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TV Review: ‘BoJack Horseman,’ Season 3

Netflix's brilliant, genre-defying animated comedy starring Will Arnett as a horse returns for a third season that is just as hard to sell as the first two

With:
Will Arnett, Amy Sedaris, Alison Brie, Paul F. Tompkins. With Aaron Paul.

In the seventh episode of the third season of “BoJack Horseman,” the idea is raised to make the for-your-consideration advertisements for BoJack’s film “Secretariat” into reflective surfaces that show the viewer his or her own image — tiny, cheap, plastic mirrors, for magazines and billboards and blimps.

The awards race for BoJack’s film is the spine for most of the third season of the Netflix comedy, after last season dealt with getting the film made. “BoJack Horseman” is an enthusiastically metatextual take on Hollywood, so every onerous detail of the idiotically long awards process is accounted for and summarily mocked, from hiring an awards publicist to choosing FYC posters.

Which brings us back to the mirrors. In the stack of already rejected pictures of his face, BoJack is transfixed by his reflection, staring back at him with “YOU ARE SECRETARIAT” across the top. The awards race has drained him; the more his team promotes his image, the less he feels like himself. Later, as he’s having sex with a woman he barely knows, he asks if he could come over to her apartment some time. She tells him that he doesn’t want to know. “No, I do! I want to be known, and know others!” But as he says it — as Will Arnett voices it — it has a tinge of desperation. After all, he wants the mirrors for the advertisements because when he looks at them, they reflect himself. And once he makes the call to put mirrors all over the city, the negative consequences of large-scale self-reflection become increasingly apparent. In addition to the sunbeams going straight into commuters’ eyes, birds flying to work keep colliding with the billboards.

On the cusp of the release of its third season, “BoJack Horseman” is still as hard a sell as ever. The show is an animated comedy about loneliness and addiction in Hollywoo (the “D” got destroyed in the first season, and they never bothered to fix it), starring Arnett as a washed-up sitcom star who is also a talking horse. But as viewers realized last season, beyond the surreal quirks of animals playing Hollywoo executives and creative professionals, “BoJack Horseman” offered a story about coming to terms with depression and finding a way to cope with it. It’s not exactly new for an animated series to take on adult themes — whether that implies intellectually sophisticated concepts or bad language and worse behavior. But it is rare for an animated show about animals to transcend the distance of a pen-and-ink medium and the willing suspension of disbelief to feel so, well, human. What “BoJack Horseman” asserted in its second season was that it could be quirky, slapstick, and emotionally resonant, all at once.

The third season isn’t quite what the second season was. In some ways, that’s a shame: The second season had a tight arc that both deployed some fantastic storytelling and demonstrated the show’s myriad abilities. The third season isn’t nearly so neatly constructed; the end of the season feels less like a conclusion and more like a plateau. But without the smooth lines of deliberate plotting, the show is able to find some really brilliant sweet spots. The season’s fourth episode, where BoJack goes to an underwater film festival, is probably the greatest episode of the show’s run to date — a miniature silent film encountering the vast incomprehensibility of the universe, in the guise of BoJack shilling for “Secretariat.”

And — in a way that feels essential to the canon of television about flawed people — Season 3 rather ruthlessly dismantles the notion that BoJack’s path to redemption is easy or even possible. The show cannily maintains both the audience’s investment in BoJack as a fundamentally good person (horse-person) and the character’s cycles of addiction and despair, dragging us half-willingly into BoJack’s world of damaged relationships and ill-advised benders. The season is more a collection of standalone episodes than ever — the underwater episode is joined by an abortion episode, a flashback episode, a restaurant-centric bottle episode, and one that is just a very long customer-service phone call — and the variation in theme and substance make for a season that feels more like an anthology than a novel.

What does remain constant is the show’s subtle appreciation for its characters — an investment in character that is easy to overlook, given the show’s talking animals and animated action scenes. Three years in, the relationships on “BoJack Horseman” are surprisingly textured, whether that is the mangled business-personal-romantic relationship he has with every woman in his life or his evolving friendship with/tolerance of permanent couch-crasher Todd (Aaron Paul). The show is often not about BoJack at all, as it pursues Princess Carolyn’s (Amy Sedaris) recurring work-life struggles and Diane (Alison Brie) and Mr. Peanutbutter’s (Paul F. Tompkins) difficulties in keeping their marriage together. In season three, the characters are more far-flung than ever, but what keeps the show together is its focus on the social fabric they are all embedded in — the seductive ravages of fame and the punishing toll of attempting to be creative in Hollywood.

Underneath the clever wordplay, cutting observations about the industry, and surprisingly biologically specific commentary on humanoid animals, “BoJack Horseman” may also be our most revealing document about television’s evolution since the ’90s. BoJack was once the star of a family sitcom à la “Full House,” but turned into a drunk sad sack with long, moody stretches of introspection. Flashbacks are depicted as if they are being played on a VCR, which is particularly ironic given the news that VCRs are officially obsolete. Last season, a character who had been in a coma for 30 years was put in charge of a broadcast network; one of her first acts was to make Mr. Peanutbutter the host of an idiotic game show called “Hollywoo Stars and Celebrities: What Do They Know? Do They Know Things?? Let’s Find Out!”

In this season, BoJack is attempting to rehab his image as a sitcom has-been by getting acclaim for his film role, but the prestige of film fails to change him. He stumbles through all kinds of potential paths — the young adult franchise, the gritty indie flick, A-list fame, a vanity drama series at a too-accommodating network, and even a spin-off series to “Horsin’ Around.” But the promises of success, or happiness, for acting in one of those vehicles becomes conflated with the fiction of contentment presented within those stories. This is one of the perils of knowing too much about how the sausage is made; you both are the sausage and the sausage-maker, in a back-and-forth that can grind up the soul. With its jaundiced eye towards the industry, “BoJack Horseman” expresses deep cynicism towards what corporatized, entertaining narratives do for people. It’s a loving cynicism, one that comes from deep investment in pop culture. And it makes the show canny, in a way that is really unparalleled on television, about the particular frustrations of a deeply pop-culture immersed audience, one that is doubtful of convenient narratives of happiness even as it watches, via Netflix, an entertaining little collection of episodes.

This may be why, in direct opposition to the world it’s so fascinated with, “BoJack Horseman” defies easily defined genres and neatly resolved arcs. The show embraces those arenas of experience underserved by television, in the knowledge that so many of us, like its characters, have substituted pop culture for intimacy. This season, with frank clarity, it confronts the idea that maybe most people really don’t change or grow or learn much at all; it’s not just BoJack that is stuck in an endlessly iterating pattern, with a few different grace notes each time. It is, in essence, holding up a mirror to us, a networked, mass-media saturated audience. Of course, as BoJack learns the hard way, mirrors are a terrible way to sell things. No one really wants to self-reflect that much. Which is why this lovely, stubborn, brilliant little show will always be a hard sell for new viewers. But sometimes that which isn’t packaged neatly is the best product of all.

Popular on Variety

TV Review: 'BoJack Horseman,' Season 3

Comedy, 12 episodes (12 reviewed): Netflix, Fri. July 22, midnight. 30 min.

Crew: Executive producers, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Steven A. Cohen, Noel Bright, Blair Fetter, Andy Weil, Jane Wiseman, Will Arnett, Aaron Paul

Cast: Will Arnett, Amy Sedaris, Alison Brie, Paul F. Tompkins. With Aaron Paul.

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