The inky outlines around a cartoon character are meant to be solid, impermeable boundaries. They don’t just cleanly separate foreground from background for our viewing pleasure; they permanently preserve the essence of the character inside them, allowing us to return to each episode and find those same lovable qualities. The message: Real people change, but cartoons don’t.
Netflix’s BoJack Horseman spent its first two seasons beautifully blurring the line between drama and comedy. Its linear plot structure was a departure from the self-contained stories we’ve come to expect from animated shows, suggesting that its assortment of humans and anthropomorphised animals were not stagnant tropes but tragically imperfect beings, capable of self-destruction and growth. The message: Real people change, and so can cartoons.
The third season of the introspective sitcom teases us with a bleaker, contrary notion: that everyone is hopelessly locked into their own personal cycles. That through their vices or redundant inner workings, people will always be what they are – no matter what steps they take, what new connections are made or what wrongs from their past they attempt to right. The message: Real people don’t really change, and neither do cartoons.
There’s more to BH than its exploration of the human condition, of course, even if those strengths occasionally take a backseat to the show’s sobering tone. For one, it boasts some of the best voice acting you’ve heard on TV or film, and its list of cast regulars and cameos reads like a murderers’ row of all-world talent. Its writing is sharp and witty, with hilarious dialogue and slow-building jokes that show tremendous foresight. Its lush animation style is as stunning as ever, on full display in season three’s standout episode, ‘Fish Out of Water’, which has virtually no dialogue.
It’s that type of far-reaching ambition that makes BH special. It succeeds largely because it treats its colourful canvas in a way that feels like complete and fulfilling storytelling – not just a piece of one-note television but actual theatre. Every scene is meticulously considered, replete with meta jokes and light-hearted animal gags; each episode merits a second or third viewing because there is simply too much to take in at once.
Excess has become ubiquitous in BH (it is, after all, set in Hollywoo
d) but it takes a central role in season three. After years of toiling in the flickering entertainment spotlight, BoJack is now on tour promoting his hit new movie, Secretariat. But while he seeks personal validation through an Oscar win, we’re reminded that this, like most things, remains out his control (“control” itself being an illusion, according to the person on the other line of the phone when BoJack attempts to cancel his newspaper subscription). Instead, we see him returning to his old, exorbitant ways more often than not.
In episode 11, BoJack indulges in a drug- and alcohol-fuelled bender with his former costar (and recovering addict) Sarah Lynn. Ironically at one point they find themselves sitting in the back row of a 12-step meeting. As they pass a flask of whiskey back and forth, a (wild?) turkey takes the stage and says, “People don’t change because they want to change. They change because they have to change.” Indeed, mania abounds in season three, and its consequences are both humorously cartoon-like and profoundly real to our world. But at the end we’re left wondering: when will BoJack have to change?
Ultimately, BH is forced to cope with its own issues of excess. Side plots and experimental storytelling formats can stretch the show’s third season a bit too thin, diluting its oaky kick and forcing the narrative to meander even more than it has in previous seasons. At times (such as with the brilliant ‘Fish Out of Water’), it goes down perfectly. Other times it doesn’t. It’s not the worst problem to have for Netflix, with the next episode just a click away, but it is an adjustment for those expecting a traditional viewing experience.
The tagline on a Secretariat poster reads ‘He’s tired of running in circles…’, a sentiment that BoJack Horseman fans can certainly relate to. For the majority of its first three seasons, the show’s characters have appeared stuck on their circuitous tracks, moving from one adventure to the next only to find themselves back in the same unfulfilling spot as before. The season closes on a final harrowing moment that suggests the dynamic may change, that there is a resilience to BoJack’s nature that he’s not yet tapped, but we’ll have to wait until season four (which has already been greenlit!) to find out.
For now, we have another 12 episodes of one of television’s smartest and most ambitious shows to watch and re-watch as we seek, however futilely, a bit of resolution around the next turn.