BoJack Horseman Season 3 Review: The Continued Woes of an Anthropomorphic Hollywood

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There was a brief empty space in the television landscape for the exploration of existential dread and depression after Mad Men ended in the spring of 2015. That very summer, BoJack Horseman’s second season evolved to a place where that space started to fill in. For the even more confident third season, the creators seem to be fighting off comparisons as lazily as Mr. Robot does with Fight Club. Make no mistake, if you take Mad Men, switch advertising with Hollywood, animate it, and turn Roger Sterling into a literal silver fox, you’ve got BoJack Horseman. The difference in audience, however, is probably massive. Mad Men was a borderline snooty awards darling. BoJack is a cartoon with talking animals. Yet, Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s series only builds on the poignant life woes BoJack (Will Arnett) undergoes in season three.

The third season picks up after the second, with BoJack living a lie. While he was on one of his more tragic benders-turned-existential-crises, Hollywood moved forward without him and got a performance from a BoJack hologram that many are deeming Oscar worthy. Much of the table-setting premiere is about BoJack’s brief internal debate over whether to truly go for an Academy Award he didn’t earn. Much like how no client ever truly pushed Don Draper toward a happier life, the meaning of an Oscar titillates BoJack only because he thinks it could drastically improve his existence, even if he knows in his drug- and alcohol-laden heart that won’t happen. It’s heavy stuff for a show most of Mad Men’s audience probably didn’t think twice on. But don’t worry, BoJack’s signature delicate balance of absurdist comedy and so-bad-they’re-good animal puns within the emotional crises of its characters is ever present in season three. In fact, the marriage of the two has never seemed more natural.

Starting with episode two, entirely set in 2007 and intentionally making all the jokes a bad period comedy would, BoJack Horseman sprinkles a number of spectacular, formula-breaking episodes that dabble into several different subgenres of comedy. Much like the best seasons of Louie, these episodes stand on their own as aggressively successful experiments that also serve the larger purpose of the whole season. The nearly silent masterpiece “Fish Out of Water” perfectly captures everything wonderful about this show, humor or otherwise, while both advancing the season-long arc and containing itself as a quiet statement about this universe and the characters who live in it. There are more experimental masterpieces scattered throughout the season, including the aforementioned 2007 episode “The BoJack Horseman Show,” “Stop the Presses,” and “That’s Too Much, Man!” that play with our expectations of modern storytelling while still building to the justifiably dour conclusion to the season. This is all while being positively side-splitting and filled to the brim with blink-and-you-miss-‘em gags. The show may have borrowed its dreary outlook on life from Matthew Weiner’s masterstroke, but BoJack Horseman still manages to be wholly original. How many other shows can pull off a serious moment of character introspection while a humanoid beetle in the background wheels a bag of dung in his shopping cart? This flawless blend of tones is a big part of what makes the series so special, while also giving the episodes immense rewatchability.

But it’s not just BoJack making the show’s gears click into place, the supporting cast is up to snuff too. Diane’s (Alison Brie) role is reduced quite a bit this season, having escaped BoJack’s self-destructive lifestyle at the end of last season, but the scenes they do share together are lovely reminders of what BoJack is hopefully working toward, even if he doesn’t know it yet. Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins) and Todd (Aaron Paul) are paired together for a lot of the season, with the latter founding an all-female version of Uber (hoping to eradicate sexual harassment from cab rides) and the former investing in it. There’s also a comically genius subplot involving Mr. Peanutbutter and his endless supply of pasta strainers (because of course there is). Sarah Lynn (Kristen Schaal), meanwhile, gets some wonderful material when she reappears later in the season.

The weak link unfortunately continues to be Princess Caroline (Amy Sedaris). The show tries to fix the problem this year by showing us more of her and BoJack’s former relationship, but she just doesn’t quite share the same narratively exciting relationship with him that Diane does. With her old boyfriend, who was three kids standing on each others’ shoulders in a trench coat, out of the picture, the comedic material isn’t there as much for Princess Caroline this year, and Sedaris rather obviously isn’t quite as committed to the material as the other voice actors.

But one faulty character is hardly enough to condemn BoJack Horseman from the greatness it otherwise achieves. The fact is, this is an adult cartoon that is seriously worth anyone who loves TV’s time. Every episode of season three is a full meal, from the onslaught of clever sight gags and Hollywood in-jokes to the dramatic material that resonates on a level no adult cartoon has before it. After its shaky first season, the masterful work of the second is clearly here to stay. BoJack Horseman is a classic in the making, proving this year that the deeper and richer its hyper-real, anthropomorphic world gets, the better the show as a whole gets. Grade: A-

Some More Spoiler-y Notes:

  • Sarah Lynn’s death was handled with incredible purpose and tact. The show rarely sacrifices a scene to just handle dramatic material alone, but that planetarium scene with the silhouettes was magnificent, especially after BoJack had previously checked to see if she was alive and it was a rouse. Powerful stuff.
  • Will hanging with a pack of horses really be exactly what BoJack needs to fix everything in his life? Of course not, but I think watching him spend some time with his own kind could progress him just a bit closer to the good person buried deep inside of him.
  • Oh man, Sea World got skewered this season with the orca whale strippers.
  • “Fish Out of Water” didn’t even need to have the “he could have been talking the whole time” joke to be perfect, but I’m so glad it did. That may have been the best moment of the season for me.
  • Sextina Aquafina’s abortion song and music video were just brilliant.
  • Was “The BoJack Horseman Show” the first effective period comedy about the late 2000s?
  • The weakest episodes of the season were eight and nine, which is something I’ve noticed in a few other Netlix originals as well. Orange is the New Black and Daredevil have specifically had that problem in the past. I wonder how much creative control showrunners are given in terms of the episode count for their seasons.

By Matt Dougherty

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