CarterMatt Extended: On ‘BoJack Horseman’ and its astounding reality

Extended -It may sound crazy for those of you out there who are not “BoJack Horseman” viewers, but this particular article is one that has been in the pipeline almost from the moment the CarterMatt Extended series was conceived. It is easy to understand the latent cynicism towards this show on paper: It is an animated series on Netflix with broad, at-times obnoxious jokes, and it is about an anthropomorphized horse.

The generalizations of this particular form are expected. The majority of animated shows are silly, and therein rarely offer up anything important. Occasionally a show like “South Park” will offer social commentary, as they are doing in the midst of what has been a very strong season for them this fall. However, even they are not so concerned with a consistent narrative. As for the rest of the animated-comedy landscape, they rely mostly on fart jokes, stereotypes, or appealing to common denominators so low that they can be kicked without even raising your leg.

When it comes to its home on Netflix, the easy thing to do is pour on the praise that it landed in such a cool place. Netflix is a tremendous content partner that gives you unbridled creative flexibility. Few other homes would have given show creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg the freedom to do what he has done here. The downside is that the show unfortunately is lost in a sea of other wonderful Netflix shows. Yes, “House of Cards” is incredible, “Orange is the New Black” is magnetic, and you and everyone else is insanely stoked to see “Jessica Jones” premiering on November 20.

After looking at the quality and the impact of “BoJack Horseman,” it is clearly worth just as much of a chance, even if it is a show that you only have the time to pick up and watch occasionally. That was the habit formed on this end over the past couple of months. What was on the other side? While there may be a sense of whimsy at times to the storytelling, underneath this coating, the animation, and the hilarity is one of the most honest portrayals of stardom and ego ever to grace the episodic form.

First, let’s start with Will Arnett

As a late bloomer to Arnett’s work and to “Arrested Development,” there was admittedly a time when it was easy to shrug at some of the cancellation headlines when his career was hitting some of its valleys. Learning of the end of “Running Wilde” and “Up All Night” failed to create much of an emotional crater, but how it could it? These were never shows that made it to this particular writer’s DVR, let alone the TV during primetime. Our lack of reaction was yet another example of someone snidely commenting on the end of a show or two they had never even seen.

After finally watching “Arrested Development” years after the fact, it opened up a whole world of possibilities of what Arnett could do. Gob Bluth was and is a remarkable, brilliant (despite his miscues), and hysterically funny character. The reason he works is that you can tell that what he really wants is respect, and the terrible ways in which he goes about getting it are a part of the reason he remains so perpetually sad and alone. BoJack Horseman has some of those same qualities as a character, but in his backstory he’d also found an unmeasured success that Gob never quite did with his magic. He was the star of the 1990’s sitcom “Horsin’ Around,” and in the time following being a global superstar, stared right at the edge of a cliff before falling off. Why? He was never content within his work, and as a result of that, he was never happy in his life. BoJack is a character, like many others in the real world, who is constantly seeking validation on the other side of the horizon. In season 2 the character finally achieves his life’s dream of getting to make a movie version of “Secretariat,” only to realize that a studio is out to transform it into a shell of his original vision. As a result, he abandons the set and seeks out a woman in Charlotte who he felt a connection to decades before. Then, that falls apart before it even begins. He’s always seeking that one emotional connection.

BoJack never loves himself; thanks to that, he can never find love in anything else. The only real time he has ever felt such self-worth is through giving back unconditionally, which is why he continues to allow Todd (Aaron Paul) to live at his mansion. As he mentions in the season 2 finale, it is one of the few decisions in his life he feels genuinely good about to this day, and has no regrets.

Arnett may not appear onscreen as BoJack, but it may still be the finest acting performance of his career, and this is said with confidence after now taking some time to go back and visit much of his older work. He nails the comedy and BoJack’s overrun ego like you would expect him to, but he handles the heart and gravitas of this show with such texture and delicacy that at times it is heart-breaking. You may not want to have sympathy for BoJack’s aloneness or his status as a Hollywood laughingstock, mostly because he did much of it to himself; the performance almost forces you to. It is for this reason that we continue to bemoan the lack of proper recognition by voice actors in many mainstream awards shows. Arnett deserves it in spades here.

