Wednesday, February 5, 2020

In Laman's Terms: How BoJack Horseman Horsed Around Into Our Hearts

In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!

It's funny to look back on how the first season of BoJack Horseman was received. Or, rather, I should say the first half of the first season of BoJack Horseman was received. Being one of the first original Netflix shows, this was back when people reviewing streaming shows in advance would only review a handful of episodes instead of the entire season. Thus, people's perception of BoJack Horseman was limited to just the first half-a-dozen or so episodes. In that respect, the program received mixed marks. Even yours truly was more reserved in reviewing just the first two episodes of BoJack Horseman. The consensus seemed to be that the show had moments of promise but was just another sitcom satirizing Hollywood culture ala 30 Rock.

But by the end of the first season, BoJack Horseman had morphed into something far different than you'd expect based on the earliest episodes. An eighth episode centering on BoJack trying to mend fences with former creative partner Herb Kazzaz (Stanley Tucci) resulted in the most cutting emotional moment of the show to date. Such a moment dealt with a dying Herb refusing to give BoJack emotional closure, with Herb calling BoJack out for abandoning him after he was fired from the sitcom Horsin' Around. "I knew all those showbiz phonies would turn on me, but you?" Herb states during his fiery diatribe. It's a sequence rife with thoughtfully-written lines of dialogue that hit you right in the heart (Herb remarking that he had a good life is so quietly moving) and, perhaps most impressively, it has the good sense to withhold any sort of comedic lines that could undercut the appropriately unsettling nature of the scene.

When Herb sternly tells BoJack to "get the fuck out of my room", there's no follow-up gag to minimize the tension in the room. BoJack Horseman just lets the intense mood linger, in the process perfectly capturing the long-term effects BoJack's actions have on people. It's a bold storytelling move in any context but it's especially impressive given that BoJack Horseman is an animated comedy for adults, a medium that usually doesn't aim for such thoughtful dram. Most American animated comedies were defined by their ability to take a cue from Family Guy and just overstuff the viewer with jokes. Going deeper than just gags had been achieved with the best moments of The Simpsons and Futurama but instances those had typically been (effective) bits of sentimentality stemming from seemingly distant characters like Homer Simpson or Hermes Conrad actually caring for other characters after all.

By contrast, BoJack Horseman's moments that cut down to bone are all about the lack of tidy resolutions for characters grappling with sizeable personal conflicts. Such a trait was evident inn its eighth episode when BoJack Horseman hit on something totally brand new for animated TV shows aimed at adults. Suddenly, real tangible drama, the kind you could find on the best prestige TV shows like Breaking Bad, was transpiring with a talking horse. While it wasn't a trait that wasn't evident from the get-go, but it's one BoJack Horseman maintained throughout the rest of its six-season run. The show still had plenty of hysterical comedy to offer (much of it coming from Aaron Paul's Todd Sanchez) but the way it actually examined its lead characters in such a thoughtful fashion resulted in truly compelling drama. It's one of the many ways that BoJack Horseman demonstrated such incredible boldness, perhaps the trait of the show that most stands out in my mind now that it's over.

How many TV shows would so thoroughly commit to an episode like Fish Out of Water, a dialogue-free episode depicting BoJack trying to help a baby seahorse? How about that devastating ending of That's Too Much, Man!? Don't forget the sequence dedicated to the internal monologue that the episode Stupid Piece of Sh*t is named after. The list goes on and on, with BoJack Horseman just growing bolder on a visual and storytelling level as it went on. Anyone watching the first two episodes of season one couldn't even imagine that BoJack Horseman would ever have the audacity to commit to an episode like the penultimate episode of season four, a flashback to the earliest years of BoJack's mother as filtered through her Alzheimer's-riddled mind. This whole show BoJack's Mom has been a figure to be scorned, someone whose only purpose was to lather disapproval on her son. But here, your heart breaks for her. The show renders her as a human being, one whose grief is realized in such a heartbreaking fashion.

However, such a daring episode was the norm for BoJack Horseman, a show that came to an end in the last week but whose impact on pop culture already seems to be lingering. BoJack Horseman, and to a greater extent Rick & Morty and Big Mouth, have shown the world that the FOX network isn't the only place where adult-skewing animated television can flourish. This has inspired countless TV networks to commit to new adult-skewing TV programs to populate networks like HBO MAX, Apple TV+ and Hulu. It's nice to see further evidence that American animation is no longer limited to just children but I do dread the idea that so many of these shows will be like many adult-skewing animated TV shows and simply begin and end their creative processes around the "shocking" sight of cartoon characters saying swear words.

That would be disappointing in any context but it'd be especially disheartening coming on the heels of BoJack Horseman, a show about a talking horse that managed to explore depression and the cyclical nature of addiction (among other thematically hefty topics) with such breathtaking insight. All the while, it took advantage of all the unique visual opportunities offered up by the medium of animation, it's impossible to imagine all of the haunting imagery in the penultimate episode of season six, for instance, being remotely achievable in live-action. BoJack Horseman may have started out as a program that garnered criticism for being overly derivative of other shows set in the entertainment industry. But before long, it became well-known for trailblazing new frontiers for what kind of storytelling animated comedies could explore. The tendency of other shows of its ilk to substitute manic noise for comedy was replaced with quiet introspective scenes that moved me to tears. The final scene of the show served as the perfect example of BoJack Horseman's gift for creating such stirring and recognizably human storytelling out of animated critters.

It's funny to look back on how the first season of BoJack Horseman was received. We had no idea what was coming. Life has a funny way of doing that, just pulling out the most unexpected things you can imagine. Sometimes that results in tragedies. In the case of BoJack Horseman, it meant we got one of the best TV shows ever made.

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