BoJack Horseman is unlike any other show on television.
Netflix’s comedy slash drama slash animated existential crisis is proudly weird, deeply funny, and surprisingly harrowing, all at once. While its first season initially sold the show as yet another caustic take of Hollywood’s more narcissistic corners, the series slowly became much more complex than that, as well as far more human — which is hilarious, since the show stars a misanthropic horse, enthusiastic Labrador, and jaded cat.
The flawed but sharp first season gave way to a brilliant second, sneakily exploring the depths of BoJack and company’s unhappiness underneath layers of absurd jokes. And BoJack Horseman’s third season — which Netflix released in its entirety on Friday, July 22 — is more ambitious than ever. Now that the show knows it doesn’t need to win over its audience, season three dives right into the mess, to stunning and sometimes horrifying effect.
I recently had the chance to dissect that third season with series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg. We talked about how the writers dealt with the fallout from season two’s crucial episode "Escape from LA," season three’s gorgeous episode that takes place almost entirely underwater, and why it’s so important to this show that its characters keep changing. Spoilers, needless to say, follow.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I just finished the season last night.
Exciting! What did you think?
Ow. Just … ow.
I mean, look, it's something I come to expect at this point. I feel like I was watching the season going, "All right, where's the ‘Escape from LA’ episode ..."
I think if you don’t know what you’re getting out of the show at this point, that’s more your fault than our fault. [laughs] We really told you over and over what kind of show this is. We shouldn’t be surprising you anymore — though hopefully, we still are.
When you sat down to write the third season, was there anything you knew for sure that you wanted or needed to cover?
We wanted to show at the beginning of the season that BoJack was shell-shocked from that "Escape From LA" experience a little bit. He’s carrying this guilt with him, and though it kind of goes away for a good chunk of the [third] season, it’s always still there, lingering under the surface, and rears its head again by the end.
We knew we were going to do something with this Ana Spanakopita character [BoJack’s new publicist, voiced by Angela Bassett]. We knew were going to have this Oscar campaign run, and that was going to give us our initial framework for the season. We knew we had set up this idea of Jill Pill and BoJack’s other TV show, so that had to pay off in some way.
Somebody had this idea of having this loose flashback structure of the season of exploring 2007 and BoJack's last attempt at a comeback and showing what he was afraid of happening with this comeback. We also had the idea of sneakily looping that story around so it looped up with Sarah Lynn, which felt like a good surprise way to end it. That's ultimately what we were building toward with that story in 2007.
There were a few other things that we wanted to hit along the way like, "What would be a fun episode?" We had this idea of this underwater episode that we really wanted to do. We thought Diane should get an abortion at some point. That's kind of where we started from and then we built it up from there.
On how knowing people marathon shows on Netflix affects BoJack’s storytelling
I’ve said before that one of the great discoveries in season one was this realization that the audience is going to watch the show in order, and we can really use that to our advantage. Even the idea that they're going to watch it quickly and they're going to binge watch it on schedule and in order is a tremendous thing as a storyteller to bet on.
I think you couldn't do this 10 years ago. Even now on network and cable they're more serialized than they used to be, but they still have to have some amount of enter-ability for every episode. Netflix shows don't have to do that at all if they don't want to.
We like to have a little bit of episodic-ness to our show and make every episode feel like it has a beginning, middle, and an end of itself. It's not just a Boardwalk Empire style chapter in a longer saga.
We get so much mileage out of knowing that people know our characters by this point. We don't have to spell everything out. From that we can grow, and we can change the dynamics, and people will appreciate what we're doing. No one is coming into any given episode blind. It's an amazing thing to have in our arsenal.
On treating 2007 flashbacks with the same kind of detail as any other period piece
I was so excited when I realized that this season was going to be treating 2007 in the period piece way that we've been treating the '90s.
I felt good about it. When we were writing it, we were, like, "Are we the first people to do this? Are we pioneers? Are we nostalgizing the 2000s?" There's definitely a tongue-in-cheek attitude.
We talked about The Wedding Singer a lot, too, [because it] came out in '98. The '80s weren't that long before. They go so over the top in such funny ways. That was a touchstone a little bit, [wanting to] do The Wedding Singer of 2007.
I've always been enamored of the idea of being prematurely nostalgic. It's very funny to me. This idea of treating the past like, "Whoa, it's the past!" We did a lot of jokes like that [in season two] with Wanda going to the '50s diner, or in the first season of BoJack saying he hated all the '50s jokes in Back to the Future, and then he asks for a new Coke.
