The premise of BoJack Horseman, Netflix’s latest foray into original content, is simple and familiar. An out-of-work, has-been actor from a sitcom in the 90s hates himself as a new era looms. And he’s a horse. Ever present is the fact that, despite the the cynicism, the dryness and the penchant for alcohol, BoJack is a horse.
You’d think that an anthropomorphic take on a classic archetype could make any washed out horse-actor comedy original. But as the illustrations roll and various animals fornicate and copulate and drink and drive, it becomes clear that the writers seem to have rested on the comedic situation of a walking, talking horse (and cat and dogs, etc). In one scene, Mr. Peanut Butter, the lovable golden retriever, gets overexcited at the ringing of a doorbell as golden retrievers are wont to do. Suburban dogs complain about not being able to to eat chocolate, the penguin is a publisher, the seal is, quite literally, a Navy SEAL, and so on and so forth. It’s funny, sort of, but only so much as dad jokes and word puns are funny.
In fact, this is the same type of humor dealt with in the 90s series Horseman starred in—Horsin’ Around. Various scenes throughout the clips of the sitcom, shown as BoJack sexes or slovenly gets drunk, prove neigh and hay puns a’plenty.
There’s something painfully familiar about BoJack’s swagger. Something when he recounts his dumping by Princess Carolyn (a cat) or the spending of his book advance. When the credits rolled, it was obvious—the role of BoJack Horseman is played by Will Arnett. Even a horse’s snout couldn’t obscure the dumby, bro-ey effervescence of Mr. Arnett.
Human characters awash in a world of painfully punny animals bring relatability to the show that begins to stale after just three episodes. Diane, a human (Alison Brie) gives BoJack a moment to step down from his “high horse” as the ghostwriter of his forthcoming memoir. Diane coaxes him into moments of truth about his family and stardom that are by the far the most enjoyable of the 12-episode run. Aaron Paul’s Todd, the leech (although human) is similarly funny in his humanity and his gullible oblivion at falling in “love” with an online scammer who farms his data for the sole $80 in his bank account. Even the blonde human opportunist who sleeps with BoJack (then tweets about it) offers more hilarity than the first episode combined.
Despite its shortfalls, there’s still something alluring about the series that makes me keep watching. Maybe I want to see where this whole horse/Diane sexual tension goes. Or maybe I secretly enjoy the innocence of cartoons and the third-grade level puns that animate them set against a cast of humanized animal losers. All in all, I would wearily recommend at least trying it on for size. Supposedly, it gets better.
Other television critics are generally in agreement that the show is a big ol’ dolphin flop despite its impressive cast and recognizable backers, including Stanley Tucci and Patton Oswalt. Most of the response from viewers has been positive, though this may just be witness to the power of streaming. Either way, the series which was renewed for a second season less than a week after its premiere, is the first of its kind for Netflix and a testament for the company to the old idiom “don’t change horses midstream.”