever seen in any form of animation.
Aren’t You That Horse From Horsin’ Around?
BoJack Horseman centers on the life and times of our titular hero, BoJack the horse. BoJack was the star of an 80’s family sitcom called Horsin’ Around, but in the years that followed the show’s ending, BoJack has struggled to maintain relevance in Hollywood that didn’t pertain to nostalgia.
Much of BoJack’s character arc over the course of the show focuses on how he has dealt with the Hollywood lifestyle, as well as his attempts to reclaim the fame that he once had. Naturally, this leads to many episodes that deal with topics like alcoholism, drug addiction and various sexual encounters.
BoJack’s relationship with the other characters from Horsin’ Around is also an important part of his character (Sarah Lynn in particular viewed BoJack as a father figure). Each of them portrays an aspect that is commonly seen in the world of celebrities. Sarah Lynn was the cute and spunky kid who grew up to become a drug addicted pop star, while Bradley was the nerdy brother who faded into obscurity following the show’s finale. These characters, among many others, give BoJack an element of relatability, particularly in the cast reunion episode.
Part of what makes BoJack such an endearing character is the fact that he’s not exactly a good person, a fact that he openly admits. He starts out having a ton of negative qualities. He’s dishonest, condescending and narcissistic just to name a few. But he’s likable because he makes a genuine effort to better himself.
As the story goes on, BoJack’s goal shifts from being a serious actor, to being a good person and finding true happiness, and he goes to great lengths to achieve these things. He makes rash and drastic decisions on a large scale, all to find even the tiniest glimmer of peace and love.
BoJack’s character development is slow and steady, making it seem more realistic. Just when you think he has learned a valuable lesson, he does something to wash away all the good that he accumulated. This makes his character more relatable, as no real person is able to perfectly implement life lessons as soon as they learn them. It takes time and patience to better yourself, and plenty of mistakes are going to be made along the way.
One common thread amongst the majority of modern day animation is continuity. Cartoons used to be written in a way that made them easily available for syndication, meaning that a continuous plot took a backseat to rewatchability. This means that events that happened in one episode were likely to be forgotten and even contradicted by the next.
The most popular cartoons of today feature genuine continuity. Shows like Adventure Time, Steven Universe and Gravity Falls all have storylines and character arcs that pick up from episode to episode, while also maintaining elements that make them a good fit for syndication. Even Regular Show, a cartoon that walks a perfect line between child and adult animation, references story elements from previous seasons.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show, animated or otherwise, that has a level of continuity like BoJack Horseman. Whether it’s character arcs or story elements, nothing is ever forgotten in this series. Without spoiling anything, I didn’t expect much of what happened during the ending of the first season to have a noticeable impact on the second. As it turns out, not only was that event immediately referenced, but almost the entirety of the second season is based around it.
There were times where I was watching the show and was genuinely surprised that certain character stories were either being referenced, or still being told. Similar to the aforementioned cartoons, a sense of real story progression goes a long way towards endearing an audience to a show’s world and characters. Knowing that certain dramatic events have a real impact on the story gives them much more meaning and resonance.
To be fair, having a strong continuity works much better for Netflix’s binge watch styled format, as opposed to cable television. I can personally say that I’ve kinda fallen out with Adventure Time because I rarely ever catch it when it’s on, so I’m always really lost when I finally do. This isn’t a knock against Adventure Time, it’s simply an observation of the two different formats. I’m sure if I was able to easily binge watch Adventure Time, I’d be just a big a fan of it as I used to be.
BoJack Horseman is full of realistic themes and relationships. As I said before, BoJack is looking for true and enduring happiness. But even outside of the main character, each member of the supporting cast has their own struggles to overcome. Diane and Princess Carolyn have to deal with drama surrounding their career and relationship choices, while Todd has to deal with the realities of being an adult.
The serious themes don’t even stop there. Sex, infidelity, suicide and abortions are among the myriad of topics that BoJack Horseman explores, and it does so with a level of maturity and nuance that is to be commended.
At the end of the day, the characters of BoJack Horseman are all looking for their place in the world, and a way to be happy. Much of what I’ve said about the show paints a picture of a very bleak narrative, and it kind of is. BoJack Horseman doesn’t pull any punches. It’s sad, depressing and at times can feel a little too real and relatable.
However, this isn’t to say that the show is a total downer. The slower, more dramatic moments are interspersed with plenty of humor, which goes a long way towards making the characters appealing. After all, being funny and charming can be just as effective as having serious character development when it comes to being relatable.
BoJack Horseman stands tall next to a number of other cartoons that are similar in style. There’s a really good Nostalgia Critic video about these shows, and it was actually what convinced me to watch BoJack Horseman in the first place.
I’d recommend BoJack Horseman to just about anybody, as I feel that it is one of the best shows out right now. At the time of this writing, there are three seasons and a Christmas special on Netflix, with a fourth season planned for Summer 2017. I implore anybody who is even vaguely interested to give BoJack Horseman a chance. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.