Minor spoilers for BoJack Horseman season three, episode four follow.
If you think a show about the intoxicated lifestyle of a washed-up, narcissistic and chronically depressed sitcom star and horse can’t be termed ‘must-watch’, you obviously haven’t seen the silent, underwater episode of ‘sadcom’ BoJack Horseman. Normally it’s the fast-paced and vacuous dialogue of the Netflix series that takes precedence over the detailed animation jokes, but in season three of the show – out last Friday (July 22) – there’s an episode that strips all that away. Instead of dialogue, it employs animation to tell an utterly beguiling story.
The premise for the silence in ‘Fish Out Of Water’ is BoJack’s attendance of an underwater film festival to promote his Oscar-nominated movie, Secretariat. Wearing a helmet so he can breathe, he’s unable to communicate with the subaquatic community – and nor can he understand the speech of the fish around him. BoJack’s also unable to drink or smoke in his air bubble, meaning he has to face himself, all by himself. The ostensible point of the episode is for BoJack to find and apologise to Kelsey, the director he got fired from Secretariat, but it’s the steps he takes to get there that leave the lasting impression.
Soundtracked by woozy synths, the episode BoJack spends underwater shows him confronting his frustrations and, seemingly, making some kind of progress with his bleak mind. It’s also full of visual gags – like the cab crammed full of sardines, or a book BoJack is given by a seahorse. You could – and should – start with this episode if you’ve never given BoJack a chance before, because it encompasses everything that’s great about the show.
It’s an episode that demands patience, and many of its scenes may seem gratuitous initially. The creator of the show, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, has said that Netflix was “nervous” about it, and you can see why a silent chase scene through an exploding taffy factory or a trampoline session on bioluminescent anemones might feel pointless – but they aren’t. Not only are these scenes beautiful to look at, they also build up to a poignant moment of characterisation that many live-action series couldn’t hope to achieve. BoJack is initially reluctant to play protector to an abandoned baby seahorse, but in his quest to bring it back to its father, he comes to know himself better, and when asked what he wants in return for seeing the kid home safely, his wordless reaction is perfect: what he’s learnt – what he keeps learning, episode after episode – is that he really doesn’t know himself at all.
Then there are the final few moments of ‘Fish Out Of Water’, which provide a payoff that isn’t what viewers expect or necessarily hope for – but BoJack’s reaction is totally within the spirit of the series, and it’s up there with the best jokes of 2016’s TV so far.