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BoJack Horseman season 3 review: Netflix's animated comedy is TV's most ambitious show

A beautiful and hilarious season explores what lies beyond rock bottom.

Netflix

BoJack Horseman is the reason I love television.

Okay, maybe not literally the first show I ever fell in love with was Nickelodeon’s Hey Arnold! when I was barely older than its elementary school heroes. But when people ask me why TV is my medium of choice, I inevitably point to imaginative and singular shows like BoJack.

Rating


4.5


Netflix’s animated series — which released its third season on July 22 — is wickedly funny and frequently devastating. It’s sharp enough to draw blood and, more unusually, unafraid to do so — even when it means making its characters seem irredeemable.

It lives in a world analogous to ours but one literally crawling with creatures whose hopes and dreams get more weight and consideration than they would in most live-action dramas.

And if you can’t tell already, it defies categorization.

In this confident third season, BoJack Horseman is officially done trying to catch people up to speed on the "why" and "how" of following the hilarious and horrific misadventures of a miserable, alcoholic erstwhile Hollywood star, who also happens to be a horse.

After an exceptionally strong second season — which the third doesn’t quite surpass, though it’s close — the series is now happy to play in its own bizarro sandbox, where BoJack and the misanthropes in his orbit navigate existential crises with equal parts dry wit and excruciating candor.

There are so many things that set BoJack Horseman apart from the rest of TV, but here are the most crucial four, courtesy of its stellar third season.

1) Few shows can punch you in the gut out of nowhere like BoJack

Netflix

Over the course of season two, just about every character ended up grappling with harder truths than they were prepared to deal with.

Diane (Alison Brie) tried to make a play for a grander, more altruistic life, only to end up lost, drunk, and hiding from her perpetually enthusiastic Labrador husband Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins). Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) — BoJack’s long-suffering feline agent — continued to fight for the respect she deserves, until she finally left her agency to start one by herself. And BoJack’s roommate slash indentured servant Todd (Aaron Paul) … well, he escaped the improv cult cruise, so the less said about that, the better.

All of these threads get explored in the third season, as all of the characters discover things about themselves that range from terribly dark to surprisingly uplifting.

But as is fitting, the darkest and most powerful journey belongs to BoJack (Will Arnett). At the end of season two, he ditched the LA-based movie shoot for Oscar bait biopic Secretariat to hide out in New Mexico with a deer he always thought was the One Who Got Away. But he just left that a wreck, too, kicked out when she catches him in a compromising position with her teenage daughter.

As is only appropriate — or at least whatever passes for "appropriate" in that situation — this moment weighs heavily on BoJack throughout season three, even as he finally starts getting all the attention and notice he’s always wanted. His campaign to land an Oscar nomination — for the CGI Secretariat that secretly replaced him when he left — is riddled with doubt and remorse.

Even when he tries to bask in the glory of proving all his naysayers wrong — though, again, with a totally unrelated CGI performance — BoJack keeps hating himself. As it turns out, hitting goals doesn’t magically erase self-loathing.

Then there are this season’s frequent flashbacks to 2007, which follow BoJack’s last comeback attempt, with a self-consciously "edgy" cable show meant to blow the minds of everyone who knew him as the wholesome '90s sitcom dad from Horsin’ Around.

Without spoiling the very end of the season, these flashbacks to the past for BoJack, his then-girlfriend Princess Carolyn, and his former sitcom daughter turned present-day party monster Sarah Lynn (Kristen Schaal) reveal themselves to be crucial pieces of a very bleak whole.

2) In between depressing the hell out of you, BoJack is all about rapid-fire jokes

To be clear: BoJack Horseman makes me laugh out loud more than almost any other show I watch right now. Slick wordplay is a constant, as are left-turn gags that take you a second to register before you realize you’re already laughing. (See: Todd and Mr. Peanutbutter’s mad dash to catch a list of Oscar nominations in a series of escalating mishaps, or really anything involving Todd and Mr. Peanutbutter in the same room.)

