‘BoJack Horseman’ is a relentlessly clever, emotional surprise

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It is no secret that Los Angeles is a bizarre place full of wealth disparity, glamorous excess and rampant desperation. Alongside New York City, it is the birthplace of most modern American entertainment, creating a mythical aura around its city limits that can easily be defined as unreal; nowhere else can animalistic behavior look so posh and meaningful.

This conceit serves as the launching point for Netflix’s new series “BoJack Horseman,” the streaming service’s first [adult swim]-style animated comedy. Featuring an all-star voice cast including Will Arnett, Aaron Paul and Amy Sedaris, “BoJack Horseman” chronicles the turbulent life of a self-destructive former sitcom star, who also happens to be a horse. With a little help from his friends — or at least the closest thing he has to friends — BoJack finds himself in increasingly embarrassing situations while maintaining simultaneous public attention and irrelevance.

The most immediately recognizable detail about the universe of “BoJack Horseman” is the cohabitation of Los Angeles by humans and anthropomorphic animals. No opportunity for a pun or an observation regarding the absurd ramifications of this idea is left unseized. It is easy to get caught up in the show’s nearly constant use of surface-level humor, disguising that it is often working on multiple levels at once.

“BoJack Horseman” is not cut from the same cloth of most currently airing animated series. It may be referential like “Family Guy,” but its references are dense and interwoven not only into the show’s tone, but also the plot and its subtext. The commitment to world building and elaborate joke construction embarked upon by the writers and animators most closely recalls memories of the show “Arrested Development,” a series where every small, easy joke plays into a much longer con.

Of course, painstaking attention to detail is meaningless if the result is not funny. Thankfully, if “BoJack Horseman” is anything, it is uproariously funny. Every character interaction and artistic flourish fulfill a clear creative purpose, usually in service of a scathing, clever joke. It would be easy to just rattle on about every brilliant setup, joke, and background detail, but it is much more rewarding to discover them without expectation. This is the rare animated sitcom that rewards contemplation and undivided attention.

Yet coexisting harmoniously with the show’s almost dadaist commitment to gleeful insanity, the show is relatable and even powerful when it aspires to be. It takes a great amount of skill and confidence to uncompromisingly depict the loneliness and depravity that plagues the lifestyles of the rich and famous while a fictionalized version of Quentin Tarantino is pitching a romantic comedy based on the life of Eva Braun.

As an irreverent comedy, “BoJack Horseman” provides as many full belly laughs as the best animated shows on television today. It did not have to aspire to more than that and yes it does, wildly succeeding in the process. Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg has created a truly special piece of animated television, perhaps only matched by shows like “Mission Hill” and “Duckman,” which aspired to be as artful as they were entertaining.

With a little bit of luck, hopefully “BoJack Horseman” will not be sent to the glue factory quite as fast as those shows were.

 

Reach the reporter at zheltzel@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @zachheltzel