Friday, May 5, 2017

Top 12 Episodes of Bojack Horseman (Seasons 1-3)

It's not you, you tell yourself.
It's the bad thing you did.

Bojack Horseman is one of those shows that sneaks up on you.  It makes you laugh, gets you interested in the characters, and even makes you roll your eyes at its ridiculousness.  Then it rips your heart out.  What begins as a relatively simple idea (a washed up celebrity who's an asshole, but deep down wants to do something better with his life) evolves into a brutally honest and thought-provoking dark comedy.  Bojack wears its disdain and love for Hollywood culture (or if we want to be accurate, Hollywoo culture) on its sleeve while giving insight into the psychologies of people living in the 21st century.  Its world is surprisingly well-developed world, and has tons of fun with the idea that it just so happens to feature anthropomorphic animals living alongside humans.  Yet despite the belly laughs, there's something addictive about the show's sadness.  I watched the show front to back on Netflix last summer, but felt unusually compelled to watch the entire series over again.  By myself.  It's a show that has consumed a little part of my life, and I hear it does the same for many others.  Why in the world does a Flash animated show about a talking horse mean so much to me?   Here are my top twelve favorite episodes of Bojack Horseman.  This isn't an ordered list, just the episodes presented chronologically.

Honorable mentions go to The Telescope, Later, Sabrina's Christmas Wish, and every episode from seasons two and three.

Say Anything
Season 1, Episode 7

You know the worst part?  
I knew this was gonna happen, and I let myself get excited anyway.

Bojack Horseman's first six episodes are not bad, but they're not great.  Character dynamics are finding their footing, and the comedy is great here and there, but the show feels very derivative of Family Guy, Archer, and Ugly Americans.  I also generally dislike Flash animation (though if it's done well, like it is here, I can live with it).  Bojack lacked an identity up until episode seven, and I'd argue that it contains a single moment that changes the show fundamentally.  Bojack gets Princess Carolyn's hopes up that things might actually actually work with their relationship, but then he breaks her heart again.  She tries to pick herself up, melt into her career persona, and do the best damn job she can.  But it's still not enough, and as she looks out her office window, alone and empty, the calendar on her phone rings and says, "Happy Birthday, Princess Carolyn."  "Thanks, phone," she says.  "You are forty," it replies.

That moment is so unexpected, and executed so perfectly, that it makes my heart sink.  Somehow, I feel genuinely sad for this pink cartoon cat woman.  Although the following episode, The Telescope, is technically better (and tells more backstory), I think I admire this one more because of the perspective shift. This is Princess Carolyn's story for once, not Bojack's.  It's the first sign that this isn't going to be a one-horse show about depression; it's an ensemble piece of sadness.

Downer Ending
Season 1, Episode 11

I spend a lot of time with the real me, 
and believe me, nobody's gonna love that guy.

Finally, eleven episodes in, Bojack Horseman delivers its first masterpiece.  Downer Ending revolves around Bojack's attempts to rewrite the memoirs of his life after Diane reveals her version, "One Trick Pony," which is far too honest for his liking.  He does the classic procrastination routine, blaming Todd for being in the way, cleaning things that didn't need to be cleaned, buying and returning a vacuum, etc., but then things get freaky.  He calls his ex-co-star Sarah Lynn from Horsin' Around to come over and help brainstorm.  And by brainstorm, he means take a lot of drugs.  Things get surreal pretty quickly, and after experiencing some hilarious and creepy hallucinations (featuring some of the show's best animation), the drug trip takes on a somber tone.  Bojack sees life as it could have been, living quietly in a cabin by a lake with Charlotte, a (deer) woman he only briefly knew over twenty years ago.  Deep down, it seems, he wishes he'd taken a different road, but now he feels like it's too late.  When the dream ends (with extreme brutality), Bojack has an epiphany that forces him to bear his soul to Diane at a public panel for ghost writers. Will Arnett's performance heartbreaking as he begs with desperation for her to tell him that it's not too late for him to change, and that deep down he's a good person.  And she doesn't.  That silence is aching and unnerving.  As she tells him next episode, she doesn't think that there is a "deep down;" all you are is what you do.

Hank After Dark
Season 2, Episode 7

I'm Hank Hippopopalous.  Who the hell are you?