The 2007 flashbacks are all so giddy and specific to that era — which, I hate to break it to you, absolutely counts as period now that we’re almost a decade removed — that it’s impossible not to grin at the absurdity of it all.

Granted, many of the jokes I love to pieces are the kind that someone outside the insular world of the entertainment industry might not get without Google handy. Still, there are so many more that are just silly for the sake of it, and bless them (especially Mr. Peanutbutter, the dog responsible for most in this category).

3) Checking the voice credits of any given BoJack episode is a treat

BoJack’s new publicist Ana Spanakopita has no time for his reindeer games.
Netflix

BoJack is also my favorite show with which to play the, "Whose voice is that?" game (runner-up: Bob’s Burgers), and this season lets everyone from Angela Bassett to Candice Bergen to Rufus Wainwright stop by BoJack’s world, all for the better. (And yes: Beloved Character Actress Margo Martindale makes a spectacular return.) Bassett in particular is wonderful as BoJack’s focused new publicist Ana Spanakopita, who has a far more involved and surprisingly poignant role in season three than anticipated.

Three seasons in, though, I still most appreciate the show’s wildly talented regular cast. While their characters are more scattered this season than in the previous two, they’re all so comfortable in their characters at this point that they easily carry their separate storylines.

There are no weak links, with each cast member deploying jokes like the best dart players in a bar. You know it takes an extraordinary amount of skill to hit the bull's-eye as often as they do, but damned if it doesn’t seem like they’re just having a great time.

That is, until things take an inevitable turn for the devastating. But, hey, they’re only human.

… Sort of.

You know what I mean.

4) This season proves once again that this show’s success is thanks to its incredible visuals just as much as its writing

Under the imaginative eye of production designer Lisa Hanawalt, BoJack emerged with a singular vision from the second it premiered. Hanawalt’s anthropomorphic creations have always been impressively thoughtful, beyond even their expressive faces.

But the third season still manages to kick its production design up several notches, showing off the level of care, detail, and pointed humor that’s come to define BoJack.

Take when BoJack goes to see Jill Pill — a mysterious spider from his past —and finds her using her eight arachnid limbs and spiderwebs to maneuver a one-woman marionette show. (For no reason other than that I love it, you should also know that this show is called "Greg Kinglear," and that the marionette is indeed voiced by Greg Kinnear.)

Or you have something as simple as Princess Carolyn’s computer screensaver: a ball of yarn, bouncing across the screen.

You can pause just about every frame of BoJack and find something new to marvel at — making this show a perfect fit for Netflix, which assumes its viewers are doing exactly that. My personal favorite is the whiteboard of Oscar nominations that Todd Mr. Peanutbutter end up frantically brainstorming, which is just packed with jokes and pointed digs, like the two filling the Best Director category with all women.

Good luck getting through this scene without pausing.
Netflix

That never holds more true than in "Fish Out of Water," this season’s fourth episode and one of the series’ very best. It takes place almost entirely underwater — a world we’ve never seen on this show — as BoJack tries to handle both his soul-crushing Secretariat press junket duties and a lost baby seahorse who happens upon his path. And because he’s wearing a diving helmet, he can’t talk, making the episode almost entirely silent, too.

This ambitious episode — which creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg tells me has been a goal since season one — is a stunning achievement. You could even watch it without knowing anything about the show and still be able to appreciate its Looney Tunes–style slapstick by way of melancholy soul-searching.

From Matt Hollingsworth’s direction to Jordan Young and Elijah Aron’s silent movie script to Hanawalt and her team’s thorough and gorgeous imagining of what the undersea world is like in this surreal world they’ve created. "Fish Out of Water" is vivid and touching, funny and wrenching, melancholy and warm, all at once.

This episode is, in other words, the perfect representation of BoJack Horseman at its best — and there’s no other show that could do anything quite like it.

All three seasons of BoJack Horseman are now available to stream on Netflix.

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