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Now, the satire

Sure, there are many shows out there that have in one way or another looked at Hollywood and the process of making television / film. “30 Rock” is one of the best. Even “The Muppets” is doing it now, though it is still to be seen if they will continue after revamping much of their show.

“BoJack Horseman” nails much of the nuance of it all, whether it be an owl (walking, talking animals are treated as natural in this world, much in the same way fittingly as the Muppets are handled in theirs) who is trusted to run a major network after being in a coma, an improv troupe like Second City or UCB having at times a cult-like mentality towards its members, or there being a few business types out there crazy enough to shell out money for a rock opera set in space.

If there is a particular message the show is trying to share about the entertainment industry over the course of its two seasons, it is that so much of your success and failure rate is independent of what you do. You have to find that happiness within yourself, because even if you work hard, the industry can still chew you up and spit you out. BoJack happened to be in the right place at the right time for “Horsin’ Around,” but could never find the opportunity to have “Secretariat” made. Eventually, he simply stopped allowing himself to make said movie. Meanwhile, much of his frustration at the industry seems to stem from Mr. Peanutbutter (The criminally underrated Paul F. Thompkins), a dog who starred in a rip-off version of “Horsin’ Around” and secured a spot hosting a game show with little to no effort at all. (The fact that said game show is executive produced by not-really-dead author J.D. Salinger is one of the ridiculously absurd things we love about the show.)

No entertainment topic is particularly spared in one form or another. Through two seasons we’ve seen entertainment news, rumor-spreading, Character actress Margo Martindale, celebrities doing self-serving charity work, bad behavior leading to job opportunities, the decline of the print industry, talent agency swaps, and conflicts with creative partners placed under the satiric microscope. While there have been some spotlights that have shined brighter than others (Todd’s creation of his own Disneyland was a little too out there, even for this show), all have contributed to the way “BoJack” looks at the cultural zeitgeist.

It’s all about heart

It may be easy to dismiss BoJack when he is sniping at his kid co-stars for “Horsin’ Around” backstage or trying to get romantically attached to the wrong people for all the wrong reasons, but the writers paint this character as one who grew up in an emotionally abusive home, one where he never felt any validation for his actions. Psychologically, you could say this is why he searched for it elsewhere, whether it be by getting into entertainment to letting Todd stay to even developing feelings for his biographer Diane (Alison Brie), someone who was literally being paid to listen to him tell stories so she could write them down.

The show’s strongest storyline remains the production and release of BoJack’s biography in season 1, something he tried to initially control with fists of iron before it was relayed to him that vulnerability is what the people want. They want to see that story, “warts and all,” as Diane perfectly describes. This emotional release by BoJack, and the book’s subsequent success, leads to one of the show’s most touching moments, when in the season 1 finale BoJack realizes that even the smallest impact on someone’s life is not something to take for granted. It is a moment that he likely did thousands of times during his “Horsin’ Around” days. It doesn’t change his life or his personality (which is lovely, since such moments rarely do in life), but you get the sense that it subconsciously lingers throughout season 2 as he wants to contribute to work he can celebrate.

Moving into the third season, we imagine that there could be a challenge present in how to continue to make this show compelling when so much of its DNA lies within the misery of its main character and his failure to turn things around. He lives in the past, fails to see the present for what it is, and rarely thinks about the future; yet, there is that spark within him, that glimmer of hope that he can and wants to be different if he gets the right inspiration. That spark in season 1 inspired him to change, and that smallest sense of drive and self-evaluation, even if it is temporary, is what drives us closer to this show. Overall, the writing is hilarious beyond the shadow of a doubt, but it is also remarkably relatable even for those who have not witnessed the outlandish trappings of this Hollywood (or, as this show calls it in one elaborate inside joke, Hollywoo).

If there is one bit of advice was can offer up to prospective “BoJack Horseman” viewers in closing, it is to give the series more of a chance than just the first two episodes of season 1. There are moments of humor and heart in there, but it is only when you dive into the second half of the season that you start to feel the devastation, the depth, and the desire for something more that will make you want to keep watching.

CarterMatt Extended is a feature, comprising of in-depth articles on various TV topics posted every Wednesday night. If you want to sign up for news sent to you every week, you can do so on our Newsletter page.

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