In its second and third seasons, Bojack Horseman tackles social issues with unflinching gusto.  Hank After Dark opens what may be a fresh wound for some, but it's a topic that absolutely needs to be talked about; celebrities (male in this case) do horrible things and get away with them because they're well-liked.  Diane, against just about everyone's wishes, calls attention to a TV personality named Hank Hippopopalous who did "something" to eight of his former assistants.  The vagueness of that "something" is a tasteful way to go about this topic, and makes the real-world parallels to the actual celebrities with numerous sexual allegations against them all the more insertable.  The real kicker of this episode is, once again, at the very end.  Diane has lost; the magazine that was going to pursue the story has dropped it, Mr. Peanutbutter is hurt that she led this hopeless crusade at all, and as she sits at the airport waiting to fly to war-torn Cordovia alone, a man sitting next to her tells her to "smile."  It's an affecting moment that represents the patronizing nature of traditional male chauvinism that still exists; it encapsulates the sad truth that even if things have gotten better for women in 21st century, there's still a long ways to go.

Let's Find Out
Season 2, Episode 8

I want to feel good about myself, the way you do... I don't know if I can.

Don't let all this talk about depression and dark subject matter fool you.  Bojack Horseman's comedy is wonderfully inventive, ranging from puns and parodies to background details that you'll probably miss the first time.  The episode finds Mr. Peanutbutter (who quickly developed from being an annoying wannabe to being ridiculously lovable) the host of his own game show, headed by the not-dead-after-all J.D. Salinger (author of Catcher in the Rye and... others...), where celebrities come on to answer trivia questions.  Bojack and Mr. Peanutbutter's finally take on some weight; PB lets out some pent up feeling about how Bojack's always treated him like a joke when all he wanted to do was be his friend, plus he reveals that he knows about the time Bojack kissed Diane.  We get a sense that PB isn't as naive as he appears, and it makes him all the more endearing.  When the happy-go-lucky Mr. Peanutbutter gets angry, shit's gettin' real.  Add to that the guest appearance from Daniel Radcliffe and the absurdities of the game show itself (which is aptly titled Hollywoo Stars and Celebrities: What Do They Know? Do They Know Things?? Let's Find Out!) and you get an incredibly funny episode that adds dimension to the characters. Oh, and let's not forget the reconciliation kiss, which totally steals the show.

The Shot
Season 2, Episode 9

I don't cry in front of other people.

Bojack's horrible childhood informs a lot of his character.  His parents were assholes, and they raised an asshole.  I found their portrayal problematic in a few of their featured flashbacks; they're so over-the-top awful that Bojack's abuse is sort of played for laughs, and it really shouldn't be.  In The Shot, however, the flashback scene is dead on.  Little Bojack sees Secretariat smoking a cigarette on TV, so he steals one from his mother's purse.  When his mother catches him, she makes him finish it, and tells him never to cry.  At the end of the episode, we realize that this was all setup for a devistating payoff, when Kelsey (Secretariat's director) gives Bojack the motivation he needs to cry by telling him that he's broken, echoing the words of his mother from Brand New Couch earlier in the season.  He doesn't cry on camera, but they got the shot.  When Bojack goes outside to smoke after the scene, he has a sudden and heartbreaking meltdown (and you'll notice from now on that Bojack is only seen smoking when he's at his lowest).  The show rarely uses the word "depressed," instead calling characters "broken," and it's much more meaningful.

In between all this, we get a great story with Princess Carolyn starting her own business with Rutabaga Rabbitowitz (and mentally disappearing into a painting fantasy land), more fantastic comedy during a police shoot-out involving Character Actress Margo Martindale, and surprisingly endearing moments between Bojack and Kelsey as they sneak away from the studio to get the titular shot.  My heart sinks a lot during this show, but this was the first time I was hit with three in a row: the reveal that Diane is lying to Mr. Peanutbutter about staying in Cordovia, then Bojack's breakdown, followed by Kelsey's firing.  It opens up new issues for all of the characters (except Todd, because he's Todd), and in terms of heart-wrenching plot developments, this is only the beginning.  Bojack broke the mold of its genre trappings a long time ago, but in case you had any doubts, the show makes it clear that actions will have consequences, comedy won't be used as a crutch to break up intense situations, and anything can happen.  Viewers, you have been warned.

Escape From L.A.
Season 2, Episode 11

You make me too sad.

