How 'BoJack Horseman' Transformed From A Talking Animal Comedy Into The Best And Most Devastating Show On Netflix

BoJack Horseman is a comedy built on incongruity. It's an inexplicable mashup of genres and styles that absolutely should not work. As the show's final season begins its portioned-out arrival, it's worth celebrating how BoJack Horseman gradually became not just the best show on Netflix, but arguably one of the most incisive, emotionally raw, and darkly funny shows of the new century. Here's a show that could've died on the vine in its first season, yet has become one of the very best in all of television.

Back in the 90s

The title of the program, for the uninitiated, might be enough of a non-starter, because it just sounds so odd. BoJack depicts a universe almost exactly like ours, just with anthropomorphized animals and insects thrown into the mix. It's an inside-baseball story about the entertainment industry, highlighting a bevy of current issues within the media landscape. It just happens to be animated, and focusing as much on walking, talking cats, horses (including the title character), dogs, and more, as well as human characters too. BoJack, as the new episodes emphasize, is the central figure of what's wound up as a vast ensemble program that's as capable of dimensionalizing those who get sucked in BoJack's orbit as BoJack himself.The first season's premise was ostensibly a redemption story: BoJack (voiced marvelously by Will Arnett), as the closing-credits theme song always intones, was once the star of a very famous TV show called Horsin' Around. (Imagine what a Full House-style show would look like if Bob Saget was...well, a horseman.) BoJack is desperate to stay relevant, and make sure people haven't forgotten him. In the early episodes, he tries to write a memoir, working with a sharp young ghostwriter named Diane (Alison Brie) to do so. But BoJack's redemption story is just being written in real life; the entire show's journey documents it better than the written word could. Throughout the show's five-plus seasons — the first half of Season Six premieres on Friday, October 25, and I've seen all eight episodes — BoJack vacillates between wanting the help he needs and pushing it away as viciously as possible. BoJack, created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg and driven by the visual design of artist Lisa Hanawalt, works in spite of its seemingly ridiculous setup by treating itself matter-of-factly. Here is a show that can have rhyming wordplay that works best for Hollywood obsessives — "Courtly roles like the formerly portly consort are Courtney Portnoy's forte!" — and incorporate an intentionally uncomfortable, heartbreaking depiction of dementia as filtered through the persona of an elderly hybrid horse-human.

Time’s Arrow

Part of the show's success has been its willingness to dive into ripped-from-the-headline topics that somehow manage to seem current, in spite of being in production months before something winds up in the headlines. Take, for instance, a season-two storyline about Diane — always exemplified by her unbending progressive political views even when her rigidity causes trouble — bringing to light sexual-assault allegations against a beloved older television personality, Hank Hippopopalous (Philip Baker Hall). The obvious connection point, in the early fall of 2015, were similarly horrific allegations against Bill Cosby, revived when comedian Hannibal Buress brought them up in a standup set that subsequently went viral. But the scenes have gained further, darker resonance in light of the last couple years and the vast amount of powerful men in Hollywood whose own disturbing pasts have been rightfully unearthed.BoJack Horseman has also thrived by treating its characters humanely and honestly. In the early going, one of the goofier relationships was between BoJack and his good-natured but idiotic roommate Todd (Aaron Paul). Paul's vocal presence allows an odd comparison, in which the BoJack-Todd relationship sometimes had a weird vibe recalling that of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad. Though BoJack's crimes are often more personal, the way they further seem to damn the character — as when BoJack comes awfully close to sleeping with the underage daughter of an old friend of his, or goes on a bender with the adult woman who used to be his child co-star that ends up killing her — are shockingly similar. And Todd, still the easiest source of silly laughs on the show, was gradually given more depth, too, in unexpected ways. Throughout the series, Todd's been an easy go-to for ridiculous schemes that manage to allow him to fail upwards without ever really trying. (In season 5, he winds up as the CEO of an inexplicably popular website dedicated to telling people what time it is right now, before being supplanted as the top executive by Henry Fondle, a chintzy sex robot he built who people mistake for a real person. It's...a whole thing.) Eventually, Todd comes to a personal conclusion: that he's asexual. In a different show, this realization either would've been treated as a punchline or it wouldn't have been brought up at all. Instead, Todd (thanks both to Paul and the insightful writing) gets to embrace his personality in ways that feel honest and true.