It's a very BoJack thing of dismissing or critiquing a kind of humor and then indulging in it all in the same breath. It's so hypocritical. I hate when other shows do that. I will be the first to pitch those jokes.
Ah, 2007. What a time to be alive. A time of innocence. We were so young then.
I had so many flashbacks to my Hot Topic accessories and green iPod mini.
Yeah! We had a lot of fun being like, "What was in the news? What was the fashion? Who were the celebrities at the time? What were people talking about?"
I was surprised by how the flashbacks almost ended up being more about Princess Carolyn by the end.
The big 2007 episode — episode two — we really broke out of the Princess Carolyn story. … Primarily, we were tracking the story of Princess Carolyn and where she was in her life, and her professional goals, but also her love life.
Then when it comes back several episodes later, again, it's about Princess Carolyn and BoJack. A big part of this season is about her relationship with BoJack. It's something that we kind of see the tail end of in the first episode of the show, where she breaks up with him, and we hint that they've had this long on-again, off-again relationship.
But it felt like there's a lot there to delve into that we hadn't really discussed. What does that mean to give yourself to this guy for seven years that you kind of know is wasting your time? Why would a person subject herself to that if she knows that she ultimately wants to start a family some day? What exactly is she prioritizing?
That's the kind of thing you can explore in a third season when you have the time to do it.
It's amazing. As well as we know our characters, we're always finding new things to discover about them, which is really fun.
Someone came up with the idea to go to the Labrador Peninsula this year, which was like, "Oh, yeah, we don't know much about Mr. Peanutbutter's family, either." We explored his very happy-go-lucky upbringing in this perfect beautiful peninsula of Labrador, which I'm sure is much more pleasant than what the actual Labrador Peninsula is, because it's up in northern Canada, and I imagine it's very cold.
On making an episode that takes place entirely underwater
I don't often miss writing episodic recaps [which I previously did for BoJack Horseman at The A.V. Club], but when I watched "Fish Out of Water" …
There's a lot there to talk about!
That was a very different experience, as far as making the episode goes, from anything we've ever done. It kind of came from two places at once. One was I had this idea of always looking for new challenges in format and different ways to tell story. The idea of doing an episode with no dialogue that really focused on the visual comedy and the visual beauty of our show really appealed to me.
To strip away all the conversation was the original idea. Meanwhile, we've hinted in the past that there are people who live underwater, and Mike Hollingsworth — our supervising director — has always wanted to do an underwater episode.
So at the beginning of this season, we had two challenges. One was saying, "all right, we want to do an underwater episode but how we would do that with our characters? How would they communicate with each other? How would they breathe?"
Then on the other hand we're thinking, "Okay, we want to do an episode without dialogue, but how can we justify that in a way that's not weird? That it's not this weird Charlie Chaplin-esque thing of people walking around and not talking to each other?"
One night, I woke up in the middle of the night and was, like, "Eureka! These two questions answer each other!"
Netflix was nervous about it, because it's so different from anything that we've done before. Every season, there's like one or two episodes that we get some push back on Netflix from. God bless them, they always let us do it. But there's always one or two where they're, like, "Are you sure?" Or, "Do you have to?" [So we say], "Yeah, man, we have to," and they go, "Okay, we think you know what you’re doing!" Then they ended up being so supportive of it, and they really came around on it. They love it now.
[But] I didn't know quite how to pitch it, because it's a very different thing. I had no idea how to write it. Jordan Young and Elijah Aron, thankfully, are brilliant, and they took this idea and they ran with it.
They wrote a whole script with no dialogue, and it reads like a real script, except nobody's talking the whole time. It's all this description and direction, and it's really an incredible document.
Normally, what we do with an episode is we record all the voices first and we do a radio play. You have the full episode, just the dialogue. That's how we know that it's the right length because we can hear it. You don't want to animate more than you have to.
With this, there was no dialogue track to go to, so you're looking at the document going, "Is this a full half-hour of television or is this going to be like 10 minutes, or 50 minutes?"
Mike took the script and acted it out himself to imagine how long each beat would take ... There's a whole sequence that we took out completely, and you don't miss it. I'm glad we did, because it would have been burnt time and burnt energy.
We couldn't use our normal people and lemur extras. We had to create all new fish people. We had our team working overtime creating all these different backgrounds.
