It’s been a while since I talked about the writing of a television show, and since I just finished up the two seasons of BoJack Horseman available on Netflix, I figured now was as good a time as any.
When BoJack Horseman first came out, I kept seeing people posting about it on Facebook, always in a positive light. But I didn’t get around to watching it until recently, long after the posts had stopped. I needed something to watch while doing other things (I often throw a show on while I’m doing dishes, because it typically takes me the 20-30 minutes of a short episode), and I figured it was time.
If you’re unfamiliar with BoJack Horseman, it’s an animated series that takes place in a world where humans and anthropomorphic animals live side-by-side like it ain’t no thang. The show centers around BoJack, a washed-up sitcom star, as he navigates life post-career and deals with a massive amount of baggage from his childhood. The people he surrounds himself with – either willingly or otherwise – include Diane, a young woman who is ghost writing his autobiography; Mr. Peanutbutter, an overeager and sometimes oblivious golden lab who had a sitcom that rode the fame of BoJack’s; Todd, BoJack’s roommate who often finds himself in the middle of or the cause of wild tomfoolery (or as he likes to say, “Toddfoolery”); and Princess Caroline, a pink cat and BoJack’s agent (also occasional girlfriend/booty call).
While the show was amusing and interesting enough to keep my attention through both seasons, I felt like it had so much more potential than it actually reached in twenty-four episodes. The animal/human society paved the way for a handful of pretty funny jokes and gags (penguins running Penguin Publishing, BoJack’s sitcom being called “Horsin’ Around”, etc.), but they all but disappeared in the wake of drama. Drama-laden drama heaped on top of more drama. Oh my God, so much drama.
Now, I’m not adverse to drama or any kind of seriousness in an animated series. My favorite animated series of all time is Mission Hill, which perfectly mixed serious and funny. But BoJack just got too darn serious at times, and it was cliche sitcom tropes. There was the “he-loves-her-but-she-loves-the-other-guy” thing in the first season, followed by the “does-she-really-love-the-other-guy?” thing, followed by the “the-first-guy-kissed-her-and-made-things-weird” thing. Oh, and I should mention that the whole “he-loves-her” thing was telegraphed loudly from the very beginning. Opposite sex character who is frustrated by the other character? Yup, there’s gonna be romantic tension there… sigh.
And the second season was just… well, it felt like it was all over the place. There were several through-lines of story in the season, but none of them were particularly interesting. Even the “resurrection” of J.D. Salinger as a show runner for a ridiculous game show only gave a short moment’s worth of amusement before disappearing in the wake of – surprise – more drama. Drama is only interesting when a character learns from the trials and tribulations he goes through. If BoJack learned anything in two seasons, it doesn’t feel that way.
The show definitely has its strong moments, though. When the writers hit a good joke, they really hit a good joke. Case in point, when Mr. Peanutbutter is explaining how in love he is with Diane, he makes a comment about how he spends his day – curled up on the couch, often after digging a little nest for himself, and then getting excited when he hears the car. Get it? He’s a dog. It was really clever and didn’t call attention to itself blatantly. That’s the kind of writing I would love to see in all of the show.
I think the best episode was the fifth episode of the second season. This was one of those episodes where the B story out-shined the A story, and then both came together in the end. The A story was a rather uninteresting one of BoJack trying to bond with the director of the movie he’s working on, and the B story is Todd trying to rescue an escaped anthropomorphic chicken, who he starts to bond with, from having to go back to the chicken farm where she’ll be slaughtered and eaten. It’s just the right amount of ridiculousness with a bit of emotion thrown in, and it had me laughing and hooked through the whole thing. I can’t say that about most episodes.
However, despite all my negativity about the more serious aspects of the show, there is enough good writing to keep me invested in the characters. Even though the drama and bad decisions that BoJack make get tired and annoying after a while, you still want to root for him to get his shit together. Even though the relationship between Mr. Peanutbutter and Diane seems rocky in an overdone way, you still want them to be happy. And Princess Caroline has the right amount of life problems, mostly stemming from her internal struggle over having a stable life or pushing her career ever forward, and the right amount of humor and sass to balance each other out and make her probably one of the most complex and interesting characters on the show.
The short summary is that BoJack Horseman needs to stop taking itself so seriously. The writing needs to scale back on the drama and integrate a lot more of the wacky humor that keeps me interested in the show. And it needs to lose the common sitcom tropes! It’s kind of sad when a show with a neat premise like animals and humans living together ends up not doing anything original with that premise (what I call Third Rock From the Sun syndrome).
I do look forward to season three just to see if the writers learned anything from the first two seasons. If not… well, Netflix has a lot of other things to watch.