BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett), the star of Netflix’s new animated series, BoJack Horseman, available Friday, is a horse—and a drunk and a cynic and a former sitcom star.* Nearly two decades ago, in the ’90s, BoJack starred in a Charles in Charge-ish type show called Horsin’ Around, playing the father figure to three human children. Now, living in a fancy house his sitcom built, in an L.A. populated by coexisting (and copulating) humans and anthropomorphic animals, BoJack begins to take baby steps toward relevance, or at least, infamy. BoJack, like the characters Arnett has played in Arrested Development or Running Wilde, is charming and rakish despite being, generally, a heel: He’s too self-obsessed to be good, but too insecure to be committed to doing bad. He just wants approval, or barring that, attention. BoJack is a horse suffering both from a heady dose of ennui and an even headier dose of himself.
In the first episode, BoJack is harangued by his very stressed-out and nearly insolvent book editor—a penguin, fittingly—to deliver the memoir he’s allegedly been working on for years. The penguin suggests that BoJack hire a ghostwriter, Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), a level-headed realist who happens to be dating Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tomkins), a sunshine-y golden retriever who starred in a sitcom extremely similar to Horsin’ Around and who drives BoJack crazy. BoJack is initially hesitant to work with Diane, because he doesn’t want to open up to anyone ever, but their collaboration undergirds the show, which has more episode-to-episode continuity than cartoons usually do. Rounding out the cast—which, in nearly every episode, features other celebrity guests—is the beanie-wearing Todd (Aaron Paul), a guy who has been crashing on BoJack’s couch for five years, accepting abuse and toaster strudel. And then there’s Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), a cat as well as BoJack’s agent and ex-girlfriend, on hand to get him out of trouble and capitalize whenever she can. (To give you a sense of the show’s raunch level, picking up a call from Carolyn, BoJack says, “I told you I don’t know where it is! Don’t put things in my butt if you want them back.”)
BoJack is perhaps a little more clever than it is uproariously funny, but it is often very clever, and, moreover, well-tuned to the ludicrousness of the sort of low-level fame that surrounds BoJack. In one episode, Todd sells tickets to BoJack’s house by pretending it is David Boreanaz’s, whoever exactly that is, Todd’s not sure. Another episode features Sarah Lynn (Kristen Schaal), who once co-starred as a little girl on Horsin’ Around and then turned herself into a sexpot pop star with an anthem called “Prickly Muffin.” Now at 30, Sarah Lynn is a blithe drug addict dating Andrew Garfield and being out-sex-potted by a 14-year-old dubstep dolphin star named Sextina Aquafina. (The animals and their names are, generally speaking, delightful. There’s a rooster who runs by every morning screaming “Wake up!” and a chicken who, when startled, craps out an egg. There’s even a maggot mortician who slithers toward coffins.) BoJack, feeling guilty about not being there for Sarah Lynn when she was younger, takes her in, lets her destroy his house, and then starts sleeping with her, making himself as much a part of her problem as everyone else. The sex is even photographed by two paparazzi—birds—who spend the next three episodes trying to get BoJack on the phone to blackmail him. He doesn’t answer, though, because he doesn’t accept calls from unknown numbers.
In a move perfected by 30 Rock, BoJack often presents big ideas without having to commit to them. BoJack asks Diane what she makes of Sarah Lynn, and Diane replies:
Well, I don’t really think about her all much. Obviously, I’m a fan of her early work, which both satirized and celebrated youth culture’s obsession with sex. But I do wonder as a third-wave feminist if it’s even possible for women to “reclaim” their sexuality in this deeply entrenched patriarchal society. Or if claiming to do so is just a lie we tell ourselves to more comfortably cater to the male gaze. On the other hand, I worry conversations like this one often dismiss her as a mere puppet of the industry, incapable of engaging in this discussion herself, an infantilization which is itself a product of the deeply misogynistic society we live in. But like I said, I don’t think about her that much.
BoJack greets this speech with stupefaction, ignoring it to get to the point: Does Diane think it’s cool that he’s letting Sarah Lynn crash at his house?
Similarly, in the second episode, while at the supermarket, BoJack takes a box of muffins from another customer who claims he was saving them. The customer turns out to be Neal McBeal the Navy SEAL (a real seal, obviously) who goes on MSNBC (Keith Olbermann voices the anchor, who is a whale) to accuse BoJack of not caring about the troops. The anchor insists that even BoJack must admit that the “troops are heroes,” but BoJack, self-righteous and worked up, blunders, “I don’t agree to that! Maybe some of the troops are heroes, but not automatically. I’m sure a lot of them are jerks, most people are jerks already, and it’s not like giving a jerk a gun and telling him it’s OK to kill people makes that jerk a hero!” This obviously precipitates an even greater PR crisis that BoJack, because he cares about his reputation more than his positions, is willing to get out of, allowing the show to raise the point without haranguing its audience.
Not all of the BoJack’s storylines are as meaty or engaging. Diane and BoJack visit her family, a Bahwston clan that loves Ben Affleck and hates Derek Jeter. It feels staid. In another, Todd is working on a terrible rock opera that Diane encourages BoJack to help him with, but even BoJack can’t make a bad rock opera bearable. At least at the end of that episode, we see BoJack mercilessly sabotage Todd’s chances in a genuinely twisted sequence: He doesn’t want Todd to succeed, because then he’d move out and BoJack would be alone.
For a show about an animated horse, BoJack Horseman is very comfortable with darkness and the deep well of loneliness residing inside its main character. It’s a mood captured by the glorious, eerie opening credits, a close-up on BoJack’s long face as he glides through his mansion, parties, and swimming pools, startled and alone, until the camera pans out on BoJack floating on a raft in a swimming pool. Life may be bleak, but it is funnier when a talking horse is involved.
* Correction, Aug. 25, 2014: This piece originally misstated that Bojack Horseman is Netflix’s first animated series. Turbo FAST was the network’s first. (Return.)