If I were ranking these episodes, Escape from L.A. would be my number one.  This one cuts like a knife, very slowly and very painfully.  After abandoning the Secretariat set in pursuit of a simpler life in New Mexico with Charlotte, Bojack moves in with her family and gets to know her husband Kyle and her teenage kids Penny and Trip (accompanied by a pitch-perfect sitcom intro song).  Things are looking good at first; he buys a boat as part of his ruse for why he's there in the first place, and two months breeze right by.  He loves the family life, and even starts to take on a persona similar to the one he played on Horsin' Around.  But you just know this won't last, and after taking Penny to the prom to make her feel better, it starts to get... scary.  You hope and pray that the writers aren't going where you think they're going, but one situation leads to another, and Bojack falls back into self-destruct mode.  He almost makes a giant mistake, and when Charlotte catches him, the show's one f-bomb per season standard is positively heart-stopping.  The sequence that follows is the most vibrant and iconic moment of the show: Bojack sits on his boat as a tow truck takes him back to L.A. (his boat is named "Escape From L.A." for added irony) as the excellence of his jazzy theme song blasts away.

This is a portrait a (horse) man who is incapable of finding sustainable happiness, because he sabotages every chance he gets at it, and as a viewer by this point, you've come to actually care. Littered throughout the episode are great jokes (Penny's social life stories, Bojack teaching high schoolers how to drink like classy adults), beautiful imagery (the balloons with glow sticks attached floating in a starry sky is particularly lovely), and Jesse Novak absolutely kills it with the music.  It's sort of a bottle episode, not really checking in with with Princess Carolyn, Todd, or the other major characters.  But it might just be the most important episode of the show for Bojack, opening a whole world of character development, and setting the base for what will ultimately propel his downward spiral in season three.  The scene where Charlotte opens the door and finds Penny in Bojack's boat is genuinely disturbing, and that's thanks to a radically perfect combination of staging, writing, acting, and music.  It's a hell of a moment in a hell of a show.

The Bojack Horseman Show
Season 3, Episode 2

2007! Is that what time it is?  
I gotta get my Uggs on and get to work!

It's funny to think that 2007 was already a decade ago, and how certain things have changed so much.  Prominent figures in pop culture, music tastes, fashions, flip phones, HD-DVD players, Blockbuster... this episode brilliantly exploits the year for its dated trends while giving great backstory to just about all the main characters.  Some of it actually adds depth to previous episodes (Princess Carolyn's story being the most tragic upon rewatch) and other elements are introduced that will pay off later in the season, such as Todd's first girlfriend, Emily.  The main story, however, revolves around Bojack teaming up with a successful producer named Cuddleywhiskers (who's produced such hits as Krill and Grace).  They attempt to make a new comedy show that will be daring, creative, and fresh.  What they end up with is a total disaster, but there's so much fun watching them get there.  Meanwhile, we get to see how Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter met, hear some great voice talent added to the cast (Jeffrey Wright, Abbi Jacobson), and finally understand what happened to the ending of The SopranosLet's Find Out is hilarious to be sure, but I think The Bojack Horseman Show wins the award for funniest episode of the series so far.

Fish Out of Water
Season 3, Episode 4

I haven't been underwater since my mother tried to 
drown me in the bathtub when I was twenty-two...

Bojack Horseman excels at mixing self-contained episodes with its season-long arcs, which means a good amount of stories stand on their own when viewed out of context.  Fish Out of Water might be the best example of this, an episode that takes the challenging idea of "the silent episode" and hits the ground running.  Bojack is attending a screening of Secretariat at the Pacific Ocean Film Festival, in an underwater city inhabited by fish people and other sea creatures.  Bojack is forced to wear a helmet that lets him breathe, but doesn't allow him to indulge in his usual vices; he can't talk to anyone, smoke, or drink.  Noticing Kelsey at the festival, Bojack tries to write her an apology letter, but it all ends up sounding like schmaltzy bullshit.  Through a series of chaos, he ends up stuck with a baby seahorse, and embarks on an odd journey to get him back to his father.  This is where the animation really shines; much as I'd like the show more if it were traditionally animated, I can't deny that the artists have an absolute blast with the undersea location, colors, and visual gags.  Jesse Novak, once again, absolutely nails the scoring, and "Sea of Dreams" by Oberhofer adds so much to the episode it could be its own character.

This is another bottle episode that doesn't cut back to the ensemble cast or give us a B-plot; it's just Bojack and this naked baby seahorse on a wacky adventure.  I wasn't exactly choked up by the scene where Bojack has to give the baby seahorse back to his father (probably because it was inevitable), but I was genuinely moved by what Bojack eventually writes to Kelsey:

In this terrifying world, all we have are the connections that we make.  I'm sorry I got you fired. I'm sorry I never called you after.

