Tony Soprano Meets The Bluths: How ‘BoJack Horseman’ Is Playing With The Golden Age Of TV

If Netflix is the future of television, then TV’s future might look a lot like its past.

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BoJack Horseman’s third season is out now and features all the intricate comedy and morose misanthropy fans have come to expect. It doesn’t, however, quite live up to the excellence of its second season, offering fewer big laughs and an increasingly unlikeable protagonist. But will this serve the show better in the long run?

In many ways, BoJack Horseman sits at the intersection of two of Netflix’s earliest ‘original’ series: House of Cards and the fourth season of Arrested Development. On the one hand, it’s a deep dive into a stern and egotistical protagonist’s battles with power. On the other, it’s a dizzyingly ambitious sitcom stuffed with visual puns, elaborate in-jokes and showbiz satire. If you haven’t seen the show, that might sound like an odd combination — particularly in the context of a universe largely populated by talking animals. But one of the best things about the show is how effectively it balances familiar shades of light and dark.

By playing with (and sometimes rejecting) the conventions of TV’s recent ‘golden age’, BoJack’s third season isn’t so much a step down or a step forward, but a smart recognition of the challenges that faced its forebears and an attempt to avoid them in the future.

Horsin’ Around: The Genealogy Of A Joke

Critical praise of BoJack tends to emphasise its complex reflections on mental illness — as season three’s trailer deftly mocked — but while the show’s ability to devastate us emotionally can’t be understated, its greatest successes are comedic. What other show can come up with the idea of J.D. Salinger inventing a show titled Hollywoo Stars and Celebrities: What Do They Know? Do They Know Things?? Let’s Find Out! or create a nuanced character out of Vincent Adultman (“very obviously three kids stacked on top of each other under a trench coat”).

While no other show has hit those precise beats, the shadows of earlier sitcoms are unmistakable in BoJack’s DNA. The freeze-frame gags and visual puns — like an Oscar nomination for A Rivers Runs Through It: The Weezer Story — are straight out of classic Simpsons. The show’s self-aware, self-deprecating humour, on full display in flashbacks to 2007, is influenced by Community (and countless other metacommentary-heavy comedies). On one hand you’ve got pointed commentary on social issues like abortion and feminism — à la All in the Family — and on the other you’ve got Todd and Mr Peanutbutter concocting the kind of ambitious, ill-advised schemes that Kramer and Newman were known for on Seinfeld.

The biggest influence, I’d argue, is Arrested Development, from which BoJack borrows its incredibly detailed, incredibly long joke setups. Without Arrested Development, it’s hard to imagine a show ramping from a throwaway line about spaghetti strainers into a ridiculous punchline that I wouldn’t dare spoil. Arrested Development is also an illustrative example of the kind of challenges BoJack, and shows like it, face as they move into sitcom middle-age.

Rejigging The Old Formula

It’s not controversial to point out that most serialised comedies tend to become less funny as they continue. It’s not necessarily that the writers or actors are any less talented than earlier seasons, but that the element of surprise critical to big laughs has been eroded by fully-developed characters and an established comedic chemistry.

Take Broad City’s latest season. It’s still good; maybe even great. But it’s somehow lacklustre compared to its first couple of seasons. Sitcoms tend to either settle into complacency in their later years — fine for a comforting hangout vibe, but anathema to true hilarity — or dial up the wackiness into rapidly diminishing returns. (There are counter-examples, of course; think Archer Vice, which snapped the show out of its descent into complacency by rejigging the status quo entirely. But if a sitcom lives long enough it tends to follow one of these two paths.)

BoJack, by and large, sidesteps these problems with some simple yet effective innovations. The first is to provide a new focus to the showbiz satire that’s been present throughout the series thus far: the awards season and all the attendant press tours and ego-stroking and inexplicable appearances of Bradley Cooper that come along with that. BoJack’s potentially in line for an Oscar (for a role performed entirely by a computer-generated of himself, mind you) and as we follow his path through the season it’s clear that the show’s writers have been eagerly sharpening their knives ready to take apart the absurdities associated with the Academy Awards. Season three takes the satire the show already did very well and redirects in a way that keeps it feeling fresh — and very funny.

The second solution is to dial back on the wackiness — no more Hollywoo Stars and Celebrities: What Do They Know? Do They Know Things?? Let’s Find Out! — in favour of more outré experimentation. The best example of this is found in the show’s justly-lauded fourth episode, ‘Fish Out Of Water’, which stages a film festival screening of BoJack’s film in an underwater city.

