The first season of Bojack Horseman sort of came out of nowhere, at least as far as I was concerned. Back then, I was underemployed and watched pretty much anything that seemed vaguely interesting. I generally trusted (and continue to trust) Netflix original series to be worthwhile, so I was willing to give a weirdo adult animated show a try. Worst case scenario, I turn it off and put it out of my mind.
But no. I loved it. Whether or not it was the best show Netflix had put out, it was definitely the most interesting. So I was excited when they dropped Bojack‘s Christmas special, and even more excited when I heard the second season was on its way. I’ve had less time to devote everything to a show since getting a 9-6, but I still dropped everything to marathon Bojack‘s second season.
Because, to be clear: Bojack Horseman is the Spec Ops: The Line of television shows, and that is a truly amazing thing.
Spec Ops: The Line is probably in my top five games ever. It’s incredible, and if you haven’t played it, you need to do so. If you have played it and don’t understand how incredible it is, go play it again. Maybe read Brendan Keogh’s Killing Is Harmless while you do. The game is a triumph, and the bravest thing it did is to convince you it was generic before pulling the rug out from under you. (Much like, you guess it, Bojack Horseman.)
Spec Ops: The Line was made with the Unreal Engine. It stars a military man voiced by Nolan North. He looks and sounds like every other Unreal Engine-based cover shooter out there. It feels… fine. The gameplay is completely and totally acceptable. Stop and pop. You’re fighting generic foreign militants. The other. It’s easy to kill them, because that’s what you’re used to doing. That’s the role that these sorts of people play in video games. (And in movies, as brilliantly profiled by GQ a couple weeks ago.)
In Bojack Horseman, you follow a generic former-Hollywoo[d] superstar. He’s voiced by Will Arnett, and he’s a jackass. He lives in an amazing house overlooking the city, but he’s pretty much a worthless being. On his couch lives the “comic relief,” Todd, voiced by Aaron Paul. He’s dumb, but Bojack keeps him around, because… whatever. Bojack wants to relive the Good Old Days. Perhaps it’s not quite your typical animated show, but it’s not an uncommon comedy. And for a while, the jokes are funny but the underlying narrative feels a little old. But, of course, that’s the point.
Spec Ops hits you with big moments several times. First, you go from fighting generic “terrorists” to fighting US military. That’s, well, unexpected. And then there’s the scene where you have to do something horrible to progress that turns out to be something really horrible. It keeps going down (literally), as we follow Captain Walker into the deep recesses of his mind. And it’s not a great place to be. Because Captain Walker is not a good person. He believes he is, or at least that he can be, but he isn’t. And he leaves nothing but destruction in his wake. Throughout, the game taunts you, and it taunts hyper-violent games in general. (And yes, it is effectively critiquing the genre by “succumbing” to its tropes.)
Bojack doesn’t have that moment in quite the same way, at least in its first season. It’s a gradual realization that what you’re watching isn’t quite what you thought it was. You thought you were getting a comedy-of-sorts about a former star who wants to relive his glory days. What you get is something far darker, and far more interesting. Because Bojack Horseman is definitely not a good… horse. (I’m going to call him a person from now on, because referring to him as a “horse” is weird.) He wants to be good, I guess, but behind him lies only chaos. And in the second season especially, he does some very, very bad things.
The Verge posted their review of the show’s second season a bit prematurely, I thought. Both the headline – “In its second season, Bojack Horseman quits beating a depressed horse” – and subtitle – “More animal puns, less animal pathos” – prove to be, um, false. Because the second season of Bojack Horseman tricks you again. Sure, watching the first few episodes (which are great, by the way), you might think that the show had changed and become perhaps a bit more whimsical. Watching the episode where Todd creates his own, extremely dangerous Disneyland (and wins a lawsuit allowing him to use that name on a technicality) lulls you into a false sense of security. This is a show that has found its groove, or something like it. That groove may not be as interesting as the previous season, but it’s something. And the screeners that Netflix sent to critics beforehand would lend credence to that. The first six episodes, especially in comparison, are fun. They’re light and silly.
And then there’s “Hank After Dark.”
“Hank After Dark” is an incredible episode of television. And it’s incredible not just because of what it but how absolutely bleak its ending is. At this point, everyone knows about the downfall of Bill Cosby. And it all started because of a joke by comedian Hannibal Buress. He made a joke about public information, and suddenly everything came crashing down. The time since has been incredibly disturbing, and each new bit of evidence has only made it worse.
But that’s not what happens in Bojack Horseman, because Bojack Horseman isn’t just replicating the events that led to the downfall of an icon; it’s representing a parallel universe where a woman was the one who brought up the horrors of a beloved TV star as an aside. Diane is on a book tour for Bojack, but she can’t shut Pandora’s Box once she’s opened it. Mr. Peanutbutter asks her to hold off, and everyone else tells her she’s a horrible person for defaming a good man’s name. She keeps fighting, until she’s confronted by Hank Hippopopalous himself.
And then she gives up.
The season doesn’t get cheerier after that. Whether it’s the intense discussion on live TV between Mr. Peanutbutter and Bojack about the latter’s Diane come-on last season or the thing that happens in the penultimate episode, the back half of Bojack Horseman‘s second season hits and hits hard. To be sure, the show continues to be very funny. There are more than a few good laughs per episode, but aside from a couple bits here and there, those aren’t the things I’ll be thinking about in a year from now.
Good TV makes you think, perhaps even obsess. But with Bojack Horseman, it’s not some communal obsession with unraveling mysteries. It’s an introspective sort of obsession. Do you see yourself in Bojack? What about Todd or Mr. Peanutbutter or Diane or Princess Carolyn? These characters are all fleshed out this season, and you learn fascinating things about all of them. (Princess Carolyn has a particularly interesting arc, and I cannot tell you how glad I was when they ended the Vincent Adultman subplot early on.) But, of course, the focus is on Bojack, on his inability to change course. His drive to push forward towards certain doom.
And that is truly where Bojack and Captain Walker’s journeys converge. Both of them set in motions series of events that can only end badly, but the decision to set them in motion was a choice. Maybe at the time it didn’t feel like one, but it was. To point to what is perhaps the most obvious example, Bojack did not have to up and leave to see a girl he was sort of in love with decades ago. He didn’t have to stay with her family when he found out she had one. He didn’t have to… ya know. He could have walked away.
And ultimately, that’s what Spec Ops: The Line is about. It’s about walking away, or at least the need to walk away (in a meta sense). Walker doesn’t do that. He never stops to think about what he’s doing or what he’s done. Unlike Bojack, he thinks he’s helping people (at least at first… by the end? who knows). Of course, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Bojack Horseman matters. It’s one of the best shows on television right now. Literally. And that’s significant not just because it is in and of itself a significant statement. It’s significant because it’s a show that, on the face of it, is so easy to dismiss. But once you get past all of that, you’re pulled along for a fascinating and often poignant journey through something truly great. It’s not the thing you expect, but you eventually realize that it’s exactly what you wanted.