It doesn't matter so much that he didn't get to give it to her (although that moment was frustrating), what's important is that he's not the same (horse) man he was thirty years ago.   It may be too late to say anything to Herb, whose falling out with was under similar circumstances, but what's important here is that the last two years have fundamentally changed Bojack.  He's not the thoughtless, uncaring asshole we met in episode one, and there may be hope for him yet.

Brrap Brrap, Pew Pew
Season 3, Episode 6

Alien's inside me... Gonna squash it like Sigourney...

This was a bold move.  Abortion is a tricky subject, and if a TV series were to claim that it has all the answers, things would get problematic very quickly.  The episode centers around Diane after she finds out she's pregnant and doesn't want to have the baby (which Mr. Peanutbutter supports her on). As the official media coordinator of pop singer Sextina Aquafina, Diane mistakenly tweets that she's having an abortion, and the media world is in a frenzy.  Some think it's brave, others think it's awful, and Sextina exploits the hell out of the situation.  She releases a song about killing babies with ludicrously graphic lyrics and a dark sci-fi music video, and I unapologetically laughed my ass off the  whole time when I saw it.  This show has had great musical moments before, but Brrap Brrap, Pew Pew reaches a whole new level of dark comedy.

So what's the takeaway from all this?  There are no easy solutions, but one thing's for sure: it won't be decided by old men in bow ties, sitting around a table.  Princess Carolyn, who's expressed the desire to have children since the first episode, is understandably frustrated with Diane's decision, clearly envying her opportunity.  But at the end of the episode, as Diane starts to talk about why she had the abortion, Princess Carolyn tells her, "You don't need to explain anything.  To anyone."  It really shows just how far their relationship has come (it was just last season that Diane had to remind PC that they knew each other already... and that she came to her wedding).

If I have a qualm with the episode, it's the Bojack/Ana Spanikopita story.  I always found Ana to be a scary character, and as Bojack's intimidating publicist, she works really well.  But as a love interest?  Even with her guard down in later episodes, she's not a likable person, and I don't feel empathy towards her.  And the way she... violates Bojack at the end of this episode... it's all kinds of wrong, and the show doesn't acknowledge it.  Still, it's a great episode with some of the funniest "sign" gags the show's produced (among many, many great sign gags), and it has something legitimate and poignant to say about such a controversial issue.

Best Thing that Ever Happened
Season 3, Episode 9

I think if you're good at putting out fires, you just run from fire to fire...

Things between Bojack and Princess Carolyn come to a head once again in Best Thing That Ever Happened, another bottle episode that features some of the best drama and comedy the show has to offer.  After PC gets cocky and loses Bojack all three of his potential projects (including one with Kelsey that he actually really wanted to do), Bojack fires her.  The ensuing fight gets real between them, and if you've been following the show closely up until this point, the words Bojack and PC say to each other cut deeply, and can't be unsaid.  All the while, a food critic is visiting Bojack's restaurant and the head chef has quit (he thought he was the one getting fired), so between the personal and dramatic moments we are treated to some amazing bits as the restaurant's sole waiter is forced to get the place in order.

What makes the back and forth between Bojack and PC so effective is that it's built on things we've witnessed for thirty-three episodes.  They are both such flawed people, and while PC isn't perfect, Bojack has done far worse to her than she has to him.  By the end, she's earned that second chance to make it up for her mistake, but Bojack still rejects her.  It's a devastating note to leave the episode on, and whatever lies ahead for them in season four, their relationship will never be the same.  What makes the fight cut even deeper is that they honestly love each other, but they just can't keep their professional lives and their personal feelings separate (a direct contrast to what PC claims she can do with supernatural ease in the very first episode).

That's Too Much, Man!
Season 3, Episode 11

The only thing that matters right now is this moment.  
This one, spectacular moment that we are sharing together.

This is, beyond all other rock bottoms that Bojack has encountered, the furthest down he can go. After finding out he wasn't nominated for an Oscar, and severing his ties to Princess Carolyn, Todd, and Diane, he has no one left to stop him from destroying himself.  He calls the one person he knows won't judge him, Sarah Lynn, who's been nine months sober and is ready to party.  They go on an epic bender: drugs, alcohol, nitrous and bath salts, Horsin' Around marathons... it's a mess.  Bojack starts to black out and miss huge gaps in their binge, allowing the story to quickly transport Bojack to situations that are so funny I can't describe, and others that uncover the meat of his pain.  The horrible things he's done to his friends and the incident with Penny in New Mexico are weighing heavily on his mind, and in his inebriated state, he decides to make amends to everyone.  This goes about as well as expected (maybe even a little worse).  I love the change to Bojack's design for much of this episode; the artists give him sleepless eyes and sweat-stained clothes to reflect the broken mess that usually stays better-hidden.

