BoJack Horseman—Netflix’s best, most emotionally generous show—contains a show within the show, the 1990s sitcom Horsin’ Around. It stars the anthropomorphic horse BoJack as an adoptive father of three. BoJack’s very first episode, from 2014, features the final scene of Horsin’ Around’s very last. The children sob in a hospital waiting room as a doctor informs them that BoJack “died of a broken heart because you didn’t appreciate him enough, and now he’s gone forever.” They’ll be turned over to child services. “You’re the state’s problem now.”
The joke, as BoJack mansplains of his own quips, works on both levels. The scene introduces BoJack’s signature brand of comedy, which fully embodies George Saunders’ maxim: “Humor is what happens when we’re told the truth more quickly and directly than we’re used to.” The animated dramedy, which ended on Friday after six seasons, walloped its audience with fiendish punch lines on death, depression, addiction, abuse, and the creeping sense that “life is just one long, hard kick in the urethra.”
The hospital joke also portends the bleak turn Bojack itself would take. What began as a sharp if predictable adult cartoon in the South Park tradition grew to inspect life’s urethra in all its wounded contours. Those punch lines became poignant plotlines and textured, often tragic character studies of washed-up antihero BoJack (Will Arnett in the most dynamic acting of his career) and his circle of despair. Watching his character die in Horsin’ Around, BoJack deadpans, “We may have gone too dark on that series finale.” For BoJack, its own pivot to darkness made it the streaming platform’s guiding light.
Netflix hoards its ratings deep in a Los Gatos bunker, but BoJack has long drawn the company’s most rapturous reviews, from the Jesuit magazine America to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. Why did it cancel its thoroughbred? My theory, drawn from creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s intimations and my own failures to convert doubters, is it’s difficult to evangelize beyond season 1.
What’s in it for me? skeptics ask. An eviscerating Hollywood satire, for starters. In one episode, Jessica Biel sets Zach Braff on fire and eats him. Yes, and? It’s magically animated by Lisa Hanawalt (creator of last year’s also-unjustly-canceled Tuca and Bertie), who crafts a glittering world of humanoid, paranoid rabbits, badgers, lizards, and Sextina Aquafina, a dolphin pop star who sings the pro-abortion banger “Get Dat Fetus Kill Dat Fetus.” Amid BoJack’s nihilistic descent is a feast of candy-colored animal pun Easter eggs: Krill and Grace, the pig actor Jon Ham, a rottweiler tough guy with a “Beware of Me” chest tattoo. Yes, and? There’s a jubilant guess-who who’s who of voice actors: Lisa Kudrow (as an owl emerging from a coma), Hilary Swank (the insufferable Justin Bieber–type Joey Pogo), Margo Martindale (a criminally diabolical version of herself), LaKeith Stanfield, Keith Olbermann, Stephen Colbert, Lance Bass, Whoopi Goldberg, Paul McCartney, RuPaul, and Nicole Holofcener.
Yes, and? Well, what more do you want? That was 2014. As TV got more niche, BoJack got more expansive. Not only did its writers take a more conscientious look at BoJack’s boorishness and betrayals, they also deepened the story lines for those he betrayed: the loyal Labrador retriever Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tomkins) and the disintegration of the dog’s marriage to the morally insecure human Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie); BoJack’s ex and manager, the overworked, manipulative pink cat Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), who can only achieve happiness when she imagines her great-great-great-great granddaughter’s future, but even then she imagines a dystopia; his roommate, Todd (Aaron Paul, who’s called Todd “the first asexual character on television”); and former child star Sarah Lynn (Kristen Schaal), whom BoJack, lonely in his addiction, yanks from sobriety into a fateful bender.