Then there were conversations, too, about how we show that it's underwater. We came up with bubbles, and there's a slight bluish tint that we played around with. Like, "Oh, no, this is too blue green. This kind of washes everything out." Or, "This feels too bright. It doesn't feel like we're underwater." It's kind of like we were making a new pilot, basically.
There was a lot of conversation about the rules, too. Do they walk around on the ground like Spongebob Squarepants, or are they swimming around like in The Little Mermaid? We watched the Futurama underwater episode to see what they did, to make sure we weren't doing too many of the same jokes.
I'm proud of it, as you can tell. I'm talking a lot about it. I think it's such a cool thing. I'm really glad we were able to do it, and that we did such good work on it.
On wanting Diane to get an abortion — and not have it be a Big Deal
What I like about that episode ("Brrap Brrap Pew Pew") is that it isn’t about whether or not Diane’s going to get the abortion.
Right. That was another really challenging episode for us. There were a lot of things that I knew I didn't want to do.
One of the things from the beginning was that I didn’t want this to feel like it's an Issue episode, especially because we had our big "Hank After Dark" episode last year [in which Diane goes after a star who’s allegedly a serial sexual abuser, which drew comparisons to Bill Cosby]. I didn’t want this to feel like we're trying to do that again.
That's why we had this really strong, unrelated, wacky Jerj Clooners B-story that has nothing to do with anything. I wanted it to structurally feel different, and I didn't want it to come in the same place in the season. I didn't want it to feel like, "Diane and her women issues, go!"
I wanted to tell a story about an abortion that wasn't about the scandal of getting an abortion, or about a woman not knowing if she should or not. Diane knows that she doesn't want to have a baby. She's going to get an abortion, and that it’s the reasonable, legal thing for her to do. We don't have to spend a lot of time justifying that.
On the other side of that is that I didn’t want any of my other main characters to give her grief about it. If Mr. Peanutbutter’s like, "But what about the baby's soul?" Then I'm like, "Oh my God. What are we doing?!"
I didn't want the abortion to be a cause of tension in their marriage. That felt cheap to me as well. Part of the idea was, "Can we use the abortion to bring them closer together in a way?"
So then, what are you left with? There were certain parts were someone was like, "Why are we doing an abortion story if we can't touch any of these things?" And I was like, "Look, the whole point is that she gets an abortion, and it's not a big deal."
But having things not be a big deal is not good television writing. That's not the way you create a compelling episode of television, for something to not be a big deal.
I think Obvious Child was definitely a touchstone point where they did it right. It was this romantic comedy, but it wasn't about her getting an abortion. That's not where the drama came from necessarily. I also didn't want to do a Citizen Ruth — as much as I love Citizen Ruth — where we're lampooning both sides, where everybody is crazy.
God bless [writer] Joanna Calo, who took all that and came up with this really fun, funny, interesting, compelling episode of television, given all the things I knew we didn't want to do.
On BoJack’s complicated, dark, twisted relationship with Sarah Lynn (and vice versa)
Every season, BoJack keeps finding these funhouse mirrors in women he becomes obsessed with. There's Diane, Charlotte, Wanda, and then there's the surprising twist this season that he and Ana Spanikopita also find a connection in that way. Sarah Lynn, to me, feels like the darkest version of that.
So the 11th episode with her and BoJack partying until she finally overdoses and dies ("That’s Too Much, Man!") is fittingly the darkest version of the BoJack bender episode that we've seen.
I think we've always known that Sarah Lynn was heading toward trouble. In her very first episode, her kiss-off to BoJack is like, "There's no hope for me! I'm going to surround myself with enablers until I die tragically young!" We never tried to hide the ball on that. Throughout almost every appearance she's had, there's been some foreshadowing that this is not going to end well.
It felt like we could subvert that and do something more surprising with her, but it also felt like we've been teeing up this ball for a while, so we should pull the trigger (on that mixed metaphor). Early on, we thought, "This is the time to do it. This is where we're going with this season."
Ultimately, if the show is a story of BoJack's redemption — and I'm not sure it is — I feel like before he starts his climb back up, he needs to hit rock bottom. A lot of people felt like the end of season two was his rock bottom, but I felt like, "No, he could fall more."
There’s always further to fall!
