Netflix’s recent success at producing original series — most notably “House of Cards” (2013-present) and “Orange is the New Black” (2013-present) — has created high expectations of quality for subsequent endeavors. The first season of “BoJack Horseman,” an original animated comedy released last month, is both entertaining and rewarding and marks a new move for the online media company.
“BoJack” stars Will Arnett, the voice actor behind the show’s titular character, an anthropomorphic horse living in Los Angeles. BoJack is a has-been actor whose Cosby-sweatered ’90s sitcom, “Horsin’ Around” leaves him a washed-up D-list celebrity. At times emotionally desperate and bitterly cynical, BoJack finds himself in the uncomfortable position of having to face up to himself, his lay-about roommate Todd (Aaron Paul), his pink cat agent Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) and his over-earnest golden retriever rival Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins). Also in the picture is Diane (Alison Brie), the ghostwriter tasked with creating an intriguing and optimistically career-reviving portrait of day-drinking and loneliness that has overtaken BoJack’s life.
Made available for streaming all at once, the season focuses on the ins and outs of BoJack’s efforts to rise above his bitterness and return to stardom. The primary conceit of the season — getting his autobiography published — directs the plot deeper into BoJack’s past, helping the audience to get acquainted with its grumpy protagonist. Meanwhile, Diane tries to push BoJack to change, and ultimately, to acquire the material she needs for her story.
In one episode, “Zoes and Zeldas,” Diane persuades BoJack to act as a mentor to Todd, but instead he decides to sabotage his couch-surfing roommate so that he doesn’t have to be alone in his “stately manse.” And in “BoJack Hates the Troops,” BoJack gets into a media debacle with a Navy Seal (yes, an actual seal) named Neal McBeal (Patton Oswalt) after calling into question the uber-patriotic tendency to declare all troops heroes. Despite the desire for a re-vamped career, BoJack proves almost too stubborn to stop his bad media nosedive.
Like many people (and horses?), BoJack’s desire to be loved leads him to try to be a better person — he attempts to make amends with a dying former friend — and to desperate moments that many will recognize. For example, he convinces himself he loves his ex-girlfriend so he can get her to stick around.
Despite the intense focus on BoJack’s character, the show gives non-trivial attention to others as well. “Say Anything” follows Princess Carolyn, giving Amy Sedaris time to shine as a snide, professional woman, her character walking the line between a workaholic’s life and a happy one. Fortunately, interactions between the side characters give breadth to the humor and quasi-fantastical world that the show occupies. In the animated and animal-stocked version of Hollywood, “BoJack’s” writers are free to poke fun at talent agencies, start-ups and film while the crux of the show focuses on the turmoil, and ultimately, the hollowness, of celebrity. Overall, satisfactory character development gives the show a sense of maturation during the first season, as our colorful animal and human cohorts grow.
The conceit of animals acting as people also gives the show a consistent vein of humor that deepens its character examination. Quick snippets of humor — a maggot-man runs the funeral parlor, a rooster jogs past houses yelling “Wake up, it’s morning!” — keep the spirit of the show weird. That weirdness, from an end theme performed by GroupLove to a sublimely disturbing opening segment, keeps things from turning too bleak.
While the comedy of the show is certainly familiar — deadpan humor and contemporary references recall “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (2000-2011) as well as the more recent (and also animated) “Bob’s Burgers”(2011-Present) — later episodes take a more reflective and serious tone. Though risky, the show’s slow-but-steady explorations of celebrity and the true meaning of happiness emerge. It also helps that “BoJack Horseman” uses bleak humor to prevent these existential yearnings from becoming too sentimental. Instead, they come through effortlessly. It’s that sense of humor that allows us to laugh when BoJack yells at a crowd “you’re just jealous because I’m well-adjusted!” (He most clearly is not.)
“BoJack Horseman” depicts a sympathetic jerk of a character with excellent execution, but its true success comes from its elegant and daring critique of Hollywood. With a great cast, fantastical colors and weird and absurd sense of humor, BoJack charms.