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Great shows can go overlooked in the saturated TV market. Credit: Lantern file photo

TV review: ‘BoJack Horseman’ is a nuanced animated comedy

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Trying to convince people that “BoJack Horseman” is worth watching is damn near impossible.

For most, the premise is too weird. People just can’t wrap their heads around an alcoholic, talking horse who lives in an acid-trip version of Hollywood—known in the show as Hollywoo after the D is destroyed in season one—where anthropomorphic animals and humans coexist. The humor of the show is as weird and specific as its setting.

Animated comedies nowadays are plentiful and disposable. “BoJack Horseman” is not “Family Guy” or “Bob’s Burgers.” It’s not “South Park” either, even with the satire parallels between the two.

Writing off “BoJack Horseman” as an animated comedy is a gross injustice to the show.  At its core, the show has more emotional depth and resonance than most dramas on television right now. BoJack—voiced by Will Arnett doing his best work yet—feels like a familiar trope: foul-mouthed, alcoholic, has-been celebrity, but the show proves everyone wrong by exploring BoJack’s psyche and arguing that his selfish, self-destructive behavior makes sense.

The show also wisely surrounds BoJack with a supporting cast as broken and human—even when they’re not—as he is. His live-in on-and-off best friend Todd (Aaron Paul) and his former memoirist Diane (Alison Brie) are both dealing with their place in the world and what they want out of life, while the latter’s husband, and BoJack’s ’90s sitcom nemesis, Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), is trying to figure out how to fit into Diane’s evolving desires. BoJack’s agent, a pink cat named Princess Carolyne (Amy Sedaris), struggles to balance running her own agency and living the family life she’s always wanted. These characters are dealing with very real problems, and the absurdity of the show as a whole shouldn’t stop people from watching.

In fact, the show has its fair share of laughs to counteract the often dark turns its characters take. “BoJack Horseman” is in the same vein as shows like “Arrested Development” and “Community,” where the jokes aren’t always obvious. Background art is stuffed with reference humor and animal puns. The jokes build over time. There’s one that’s introduced in the first episode of the season that doesn’t pay off until the last. The humor of “BoJack” is carefully planned, and even though it’s often silly, it usually has a scathing point about the entertainment business and society as a whole.

Season three picks up with BoJack well into the press junket for “Secretariat,” his dream project that he ended up not even being in—he was replaced by a digital version of himself after he went AWOL from the project near the end of season two. The award season is rife with material for the show’s signature wit, but the season instead focuses its attention on how this affects BoJack. It’s a smart decision to avoid easy jokes, and the show is better for it.

One of the strongest parts of “BoJack” is how it continually moves forward. Season one was shaky because it had to prove itself; season two was stronger because it knew what it had and evolved that. Season three feels like the most confident season yet. The writers trust that we know their characters’ hopes and flaws by now. Instead of retreading past material, the show faces their characters with new tests. We know that Diane wants her work to be meaningful, so how will writing celebrity tweets impact her? It all works because the characters are so honestly and consistently written.

“BoJack” has proven to be unafraid of unconventional episode structure in the past, and season three embraces that even more. The fourth episode follows BoJack as he attends an underwater film festival. It features almost no dialogue, relying solely on its breathtaking visuals and gorgeous soundtrack to carry the episode, and they do. Art designer Lisa Hanawalt continues to push the shows animation to new and more beautiful heights. It’s heavily inspired by “Lost in Translation,” but it has just as much in common with Charlie Chaplin’s silent films, with a factory sequence straight out of “Modern Times.”

Episode seven has the story told to us as BoJack relays the plot to a customer service representative over the phone. It allows BoJack to actively voice his reactions to things that happen around him as we see them happening. It’s a nice little trick that seems inconsequential but reveals so much about BoJack’s character.

“BoJack Horseman” might be the best show on television right now. It balances soul-crushingly sad moments and hilarious bits about stardom. Most importantly, its portrayal of mental illness is realistic and nuanced, something sorely missing from most media. The show asks hard questions about being happy and what that even means. It hasn’t answered them yet; maybe it never will.

“BoJack Horseman” season three is now streaming on Netflix.

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