The fourth episode of BoJack Horseman‘s third season takes place under the water, where all land animals must wear futuristic helmets that allow you to wander the cities of the Pacific Ocean. It’s also the home of the Pacific Ocean Film Festival, where the titular, intrepid horse-celebrity is meant to attend a screening of his comeback film and dream project, Secretariat, but he never makes it to the screening. Instead, his attempt to apologize to Kelsey Jannings, voiced by Maria Bamford, the filmmaker originally behind Secretariat, leads him into a short oceanic odyssey where BoJack helps a male seahorse give birth and contemplates the nature of being a “good person.”
It’s one of the quintessential episodes of Netflix’s beguiling and brilliant animated series, distilling the show’s bemused and melancholic tone into nothing by visual gags and storytelling propelled by nothing more than wildly inventive images. The episode – IMDB hasn’t released the title as of yet – also fits in seamlessly within the new season’s narrative, as Will Arnett‘s BoJack finally regains his fame following a healthy dollop of Oscar buzz for his Secretariat performance, which, as it turns out, wasn’t even his work. If last season dealt distinctly with BoJack’s inner demons, the personal ramifications of a childhood spent with a neglectful, mean-spirited mother, Season 3 steps into a far more existentially alert realm of thought, questioning the very idea of our hero being able to feel happiness or be genuinely able to consider himself a success.
It’s a slight let down that the series doesn’t pick up more directly with where we left off in Season 2, with BoJack jogging again and trying to take his struggle with alcoholism, ego, and opportunism one day at a time. Indeed, there’s an immediate feeling of resetting as the season begins, which is in line with the show’s consistently humorous self-awareness and somewhat disruptive to the show’s peerless emotional continuity. It’s a minor quibble, ultimately, as the series doesn’t ever feel particularly repetitive, and creator-writer Raphael Bob-Waksberg has an incisive, bruising way of evoking expressive, near-absurdist reflections of societal discord. The show is frank about sexuality, as evident by the way BoJack’s self-loathing, bed-hopping sense of love is detailed throughout the series, but even more stunning when its characters, whether they be a cat-agent or a walrus-reporter, cut through the glorious, giddy nonsense to hit at shames, fears, regrets, addictions, and obsessions.
In the case of this season, the major focus is on a period in 2007 wherein BoJack attempted a major second act on TV following Horsin’ Around, the long-running, shallow sitcom that made him rich. When the show returns to this period, with BoJack planning a new series called The BoJack Horseman Show, there’s a sense that BoJack is trying to find artistic redemption, and he is in a comfortable position to make something a bit more daring, to realize his next project on his own terms. But does BoJack have genuine vision? Though he works with an overweight gerbal-writer, The BoJack Horseman Show is his baby, and the show is an unmitigated fiasco, and whatever ambition he ever had disintegrates. Few shows are so startlingly blunt about the pain of finding out you’re not the guy
Few shows are so startlingly blunt about the pain of finding out you’re not the guy, that you’re not the one that’s truly different in a world dominated by conformity and a yearning for life to be simply “good enough.” The series undermines the idea of fame or recognition being a salvation of some sort, presenting the act of becoming a celebrity as a rigid, denigrating, and deeply unnerving process of business acumen above all else, and as such, BoJack Horseman ends up becoming a thrilling, rueful study of the psychological games and uniquely vain, notably capitalistic decision-making that powers the entertainment industry. And yet, through its venomous jokes and unrelenting, uproarious gags, the series also recognizes how charming, joyful, and galvanizing entertainment for entertainment sake can be, no matter how stupid or silly it may seem.
In the aforementioned fourth episode, everything from Lost in Translation to Modern Times to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is referenced, and with its third season, this show places itself in that same company of high-minded, invigoratingly nuanced comedies that are, at least partially, obsessed with death. That’s the boogeyman hiding under Bojack’s bed, and as he faces a Michael Keaton-esque ascension from that washed-up hack to a possible Oscar winner, what he’s really coming to terms with is his lack of permanence. He will die, just like Secretariat did, but maybe he’ll be remembered just as the great athlete that he has looked up to since he was a kid was if he can bring him back to life in a way. Fame doesn’t solve any of BoJack’s problems, and when he helps out strangers and friends, the world does not suddenly open up and embrace him.
The vibrant worlds that Bob-Waksberg envisions here, filled with buoyant, even fluorescent colors that bring out the strange beauty of an altered, tender world that BoJack lives in, is discombobulating as often as it is unexpectedly emotionally resonant. It’s not every day you watch a horse-celebrity help a male seahorse-factory worker give birth to a litter of children, even if you’re a big anime fan. The image of BoJack shoving his hands into the fellow creature’s crotch, as inexplicable as it may be, isn’t nearly as odd as how this comes to make BoJack reflect on his life thus far, and how unavoidably human his reactions to these wild occurrences feels from moment to moment.
★★★★ – It’s Gold, Jerry! Gold!