BoJack Horseman (2014) IMDb

Extent

Seen in 2019.

Review refers to the first three seasons.

Categorization

Serialized sitcom.

Subject

As the end credits put it, “back in the ’90s, I was in a very famous TV show.”

Commentary

From Silly Symphonies (1929) to Peppa Pig (2004), stereotypical English-language cartoon productions showed anthropomorphic animals. This is a potential source of comedy, specifically through incongruity and baseness: In the same way that viewers are expected to consider themselves superior to fools, they are expected to regard non-human animals as inferior. We laugh at those who are inferior. Animals have grown to connote silliness as per Steve Baker’s Picturing the Beast (1993).

Anthropomorphic animals make up about half the cast of BoJack. The species are mostly what you expect in barnyards and zoos, hence in children’s culture. There are a few exotic exceptions like a blue-whale news anchor and a maggot mortician, both the same size. As a self-conscious afterthought, these exceptions gradually expand to species like a star-nosed mole in season three. Occasionally the animal nature of these characters is used for physical comedy, as when a hen lays an unfertilized egg in shock and the egg immediately hits the floor and cracks, without reaction. More often, the animals are used for visual variety and obnoxious advertisting-style puns, like a bear holding up a sign that says “BoJack’s views are unbearable”. The same lazy puns are used on other topics, as in the name “Dispirited” for an airline, alluding to “Spirit” with conspicuously minimal effort.

Predictably, the creators do not settle entirely for such non-jokes. They do all the usual drug-hallucination tricks with their cheap vector animation, illustrating self-loathing and depression among privileged, economically unthreatened men. The emotional motif is drawn from The Sopranos (1999) and Mad Men (2007) while the presentation mixes South Park (1997) with Rick and Morty (2013). In season 2, episode 5, BoJack attempts the vertiginous nihilism of Rick and Morty, showing anthropomorphic chickens that are purposely brain-damaged from birth by the meat industry, but this is a pointless joke about the show’s thoughtlessness, not worldbuilding.

The high-water mark of the writers’ reflexivity about the animals is when they introduce a human character named Vanessa Gekko as cold-blooded and bug-eyed before she appears on screen, setting up the false impression that she will be a lizard. This is well below the ceiling of Family Guy (1999). Given that anthropomorphism is the show’s most distinctive visual characteristic, the writers strain surprisingly hard to avoid using it. They do no thinking about how society would change if animals were anthropomorphic or sentient. For example, in episode 7, a cow waitress publically pumps milk from her human breast to serve a customer, implying all dairy is likewise produced by people, the same way the chicken they eat is people. Wolves prey on sheep in public without consequences. The writers shun their own implications because internal consistency would run counter to their intent, which is all Baker. Animals are base and silly. Laugh.

I guess it’s “coward camp”: The writers mean for all their work to seem potentially ironic because they don’t dare own it. They almost achieve irony when, in the second season, BoJack camps it up on set instead of acting. This is a bit like the creator of the show choosing stereotypical anthropomorphism to tell his story about self-loathing and psychological toxicity. It doesn’t work. It as if some idiot producer had decided that They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969) had to be a cartoon with talking horses to illustrate its point. BoJack is simply stuck in the past, pointing to minor absurd details in children’s culture as it was manufactured 100 years earlier, long after subversion of that culture entered the mainstream.

The creator of the show is my age. For this age cohort, it’s hard to get any closer to the mainstream of US cartoons than BoJack Horseman. It’s a show about vacuous celebrity culture, front-loaded with cowardly self-deprecation. It uses celebrity voices (Amy Sedaris is a regular!), it’s marinaded in recognizable tropes and it tries to be every genre in the mainstream, from a heavy serialized drama (the death of Sarah Lynn) to a zany episodic comedy (Todd Chavez who should have been cut at the end of season one). The writing is often cruel and the inconsistencies pile right up.

Fortunately, there’s a stylishness to the presentation that surpasses Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law (2000) and a spate of similar outré adult cartoons from the preceding cohort. That’s the best thing about BoJack Horseman. That a brand new IP could run on these premises in 2014 and be so popular and critically acclaimed is a measure of alienation from both nature and the barnyard, not a measure of quality.

References here: “Kanini & Kanino” (2018).

animation fiction moving picture series