Bojack Horseman is the best Hollywood satire since Robert Altman’s The Player.
I choose to compare this Netflix original series to Altman’s movie not only because The Player is a fantastic movie, but because it has had the deepest and clearest impact in the genre since it premiered twenty-three years ago. Virtually all Hollywood satires that have come after -including the ones reviewed here, like David Conenberg’s Maps to the Stars– seem to be riffing heavily on the discomforting ugliness of Altman’s film, and none of them have been able to match the brilliance of The Player‘s disgustingly nihilistic ending.
The problem with these movies is they proclaim to uncover the nasty superficiality and dehumanization of the entertainment industry by making fun of how ridiculous and empty the whole thing is, but at the same time, they are pieces of art that dedicate their entire running time obsessing about the industry they are pretending to criticize. That is why the better Hollywood satires since The Player have tended to be light-hearted comedies like The Artist. The more serious your satire is, the less genuine is going to feel.
That is not the case with Bojack Horseman. The show started out as the type of adult animated comedy you could find on cable. Being the story of a faded sitcom star from the nineties voiced by the grumpy Will Arnett, it seemed quite similar in tone to shows like The Critic and Archer. It was a fun show full of animal puns and silly jokes about Hollywood, which was made all the more entertaining thanks to a fantastic (and extensive) voice cast that includes Allison Brie, Aaron Paul, Amy Sedaris, Stanley Tucci, character actress Margo Martindale, and Paul F. Tompkins, who gives an outstanding performance as Bojack’s nemesis: the always cheery golden retriever Mr. Peanutbutter.
However, Bojack Horseman reached its current level of greatness when it ventured into some pretty dark places in the last few episodes of its first season. The penultimate episode in particular, which took a look inside Bojack’s subconscious in an abstract trip that could be compared to something as highbrow as Tarkovsky’s The Mirror, revealed what exactly is so fresh about Bojack Horseman, and what differentiates it from most contemporary Hollywood satires: Hollywood is not the villain of this story.
This -unlike so many other satires- isn’t the story of how Hollywood destroys the lives of everyone who dares try and make it big in the industry.Yes, Bojack is an incredibly unhappy character, but he isn’t miserable because of Hollywood. Something is broken inside him, there is an emptiness in his soul that cannot be fixed as long as he pretends that any external factor can mend it.
Amidst all of the silly jokes about cannibalistic chickens, stupid game shows, and J.D. Salinger, Bojack Horseman reveals itself as an incredibly insightful story about depression. It is a story about regular people trying to find happiness in a absurd and indifferent world, and its brilliant second season in particular, focuses on the struggle and difficulties that come with trying to enact any kind of change. It is an unbearably hard road to travel, and all one can do is take one step at a time, and try to better every day.
It’s a touching portrayal of people trying to find meaning in the emptiness of modern living wrapped in an absurd show about an alternative Hollywood that is populated by talking animals. It sounds so foolish that it only makes sense the show is as great as it is.
The first two seasons of Bojack Horseman are available to stream on Netflix.