The episode ceases to be a comedy in its last few minutes.  Kristen Schaal brings her A-game as Sarah Lynn, digging deep to deliver dialogue where she admits that she doesn't like anything about herself.  It's genuinely heartbreaking, and she and Bojack finally make a loving connection, or at least it feels like one.  Then there's that planetarium scene.  Good Lord, the planetarium scene.  An end credits stinger has rarely been used so effectively, and so damn painfully, than when Bojack repeats Sarah Lynn's name over and over and gets no response.  Sarah Lynn may not have been the most developed character, but the innocent-turned-hyper-sexual tendancies of child stars is extraordinarily sad once it stops being funny, and I've never before seen it demonstrated with such honesty.  Bojack Horseman has ended on down notes before, but this is just too much, man.

That Went Well
Season 3, Episode 12

Spaghetti or not, here I come.

After the previous episode, That Went Well almost feels like a breather.  The horrible guilt that Bojack has over Sarah Lynn's death can't be solaced, but Diane tries to comfort him by revealing that during her shitty childhood, Horsin' Around was her escape, even if it was just for a half hour each week.  It inspires Bojack to do the spinoff show with his ex-co-star Brad, and things are going fine at first.  There are direct parallels to those Horsin' Around flashback scenes where Bojack was ignorant, self-absorbed, and nasty to the child actors.  Now he's kind, encouraging, and even fatherly.  But then the guilt washes over him again, and he realizes that perpetuating this cycle is going to just hurt more people.  All the while, we get hilarious payoff to most of the season's scattered elements when a boating accident causes them to collide; the reflective Secretariat ads, the former chef at Bojack's restaurant, Character Actress Margo Martindale and Bojack's stolen boat, the underwater city, Cabracadabra, and finally, Mr. Peanutbutter's house (the house, obviously) full of spaghetti strainers.  The chain of events causing everything to culminate is so ludicrous and funny, I'm not even mad that the climax happens offscreen.

After all the craziness, Todd admits to Emily that he's having trouble with his sexual identity, which is a bold and welcomed move on the writers' parts.  Princess Carolyn also demonstrates that she just can't relax and have a normal life, and falls right back into her old ways.  Meanwhile, Mr. Peanutbutter gets an offer to run for governor, which could lead to all sorts of wacky hi-jinks.  Also potential terrible pain, but I expect nothing less from this show.

We always have a story.

As Bojack drives his car along an empty highway, he lets go of the wheel.  The Nina Simone song "Stars" plays in the background, summing up an empty life spent in the limelight.  He lets go of the wheel, ready to end it all.  End the flow of poison that's infected him and everyone around him for good.  And then something happens that gives me chills every time; he sees other horse people running in the desert.  Free, sweating, and alive. He stops the car and gets out, just looking at them.  He says nothing, but it's clear that he has some kind of epiphany.  He thought he wanted to play Secretariat, but the truth is, he's always wanted to be Secretariat; to take the advice he was given by Secretariat on TV all those years ago, and just keep running.  His mother convinced him that all he was good for was to entertain and to try to win people's love, but the truth is, horses need to run.  This moment reaches a different kind of perfection than the boat bedroom scene from Escape From L.A.  Whereas that scene plays out like a horror movie with an ending fueled by intense negative emotions, That Went Well achieves a sort of heartwarming beauty that has not failed to make me cry every time I see it.  Despite the cliffhangers involving the ensemble characters, this would have been an immensely satisfying way to finish Bojack's story; a hopeful, bittersweet ending to one of the funniest, saddest, and most well-written and acted shows on TV today. Well, technically it's on the internet, but what's the difference nowadays?

My list unfortunately doesn't give me the opportunity to talk much about other wonderful characters like Vincent Adultman, or Todd's hilarious side stories, or commend the extensive voice cast, including Alison Brie, Paul F. Tompkins, Amy Sedaris, Aaron Paul, etc., or marvel at the celebrity cameos and guest appearances.  I think it's an extremely underrated show, perhaps because on its surface, it looks like just another crass, adult comedy cartoon.  But wow, it is so much more than that.  It has genuine heart.  Despite my satisfaction with how season three ended, I eagerly await season four.  Can it top itself, or have we already seen the best that Bojack can offer?  Let's find out.