[This is a review of BoJack Horseman season 2, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
It was initially hard not to write off Netflix‘s animated series about an alcoholic, washed-up anthropomorphic horse who, in the ’90s – according to the delightful and catchy end credits tune by Grouplove – was “in a very famous TV show,” as a silly attempt to comment on the inanity of Hollywood and the industry’s propensity for superficial excess. And in fact, the first few episodes did little to counter such criticisms, as the focus of BoJack Horseman leaned more toward the main character’s concerns with media perception and the paparazzi than the potent emotional honesty it would display as the season progressed.
But once the series stepped out from under the shadow of the Hollywood (or Hollywoo) sign and explored the circumstances of its once-famous, narcissistic, and emotionally stunted protagonist, it became a surprisingly powerful story about the stubborn gloom of depression and the ways in which the affliction often goes undiagnosed and untreated.
That’s a heavy burden to place on any show, much less an animated one in which humanoid animals and humans co-exist in a strange parody of real life. And yet the series became such a pointed analysis of the fleeting pleasures of fame and wealth, and the often hidden reasons for chasing them that it’s hard to imagine any show being capable of handling the task with as deft a hand.
After season 1 ended with BoJack (Will Arnett) caught in the nonexistent afterglow of getting something he always wanted and yet still feeling empty and unfulfilled, it’s no surprise that season 2 would begin with the actor attempting to turn that frown upside down, latching onto an inspirational audiobook narrated by George Takei as the means to a superficial Brand New Attitude. That new attitude is just a Band-Aid on a much more serious wound, one that has him (and everyone else) questioning BoJack’s ability to portray Secretariat, the character’s troubled childhood idol who committed suicide at the age of twenty-seven.
BoJack’s Brand New Attitude makes for an interesting reentry point into the show’s main storyline. By essentially placing the actor in the middle of a manufactured manic upswing, at the same time he is on the threshold of a major comeback and within arm’s reach of the highly prized social relevance that would inevitably follow, it braces the audience for the inevitable return to gloominess that has become the show’s calling card. But this is no mere up-and-back; the Brand New Attitude of ‘Brand New Couch’ is the next step in BoJack’s realization that his troubles go far deeper than disappointment in his career and being let down by role model who wasn’t cut out to be anything of the sort. Like the titular couch that sends permanent houseguest Todd Chavez (Aaron Paul) on a quest to find a comfortable place to rest his unworked head, BoJack’s just clearing out one problem by creating another. And with that the series gives us a hint of what the story arc of season 2 is going to be like.
It’s great to see that, like the book Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie) was researching, the filming of the Secretariat movie will serve as the framing device to the season. This grounds the story and gives the characters a reason to continue interacting with one another – which is especially helpful considering BoJack’s unrequited feelings for Diane were compounded when she married the insufferably upbeat Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins). But it also creates an interesting subtext about expectation versus reality, and the fear of venturing outside one’s comfort zone, even though it’s the right thing to do.
In that sense, Diane deliberately curbing her professional ambitions by taking a marginalized position as a character consultant (and glorified warning sign) instead of joining Sebastian St. Clair (Keegan-Michael Key) in some war-torn part of the world is not too far removed from BoJack’s own inability to acknowledge and deal with the lingering issues from his childhood and overbearing mother Beatrice (voiced by Wendie Malick). And by developing a through-line with BoJack saying, “I thought there was more to me,” season 2 deepens the unspoken bond between BoJack and Diane without retreading the characters’ failed romance.
But don’t let all this talk of depression, unfulfilled dreams, and realizations of one’s lack of personal depth fool you. BoJack Horseman is still ridiculously funny, and even though it continues to get in touch with its inner horseman, the series’ dark, absurdist humor remains in check – if not more potent than ever before. Amidst a troubled first day of shooting the Secretariat movie, ‘Brand New Couch’ finds time to sneak in a gruesome joke about cable awareness and the face-melting temperatures of Starbuck’s coffee (or the nearest animated approximation thereof).
For a series that was almost written off as a superficial, Entourage-like commentary on fame, BoJack Horseman has proven to be something quite different: an animated series starring an anthropomorphized horse that’s more concerned with and adept at commenting on the human condition than most shows about the subject actually are. It’s also a testament to the show that in its second season it remains as remarkably powerful as it is hilarious.
BoJack Horseman season 2 is available in its entirety on Netflix.