How Bojack Horseman became the best animation on TV

Funny, woke, and consistently devastating

Across its four seasons to date, Netflix’s ‘sadcom’ BoJack Horseman has carved out a seemingly impossible niche for itself in animation. Supplementing its heavy themes of mental health and fulfilment with absurdist visual humour, pop culture and social commentary, season 4 of the show has cemented BoJack‘s status as the most important animation on television, even as the brilliant third season of Rick & Morty continues to push the sci-fi envelope on Adult Swim. Here’s how it’s done it.

It tricks you with an adorably silly premise

BoJack is set in a world where anthropomorphised animals and humans live in harmony. BoJack himself is a heavy-drinking horse; there are also deer, owls, cats, dogs, sheep, seals – you name it, BoJack Horseman has it, and the resultantly bizarre visual humour is constantly popping off the screen.

Take the sardines cramming into rooms and cars in season 3’s underwater episode; or Mr Peanutbutter’s bed being a dog bed; or Vincent Adultman probably being three kids in trench coat – there are innumerable examples of BoJack just being silly for silliness’ sake, and this generates a beautiful, necessary atmosphere of levity for the heavy tales that it tells.

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It’s all about masking the show’s darkness with comic visuals. Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg recalls seeing director/writer Shane Black (Lethal Weapon) give a talk about how many of his movies were set at Christmas time “even though they have nothing to do with Christmas”.

In an interview with Vox, Bob-Waksberg explained: “The reason he does that is because if you have lights in the air and snow and people in Santa suits, everything feels more fun and joyous, and you can get away with more fucked-up shit. People’s fingers can get cut off. It doesn’t seem gross or horrid. It seems like it’s a fun movie. That was, to me, a big part of this show too. We’re going to have these fun cartoon animals and then we’re going to go to darker places than you ever could in live-action.”

The bright, candyfloss atmosphere of the show keeps heavy themes from sinking while making the show’s hardest-hitting moments come seemingly out of nowhere.

It refuses to shy away from things that matter

Whether through the actions of its socially righteous characters like Diane Nguyen, or through idiotic panderers like Princess Carolyn, BoJack Horseman proves time after time that it’s a woke show that isn’t afraid to talk about important issues. Season 2’s explosive ‘Hank After Dark’ found Diane trying and failing to hold a powerful male media personality to account over allegations about improper behaviour towards female assistants. Season 4’s sobering ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ acted as a scathing look at both Californian gun laws and women’s rights. On a larger scale, the entire series acts as an exploration of depression, and BoJack’s progress from viewing happiness as an achievable ‘goal’ to something less easily defined.

Everyone wants to be in it

BoJack Horseman isn’t afraid to take the piss out of Hollywood, actors, and fame itself – and that’s struck a chord with a lot of famous faces. Jessica Biel had a large role in season 4 – she brings out a double-entendre range of perfume, ‘Bielest’, and when offered salvation from a sinkhole she says: “No, please! I’m important down here!” In fact, creator Bob-Waksberg has revealed Biel actually asked the show to roast her: “She felt like we were pulling punches,” he told Slash Film. “She said, ‘I want you to get the writers in the room and really go to town on me.’ So we did.”

Among the many other famous guest stars of the show are Paul McCartney, RuPaul, Lisa Kudrow, Daniel Radcliffe, Wiz Khalifa, Hannibal Buress, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Rami Malek, George Takei, Stanley Tucci, Olivia Wilde, Amy Schumer, Ilana Glazer, and Ricky Gervais.

It crafts moments that stay with you

To an extent, the number of A-listers guesting in the show is a visible mark of its quality, but this ultimately pales into insignificance when compared to the storytelling the show is capable of.

Traditionally in animation,” says Bob-Waksberg, “there is a hard reset after every episode. We work against that.” The bingeable nature of this Netflix show means it’s allowed to construct a long-form narrative with killer gut-punches, and season four has provided some of the show’s most beautiful and heartrending moments to date.

Episode 6, ‘Stupid Piece of Sh*t’, lets the audience hear BoJack’s horrifyingly depressive interior monologue for a full 20 minutes before Hollyhock, his presumed daughter, describes the same thing in herself and asks if it’s just a teenage phase. “Yeah,” he tells her.

In episode 9 ‘Ruthie’, one of Princess Carolyn’s descendents is telling a story about her ancestor in a futuristic classroom. The day she’s talking about is terrible – Princess Carolyn has a miscarriage, her family heirloom is revealed to be a valueless trinket, she’s fired by a client, starts drinking and splits up with her boyfriend. But we know everything is going to be ok, because Ruthie is telling her story. Right? No: in the episode’s final moments, Carolyn reveals Ruthie is a figment of her imagination to make her feel better. It’s brutal.

But the series standout has to be episode 11, the masterful ‘Time’s Arrow’, which uses animation techniques to depict the dementia BoJack’s mother is suffering in a way that’s probably never been seen on television before. It’s tragic and beautiful. The entire series, full as it is of moments like these, is consistently devastating – but that’s what makes it so essential. Roll on season 5.