Review: BoJack Horseman Season 2 offers sharper gags and deeper characters

20 Jul 2015

BoJack Horseman and his unwelcome roommate, Todd. Photo via Netflix

It’s encouraging to see Netflix investing in a show like BoJack Horseman. A surrealist, mean-spirited piece loaded with narcissistic characters and odd animation, the series is unlikely to grow beyond the die-hard cult audience its first season pulled in last year. But, by investing in talent beyond its marquee projects – like the award-snatching House of Cards – the streaming service has stealthily produced one of the best things on the small screen right now.

That’s because BoJack Horseman is the rarest of shows: animated, yet expertly acted; screamingly funny, while still carrying an emotional weight; a biting satire that’s paced and plotted like an air-headed sitcom. Think of it as the anti-Entourage – a razor-sharp lampoon on the ugly side of Hollywood, where fame and money has created a high-end society of self-loathing celebrities, drugged-out ex-child stars and vultures on the peripheral waiting to pick at the leftovers. The show might drop us into a Dadaist world, where humans and anthropomorphic animals live side by side, but it’s a universe built on uncomfortable truths with characters that ring with authenticity.

Unlike most cartoons, BoJack doesn’t reset after every episode, and is instead driven by running narratives and strong character arcs. Season 2 – now available to stream via Netflix in its entirety – picks up where we left the eponymous horse (brilliantly voiced by gruff badass Will Arnett). A washed-up ’90s sitcom star, BoJack’s career has finally gotten a shot in the arm thanks to the release of his tell-all biography, and he’s wielded that rise in his profile to finally star in his dream project, the movie biopic Secretariat. Meanwhile, his biographer Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie) struggles to adjust to married life with the ever-enthusiastic labrador Mr Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins). BoJack’s agent Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) continues to clean up after her problem client while balancing her dysfunctional love life, while BoJack’s unwelcome roommate Todd (Aaron Paul) stumbles into another series of crazy misadventures.

Much of this might sound a touch familiar to fans of the show, but creator/show-runner Raphael Bob-Waksberg quietly allows every member of the supporting cast to stand up on their own and flourish away from the title character himself. The will-they-won’t-they slant to BoJack’s relationship with both Diane and Princess Carolyn has wisely been ditched, while he shares surprisingly little screen time with Todd, previously his chief sidekick. After The Party, the fourth episode of the season, underlines Bob-Waksberg’s dedication to his wider cast, as they’re shuffled into three equally-strong standalone plot threads.

But these are subtle alterations. Generally, this new 12-episode batch levels up everything that made the first season (plus a great Christmas special) so hilarious and enthralling. The gags are even more pointed, built on fast-talking, snappy-as-hell dialogue as the writers become more comfortable with their actors’ rhythm. The gabbing between characters can be so quick and layered that it’ll probably take a lot of sit-throughs to fully absorb all the gags. There are fewer cheap ‘oh look, they’re animals’ jokes (though Mr Peanutbutter’s struggle with a pet cone is absolutely mint), and a better exploration of the internal logic of this anthropoid animal farm. For example, there’s a wry look at ethical chicken farming when Todd falls for a fugitive hen, bred to be eaten by a better-educated chicken. “Of all the places that will eventually kill her, Gentle Farms seemed like the best,” he’s consoled.

While there’s plenty to mindlessly enjoy, like an episode dedicated entirely to Mr Peanutbutter’s new gameshow (created and produced by JD Salinger, for some reason), BoJack himself continues to take the show’s emotional weight. Beginning the series with a newfound dedication to living life with a bright new attitude, his spiral back into crippling self-doubt and those old commitment issues with a new girlfriend (an unfortunately restrained Lisa Kudrow) are weirdly moving while never feeling contrived or emotionally manipulative. Chalk that up to Arnett’s performance and Bob-Waksberg’s dedication to naturally piecing together his universe, allowing the audience’s affinity for the characters to come naturally. Something special is certainly being built here. And if Netflix’s commitment to BoJack Horseman remains unwavering, I’m in this for the long haul.

Dean Van Nguyen was a contributor to Silicon Republic