Okay, so, this is the fourth of the add-ons, and unless something amazing comes on before I finish the last 22 entries of this list, there will only be one more. Given that I write this before Season 2 of Stranger Things comes out, I might already be setting myself up for failure, but this is probably going to be it.
BoJack Horseman, the show, is weird. It takes place in a world where humans regularly interact with anthropomorphic animals as if it’s just a natural part of existence. It also takes place in Hollywoo (the D gets stolen and then destroyed), a place that, regardless of which universe you’re in, is filled with so many fake identities and false personas that an animated talking horse isn’t that much different than some of the real people. Because of the setting being so distanced from reality, however, the show can address issues that most shows probably couldn’t without significantly more backlash. However, most of those are not fun issues.
The show follows the title character (Will Arnett), a washed-up actor who had a long-running Full House-esque 90s family sitcom called “Horsin’ Around.” During the first season, we follow BoJack trying to get some of his fame back by releasing a ghostwritten biography. The human ghostwriter, Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), is also the girlfriend, and later wife, of Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), an anthropomorphic dog that had a show that was essentially a rip-off of Horsin’ Around. We’re also introduced to the human homeless slacker who sleeps in BoJack’s house, Todd (Aaron Paul) and his agent/ex-girlfriend Princess Carolyn (Amy “I deserve more work than I get” Sedaris). The second season depicts him filming the role of a lifetime in “Secretariat,” and this season, the third, features him trying to win an Oscar for Best Actor (despite the fact that he actually had been replaced by a CGI version of himself, meaning he did no actual acting in the film).
Part of the theme of the show is the nature of happiness. BoJack, who, during the course of the series, has a fortune from residuals, gets a best-selling biography, and finally a starring role in the movie he dreamed of forever, is one of the most lonely and miserable people in existence. He is constantly either questioning why he isn’t happy, or finding a way to distract himself from being happy, usually with sex, drugs, and hijinks. He doesn’t connect with people, despite the fact that he keeps becoming progressively more popular. His relationships are shown to be self-sabotaging, his friendships consist mostly of him screwing other people over or doing selfish things that drive wedges between them, and his family, until the most recent season, consists only of his horribly abusive mother (whose backstory is actually even more tragic than BoJack’s, when revealed). BoJack almost always chooses to do the easy thing, or the selfish thing, and yet even when that’s pointed out to him, he never manages to really change himself (though, in the most recent season, he actually shows signs of being better).
This is made even more stark when he is paired with his counterpart Mr. Peanutbutter, who, like most dogs, is almost unwaveringly happy, even though he also has dark events in his past. While BoJack is intelligent and hesitates on almost anything, Mr. Peanutbutter tends to not think things through and blindly charge ahead on any idea, even insane ones, if he thinks it’s a good thing to do. Despite his hesitation, however, BoJack does often want to do the right thing. He’s not necessarily a traditional bad person, he’s just horribly weak. Many episodes end with his weakness or irresponsibility hurting someone, even if he didn’t mean to, and BoJack trying to avoid responsibility. This episode, however, goes the other way. And it does so with almost no dialogue, making it more impressive.
When the episode starts, BoJack is headed to Pacific Ocean City to promote his film Secretariat for the Pacific Oceanic Film Festival (a POFF piece… get it? Sometimes they don’t have to try that hard). As the festival’s name indicates, it’s underwater, and BoJack wears a helmet that prevents him from speaking. Meanwhile, all the underwater residents, mostly fish and sea-mammals, speak what sounds like gibberish to air-breathers. So, once he’s underwater, dialogue stops being a thing. Most of the citizens communicate with air-breathers by pantomime. BoJack first ends up accidentally causing a scandal, of which he is completely unaware, but we see in the background of the episode, by giving a thumbs-up, which is the most offensive gesture underwater.
He then sees the ex-director of the Secretariat film, Kelsey, whom he did not stick up for after she got dismissed for shooting a scene the producers didn’t agree with, and attempts to write her an apology note that is designed to avoid any personal responsibility. In the process of trying to give it to her, he ends up on a bus going out of the city, then gets caught up delivering the babies of a very pregnant, and, accurately, male, seahorse. After getting off the bus, now lost and without any money or way of communicating, BoJack finds that one of the seahorse babies has clung to him. The rest of the episode is a series of colorful and entertaining shenanigans while BoJack tries to return the baby. When he finally does, the seahorse dad is not particularly appreciative, at first ignoring him, then offering soup, then money. Finally, the seahorse dad appears to ask “what do you want?” and BoJack, suddenly without the purpose he had for the episode, does not have an answer. On the way back into the city, he manages to write a heartfelt, sincere apology-note to Kelsey that takes responsibility for his actions. When he finally gets it to her, however, the ink has blurred, because they’re underwater, and Kelsey leaves angrily. Just to drive home his failure, it’s then revealed that the helmets have a function allowing for speech, BoJack just didn’t know to use it.
Okay, first of all, any episode that manages to keep you entertained without dialogue is impressive. There are a few others on this list, and for good reason. They engage the mind in a way that being told something doesn’t. It allows us to project ourselves more completely onto a character, as well as to think more deeply by forcing us to interpret non-verbal cues. That’s always a good start. Putting our main character into an unfamiliar situation, both in terms of location and in actions within the episode is also brilliant. The latter, though, is really what makes this episode. BoJack causes a scandal in his usual fashion, but that’s put in the background. Instead, we focus on BoJack trying to do something good, for which he doesn’t seek attention or reward. He’s trying to return a lost baby, and he goes through some harsh trials to do it. He’s actually pretty heroic. He even manages to write a completely uncharacteristic apology, contrasting with everything he usually does. But, ultimately, he fails to deliver it, and, at the end, he’s still miserable, and by the next episode is unchanged.
Change begets change, but that only goes so far. A new job or a new city may be an opportunity to redefine yourself, but, deep down, you are still you, and changing that is harder. In this episode, they speed up the process by completely changing everything around BoJack, allowing his better angels to prevail, for once. And what’s the term for something else that has had everything around him changed? A fish out of water. Sometimes they do work hard on these.
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Episode’s on Netflix. Watch it.