Reviews

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

There are Bronze and Iron Age graves where archaeologists have found babies buried with sippy cups. Even in the ancient world, the fanciest cups were decorated with cute animal motifs. From Silly Symphonies (1929) to Peppa Pig (2004), stereotypical English-language cartoon productions showed similar cute animals, infused with anthropomorphism. This is a potential source of comedy, mainly through incongruity and baseness: In the same way that viewers are expected to consider themselves superior to fools, they are expected to regard animal people 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 Horseman. The species are mostly what you expect in barnyards and zoos, hence in children’s culture. There are a few early 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 less famous species like a star-nosed mole in season three. Occasionally the animal nature of these characters is used for deadpan 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 advertising-style puns, like a bear holding up a sign that says “BoJack’s views are unbearable”. Names like “BoJack” come from what humans apply to non-human animal property, while the last name “Horseman” recalls Carl Barks shit like the domestic servants “Beakley” and “Duckworth” in DuckTales (1990). Lazy puns are used on non-animal topics too, as in the name “Dispirited” for an airline, alluding to “Spirit” with conspicuously minimal effort.

Predictably, the creators try to make jokes, too. They also 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 is uncomfortably close to South Park (1997).

At the high-water mark of the writers’ reflexivity about animals, 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 thinking about it.

In season 1, episode 7, a cow waitress publicly pumps milk from her human breast to serve a customer. In season 2, episode 5, BoJack attempts the vertiginous nihilism of Rick and Morty (2013), showing anthropomorphic chickens that are purposely brain-damaged from birth by the meat industry. These are gross-out gags and jokes about the show’s thoughtlessness. The chicken episode can be read as a ham-fisted metaphor for human-on-non-human relationships (and the contemporary meat industry in particular) or human-on-human relations, like the recurring gag of wolf people preying on (i.e. exploiting) sheep people in public without reaction. Alas, the chicken episode cannot be read as worldbuilding. It’s not a self-consistent take on universal animal sapience. It does not make sense as narrative, only as allegory. The writers shun their own implications because internal consistency would run counter to their intent, which is all Baker. Animals are base and silly, and anthropomorphic animals are transparently incongruous even to toddlers, on the level of “Along Flirtation Walk” (1935). Laugh now, viewer.

I guess it’s “coward camp”: The writers mean for all their work to seem potentially ironic because they don’t dare own the heavier dramatic aspects of 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 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 adult 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, consistently boring). The writing is often cruel and the inconsistencies pile right up. This is unavoidable under the premises. Tony Soprano did not drink from a sippy cup with a cartoon horse, nor should he have done so.

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