Free Churro

Those last three words are, in effect, what makes BoJack Horseman stand out throughout its six-season run. The new episodes lean very hard into the notion of being honest and true both to its characters, and the world as a whole. After the conclusion of season 5, BoJack begins the new season in rehab at a facility called Pastiches. The ebullient dogman actor Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins, always delightful) is trying to quell the guilt he feels for sleeping with Diane, his ex, while dating Pickles, a social-media-obsessed dog/human hybrid voiced by Hong Chau. (The episode in which Mr. Peanutbutter forces himself to admit his infidelity is one of the most delightfully zany farces since the days of Frasier.) Diane, in the subplot that's always going to have a bit more painful, satiric resonance for anyone writing online, is pushing back against the massive media conglomerate that's gobbling up even the female-driven website she works for. And BoJack's agent and ex Princess Caroline (Amy Sedaris) struggles with her role as an adoptive mother. With each character, the past weighs heavily on their present, none more so than BoJack himself.Even in the sixth season, BoJack's past continues to be mined for weighty, gut-wrenching emotion. In the first episode, which goes as far as eschewing a title sequence, we learn even more about the past of the scared little kid who's still at the core of BoJack's personality. Arnett has long been one of the strongest assets the show has — his breakout role as G.O.B. Bluth on Arrested Development made his transition into playing the fame-obsessed BoJack a natural fit. But throughout the series, he's proven as adept at the darker, more confessional moments to the point where the fifth season featured one episode, "Free Churro", in which only Arnett spoke. It's framed primarily as a eulogy BoJack gives at his mother's funeral. (His mother, voiced by Wendie Malick, served as the focal point of a Season 4 episode, "Time's Arrow", that is equally one of the show's greatest half-hours.) Arnett gets similar showcases in the new season, as we see more of how BoJack was set up for failure from his youth, with a mother who could only respond with vodka-soaked jibes and a father who hated his life. BoJack spends much of the season in rehab, to a point where he becomes so dependent on the facility that he doesn't want to leave. With only a handful of episodes left, who knows if Arnett can finally get the Emmy he so richly deserves; his voice work as BoJack goes down as the finest performance of his career.

Don’t Act Like You Don’t Know

Thus, what makes the show work, from its antiheroic lead to the rest of the vast ensemble, is that willingness to be honest and true. Of course, in 2019, being honest and true also means being more than a bit depressing. (In a Diane-centric episode, she's informed blithely by the billionaire whale gobbling up companies like the one she works at that billionaires can legally commit murder now. Diane, in rapid succession, is horrified to find that he's telling the truth.) It's not that BoJack Horseman wasn't a multi-dimensional program of surprising emotional depth before, but the sixth season implies that Bob-Waksberg and the writers haven't lost their ability to go as dark and deep as possible. As frank as BoJack can be, it's to the credit of the writers and cast that each of these characters deserves a kind of upbeat catharsis. With only eight episodes to come at the end of January, BoJack's redemption now feels more earned than it did before. But there's a palpable sense of concern seeping through the last two episodes available to watch now – many of our leads seem to have reached their happy ending, before a final installment that notably doesn't feature any of them despite hinting at further darkness to come.And it's all on a show where all sorts of creatures talk, and all sorts of very famous people lend their voices for both real characters and self-mocking portraitures. (Jessica Biel has been a recurring character on the show, and fair is fair: Biel, who portrays herself, has a very good sense of humor.) BoJack Horseman should not have ever worked, and it could have easily been scuttled after its more uneven first season. But the show has survived to deliver one of the most profound, heartfelt depictions of depression in modern popular culture. When the show arrives at its finale in January, it'll mark the end of Netflix's very best program, and one that's next to impossible to top.