Always. As far as the structure of the show goes, in season one and in season two, BoJack burns these bridges with guest characters like Herb and then Charlotte. A big part of the show this season as far as watching BoJack's fall was that he's got to really tear up these relationships he has with the characters we know and love, including Todd and Princess Carolyn. And ultimately, he has to destroy Sarah Lynn, because that's the darkness that we were building toward all season.
[Sarah Lynn’s death] is pretty clearly telegraphed, but my hope is you watch that episode and go, "Oh, God. Oh, no. They're not doing this, are they?" We're not trying to surprise you with it, necessarily, although I'm sure some people will be surprised. It’s [more] playing with the idea that you know what's coming, and you don't want it to.
That felt like an interesting note to play for her, this idea that’s it's not a big shock. The whole episode is setting that up, and even three episodes earlier where she goes, "I’m clean and sober!" I think savvy TV-watchers are going to go, "Okay…"
"Not for long!"
No one gets out that easy on a TV show and is just clean and sober for the rest of the show. That's never a good sign.
The thing that we've come to many times in these three seasons is this idea that BoJack can't help himself, that he’s bad for the people around him, or at least he believes that about himself. And there’s something interesting about particularly the young women in his life, with the kind of parallel between Penny and Sarah Lynn, and then in the last episode to introduce this other young girl. He can see the cycle beginning again. To set that up is all really interesting to us.
Well, Sarah Lynn’s death did make sense to me, but I was especially sad because Kristen Schaal [who voices Sarah Lynn] is so good.
That's the saddest thing, is that we lost her. Sarah Lynn’s a great character, and we really enjoyed writing for her. There were a lot of times where we were like, "Are we sure we want to do this?"
We ultimately said we've been pushing this back for three seasons now. I think there was a version of the first season where she died. Then we thought about doing it in season two.
I'm really glad we at least got to give Kristen Schaal this amazing episode to go out on that's so Sarah Lynn focused. It's basically a two hander between BoJack and Sarah Lynn doing really funny things.
Also, fortunately, this is a show that employs flashbacks a lot … That's not the last we’ll see of Kristen Schaal and Sarah Lynn, I would imagine.
On how BoJack Horseman is a show about feeling the weight of consequences
Sarah Lynn’s death is a good example of how your show really believes in consequences. She and BoJack go on this crazy bender, and I'm watching her tear her house apart for drugs like, "He's a horse! He can probably handle more than she can … probably."
[laughs] Yes, that's right. He can and does.
And then there’s the episode’s blackout structure — cutting to black and popping back in a new place as BoJack comes to — that shows how not even BoJack could handle how many drugs they were doing. So the fact that then the bender did result in this awful consequence made sense to me.
That is absolutely what this show is about. It's about consequences, and it's about actions having an effect on others and the world around you, and on yourself.
I remember very early on in the show having a meeting with Mike and Lisa [Hanawalt, BoJack's production designer] and the other designers and animators, and saying that this is not a status quo show. Err on the side of things staying the way they are at the end of the episode, as far as background details go. If BoJack has a big party and his house gets messed up, keep his house messed up for the next episode. Don't clean it up and start over. Even if we don't address it in the script, the default is that things stay damaged.
That kind of thinking has affected the way we tell stories, and is really a big part of what I think makes our show special. What excites me about working on the show is the idea that we are moving forward. We are building something forward. We are tearing things apart that we can never put back together, which feels very true and also scary as a writer.
Now, I work on every season not necessarily worrying about what's going to come next, but trying to tell as full a story as we can and a story that makes sense with our characters. I'm just starting to think about how we’re going to get BoJack and Todd in the same room again. I want to be very careful about the way we do that, and not just have things put back to normal. I don't know if we can.
You'll see when we have this conversation next year, you'll remind me and say, "You said things couldn't go back to normal, but then by episode three everything was back to normal" and I'll say, "TV writing is hard, man. Come on. What do you want me to do?"
I don't know if that'll be fair, because I'll know it'll all fall apart by episode 11.
I think there's some exciting new dynamics to play with based on the way this season ends. It felt like now's the time to really shake things up.
I can't pretend to know how long this show is going to last, but I feel like if we're into season four, we're past the beginning of the show at this point. The first three seasons are very of a piece, so it's time to start thinking about what the next chapter is for these characters. I think it's going to be fun paying that off.
Maybe we do a whole season where every character just has their own story and they don't interact with each other at all. That works for Girls. Why not? We'll see how it goes.
All three seasons of BoJack Horseman are now available to stream on Netflix.