Quick, name the greatest televisions programmes of all time.
If you’re like most people, you probably said Breaking Bad and The Wire, followed by some combination of The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, The Office, Seinfeld, The West Wing, Twin Peaks, Friends, Mad Men, and (if you’re me) Better Call Saul.
What you probably didn’t do is mention many cartoons.
Of course, The Simpsons is the exception here, but The Simpsons is the exception to most things. It’s an absolute cultural phenomenon that puts it on a level few others programmes have been able to reach, animated or not.
You may have also thought of South Park, possibly SpongeBob SquarePants, and maybe even Family Guy if you transported to this review from 2008.
But chances are you thought of House of Cards or Orange Is The New Black before you thought of, say, Futurama (which is hugely underrated and far more touching than people often give it credit for. Just thinking about the “Jurassic Bark” episode makes me want to cry).
I can only think that live action television gets a better time of it because it seems somehow more serious, even when it isn’t. The thing held against cartoons seems to be that they are “silly” or even “stupid”.
“Silly” is fair enough. It’s essentially a trope of cartoons that there has to be a little wackiness or zaniness. If it’s not going to be a little silly why even bother to animate it?
To suggest that most cartoons are “stupid”, though, does a huge disservice to the genre.
I know people who would dismiss South Park as being stupid. These are people who have never really watched it, and probably last engaged with it in 1998 when everyone was doing bad Cartman impressions. But stupid it is not. It’s incredibly smart in places, using faux-stupidity to get across interesting, satirical, often-political points. It’s certainly far smarter than something like Friends. But it’s a cartoon, and therefore it’s more stupid and less important.
I imagine it is for this reason that Bojack Horseman won’t get the credit it deserves.
If you have neither watched nor heard of Bojack Horseman, it is a Netflix-exclusive animated television programme about an actor from an awful 90s sitcom trying to make a comeback in the mid-2010s and struggling with modern society and fame.
Oh, and the main character is a horse.
The whole universe is set in one of anthropomorphic animals. Everything walks on two legs and has two arms, and creatures are mostly human but with a few characteristics from whichever animal they are.
Take Bojack’s main rival, Mr Peanut Butter, as an example. Mr Peanut Butter is a dog, but one that is married to Bojack’s kind-of-love-interest (and human) Diane. He is overly-friendly, perhaps concealing real issues, but genuinely cares about Bojack and his opinion even though Bojack hates him. But, as he’s a dog, he also wears a cone when he gets injured and can be manipulated in to doing things he doesn’t want to by saying “who’s a good boy?”
It’s never questioned why these animals can do this, and even though there are plenty of inter-species relationships (including human and dog, horse and owl, or hamster and spider) no-one ever bats an eyelid. You can probably make an argument for this being one of the most “equality” themed programmes ever made if you wanted.
It’s the animal aspect of the humanised characters that brings most of the humour (such as the actor Ethan Hawke being an actual hawk), but it’s also hilarious in its satire of Hollywood culture. And just as with all other cartoons, there’s plenty of silly to go around. This includes possibly my favourite character Vincent Adultman, who is clearly three children on top of each other in a trench coat. This is a programme that is very, very funny.
Bojack Horseman also happens to be perhaps the most engaging and brilliant portrayals of depression I’ve ever seen.
Bojack’s an alcoholic, someone who walks around either with a desire for more or a feeling of unworthiness for what he has. He’s constantly chasing things that he thinks will make everything better but they never do. No matter how successful he gets, he’ll never be truly happy with his lot, which he knows and hates himself for.
The second half of the second season, in which he looks for an old flame and moves in with her family, only to mess it all up and almost tear that family apart, is one of the most tragic and upsetting things I’ve ever seen.
And again, this is a story in which the main character is a humanised horse.
Season Three, released on Netflix last Friday, picks up exactly where the outstanding Season Two left us. Except, Bojack is now starting to see a resemblance of respect and fame coming back to him after years of self-hatred.
And guess what? Even as he tries to manipulate the elderly Oscar voters in a retirement home or at a bat bat mitzvah (a bat mitzvah for a bat, obviously) he’s still feeling completely undeserving and guilty for his past transgressions. Sure, he’s being framed for murder and interrogated by the deep-voiced and David Caruso-style Officer Meow Meow Fuzzyface, but his real concern is his lack of purpose and meaning in the world. It’s really, really sad.
And that’s not to even speak of Episode Four. Episode Four takes place entirely underwater and completely without dialogue, and yet somehow manages to accurately depict that feeling of not belonging when you first arrive in a new place, plus has Bojack trying to deal with his own guilt, and a Fantasia-style segment where Bojack looks after a baby seahorse. Again, this is all done without dialogue, for a whole episode, with a horse for a main character.
So, yeah, Bojack Horseman is a pretty great programme, but I fear it’ll never get the full respect it deserves simply because it’s animated and not live-action. That’s a shame. For satire, laughs and emotion it’s pretty much untouched for anything I have seen in a very, very long time.
Bojack Horseman Season Three Rating: Three children stacked on top of each other under a trench coat out of three.
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