That sets the stage for an extended, largely dialogue-free episode that pays homage to everything from Lost in Translation to Modern Times while still finding time to include a male seahorse giving birth (which is a thing). It’s funny and poignant and weird and unique and it has a payoff punchline that earns the biggest laugh of the season.

The choice to adjust BoJack’s comedic trajectory might not deliver the level of hilarity found in season two (I admit that I missed the silly little subplots, like Todd being replaced by the Prince of Cordovia without explanation) but it lends the show the potential for the kind of longevity too often lacking in great sitcoms. With the show now renewed for a fourth season, that’s gotta be a good thing.

The Great White Horse Antihero

While most great sitcoms tend to temper their comedy with an underlying sadness or sense of failure, BoJack Horseman ramps the misery up to a whole new level. There’s a point in this latest season where a promotional poster puts “Horseman” alongside “Soprano. Draper. Underwood” (nice cross promotion by the way, Netflix). It feels far less tongue-in-cheek than you might think.

BoJack’s character is very much modelled on the Tony-Soprano-esque great white antihero: a man defined by professional success, personal failure and dubious morality. The show isn’t shy about this. The core cast even borrows from these shows with Mad Men’s Alison Brie and Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul in prominent roles. This season features more than a few allusions to The Sopranos (including a cameo from Lorraine Bracco as — you guessed it — a therapist). Even star Will Arnett — who, if Megan Fox is to be believed, has a bit in common with his eponymous equine character — had a minor role in David Chase’s influential series. (And Arrested Development, natch.)

BoJack subverts the post-Sopranos model, however, by largely denying its protagonist the success granted to Draper, Soprano etc. Oh, sure, these guys suffer setbacks across the course of their series, and by the time the final credits roll they might even take a real loss (looking at you, Walter White and Vic Mackey). But for the most part, these antihero dramas saw their lead characters on a path to professional success — whether selling ads or selling meth — even as their personal lives crumbled irreparably.

Mr Horseman has no such luck. Despite concluding season two on an ambiguously optimistic note, and beginning season three with the possibility of Oscar success, the show soon tips its hand to a far darker arc. If last season seemed like rock bottom, what with BoJack making a move on his ex’s underage daughter, then you ain’t seen nothing yet: season three is here to show you what rock bottom really looks like.

The Sopranos and its ilk all want to you to hate their main character but they also kinda want you to root for him. BoJack doesn’t let you off so easy; there are no rival mobsters or ad agencies to distract you from the realities of the protagonist’s moral failings. BoJack’s only enemy is himself. As a friend tells him late in the new season, “You are all the things that are wrong with you”. And — despite his alcoholism and debilitating depression — it’s hard not to agree with the sentiment.

By doubling down on BoJack’s worst attributes, the season is a powerful deconstruction of the Sopranos antihero model; a model that struggled to convince audiences to reject their amoral but charming protagonists. (The final episodes of Sopranos practically screamed “He’s a bad person!” at audience members who paid no mind.)

But this can make for a tough watch. No matter how many great jokes or wacky Mr Peanutbutter antics are on display, watching someone descend, step by step, to their absolute lowest point is a fair distance from fun. Deliberate as it may be, the way the show dwells on BoJack’s depression this season gets a bit overwhelming. The previous seasons’ grace is traded for a bluntness, with a good chunk of the dialogue directly addressing BoJack’s mental health.

This isn’t the only time I felt like the show’s writers traded subtext for text. The subtle and insightful reflections on depression and entitlement that The Sopranos — and hell, the show’s earlier seasons — tackled so well are frequently made explicit. For that reason, maybe it doesn’t quite stand up to the likes of that show, or Mad Men, in the drama department. But the fact that an animated comedy that spends a good chunk of its season building up to a joke about spaghetti strainers warrants comparisons to television’s richest dramas is testament to its quality.

Bojack Horseman is streaming on Netflix now.

Dave Crewe is a Brisbane-based teacher and freelance film critic who spends way too much of his time watching movies. Read his stuff at ccpopculture or pester him at @dacrewe.

Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the creator of BoJack Horseman has just been announced a guest at our new festival, Video Junkee. Video Junkee is a new annual event for lovers and creators of online video. It is on July 28 & 29 at Carriageworks in Sydney, featuring keynotes, masterclasses, screenings, interviews and more. Tickets are on sale now