Television today is a cynic’s buffet. Not impressed by humanity? Neither is Game of Thrones. Frustrated by politics? So are Veep, Scandal, and House of Cards. Angry at capitalism, the lack of privacy, and pretty much everything on the internet? Mr. Robot’s at your service. Hate love? Give Love a chance. And then there’s Hollywood, the self-fellating-while-self-flagellating industry that been raking in money for decades by telling the world in dramatized detail how soul-destroying it is. Sorry, UnREAL, but no other show has cornered the market on loathing the entertainment industry like BoJack Horseman.
Available to stream on Friday, July 22, the third season of Netflix’s animated tragicomedy is a jaw-dropper, both in its pessimism and its giddy beauty. In its first two seasons, BoJack was an easier series to appreciate than to embrace. Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg didn’t quite nail the necessary balance between the show’s silly and suicidal tones, and the chronically unhappy BoJack’s (voiced by Will Arnett) patterns of self-sabotage occasionally made for dully repetitive viewing. That might have been the point — to mimic BoJack’s feeling of being trapped in dysfunction — but it made for a burdensome watching experience.
Season 3 is just the slightest bit lighter, with BoJack a bit busier and the showbiz satire a tad sharper — three small shifts in degree that add up to the best season the show’s had so far. Despite his discovery that his performance in the biopic Secretariat was completely created by computer effects, BoJack enters the awards race in the hopes of winning an Oscar — an illusion of an achievement that the washed-up sitcom star desperately hopes will give his life new meaning. The 12 episodes that lead up to the ceremony are full of the mostly invisible campaign work that takes place behind the scenes: press tours, festival appearances, hobnobbing with senile Academy voters at actor retirement communities. The insularity of the parody is compensated for by the acidity of BoJack’s running commentary about the awards circuit: “I’m not the guy who does things that are edgy or challenging ... I’m about to be nominated for an Oscar.” “[Film] festivals don’t matter ... it’s just so you can get some leaves on your poster.” “The Academy does not look kindly on murder. Rape, they don't seem to have a problem with.”
Spurred on by his Oscar whisperer Ana Spanikopita (Angela Bassett), BoJack attempts to go and do what he’s told. He doesn’t always succeed, but even his recalcitrant misadventures are a helluva lot more fun than watching him drunk on the couch spewing something foul at his housemate, Todd (Aaron Paul), for the umpteenth time. One of his festival appearances takes him underwater in the sensational, mostly silent fourth episode, where production designer Lisa Hanawalt outdoes herself by creating an aquatic wonderland full of fluorescent marvels and Chaplin-esque physical comedy. BoJack’s attempt to do the right thing by an abandoned baby sea horse prevents him, funnily and sadly, from doing another right thing, because goodness is difficult to make happen in the Horseman universe. Other episodes play with time and unreliable narration in ambitious narrative gambits that never fail to pay off.
Bob-Waksberg doesn’t mess with what’s been working already: the cheerfully surreal animation, the sublime and sprawling vocal cast, the delightfully dumb animal puns, the just-mean-enough pop-culture shades, and the jokes in the background that never call attention to themselves (this year’s Best Actress nominees are Jennifer Lawrence, Jennifer Lawrence, Cate Blanchett, Cate Blanchett, and Jennifer Lawrence). Story lines involving abortion and the questionable co-optation of feminism by celebrities prove BoJack’s intellectual heft and political daring once more. Though Todd begins to overstay his welcome, the other side characters take on more dimension: BoJack’s workaholic agent, Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), finds unlikely love, and the compulsively enthusiastic Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins) suffers his first existential crisis. BoJack and the now-married Diane (Alison Brie) finally retire their will-they-or-won’t-they tension, and “Asian Daria,” as she’s nicknamed this season, reminds us that there’s nothing special about BoJack’s paralyzing sadness or his fetishization thereof — we’re all capable of it.
Set in 2007, the second episode of the season illustrates the ephemerality of culture — flip phones, Heidi and Spencer, Ed Hardy shirts, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry — and the claustrophobic sameness of BoJack and company. Fortunes rise and fall, the chain stores and the Top 40 hits replace one another, but that gnawing emptiness will always remain if you don’t make the effort to do anything about it. As BoJack knows better than anyone, therein lies the tragedy: It’s almost funny how difficult it is to become a better (horse) man.