With Bojack Horseman preparing to release its third season on Netflix this Friday, it seems poised to claim the title of the smartest comedy on television. That triumph feels all the more significant considering its creatively exhausted premise: following the trials and tribulations of a former star trying to burnish his faded celebrity in Los Angeles. You’d think audiences would be sick of insider narratives about Hollywood narcissism in the wake of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Californication, Entourage, etc. But Bojack continues to inventively satirize its own industry, while deepening the anguish of its main cast, and building out its surreal, animated world in ways that dazzlingly reflect our own.
Like many Netflix shows, Bojack took a while to get going—the early episodes of its first season, mocking the booze-soaked life of a washed-up ’90s sitcom star who also happens to be a horse (Will Arnett), were too cutesy and clichéd. But the title character’s self-destructive misdeeds reached new highs and lows in the second season as he was cast in the title role of a Secretariat biopic. This year, Bojack is on the campaign trail looking to win an Oscar, giving the show even wider purview to mock the vapidity of the Hollywood publicity machine. But the best part of season three is how the show experiments with more and more bizarre ways of telling its story, without ever losing grip on the nuances of its ensemble’s disintegrating emotional states.
Bojack’s trump card is that it’s an animated series inspired by the designs of the terrific illustrator Lisa Hanawalt: It turns the well-trod territory of Hollywood’s corridors of power into a phantasmagoric wonderland of colorful animal-people and endless strange visual gags. Kangaroo bellhops pack suitcases into their pouches to carry them into hotels; a cat has a floating ball of yarn as a screensaver; a male seahorse gives birth to a new litter with practiced boredom. That constant creativity keeps Bojack from leaning too much on tired narratives of the flawed male protagonist, a genre that has only multiplied in the era of “Peak TV.” Bojack certainly is a flawed male protagonist, using booze and casual sex to keep his other demons at bay, but the show around him is so original it can get away with it.
The show is also wise to move the focus from Bojack any time his self-pitying becomes overwhelming. It turns its attention instead to the ongoing marital trials of Bojack’s former biographer Diane (Alison Brie) and her husband Mister Peanutbutter (an ever-optimistic Labrador Retriever/game-show host); the efforts of Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) to keep her burgeoning talent agency afloat; and the increasingly enigmatic Todd (Aaron Paul), a lazy pothead who sleeps on Bojack’s couch and unwittingly provides him with emotional support. The show is unafraid to take on bold digressions into topics like abortion, or the industry’s systemic racism. And every season finale it descends into utter bleakness, as the careful plotting of each character’s neuroses builds into a epic disaster.
That’s not to say Bojack isn’t also often riotously funny. Some of the third season’s best episodes are incredibly high-concept pieces of sitcom brilliance that hold an emotional gut-punch for the climax. In one, Bojack attends a film festival under the sea, a sort of Lost in Translation parody in which everyone is speaking an unintelligible fish language. A series of Buster Keaton-esque hijinks ensue as a silent Bojack tries to make his way to a theater and is beset with countless underwater obstacles. Another episode flashes back to 2007 to set up many of the cast’s initial meet-cutes, loading the script with jokes and fashion cues specific to that annum. Yet another recalls its story in piecemeal flashbacks as Bojack tries to cancel a newspaper subscription, recalling various ways in which the delivery of the fictional Los Angeles Gazette has affected his life over the previous months.
After the first few manic episodes, which seem almost entirely disconnected from each other, the season’s various threads finally begin to come together, and its depressing twists start taking shape on the horizon. Bojack is part soap opera, part self-referential industry satire, and part gonzo animated acid trip—but somehow it merges all those influences into one touching, grounded tale of damaged people trying desperately to cling on to each other even as they self-combust. Amid all that, it still always manages to find hints of lightness and humor. Bojack is a colorful, antic rollercoaster headed for a collision with a brick wall, but its third season nonetheless proves it’s always worth the ride.