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Why a cartoon horse is the best thing on TV

In a world of instantly streamed international entertainment, we all hold the same remote control. Here’s what to point it at

A still from ‘Bojack Horseman’ .
A still from ‘Bojack Horseman’ . (A still from ‘Bojack Horseman’ .)

“Cameron Crowe is a raven." - Me.

Recommending a show you really like is harder than it may seem. You desperately want someone you care about to give enough of a damn to push something to the front of their long and winding media queue, but you don’t want to give too much away. You want to save the delights and surprises for the show itself. You need to tease them with the gist, not spoil something you love.

Plus, what do you say about Bojack Horseman anyway? That it’s a very adult animated series? That it tells us about a washed up actor who used to be famous in the 90s? That it’s a Hollywood satire, about the fleeting nature of fame? Take a look around the television landscape. For better or worse, we live in a world where none of these things are differentiators.

Hence my raven line.

Bojack Horseman takes place in a world much like ours, with anthropomorphic animals added to the scene. Bojack, as is evident, is a horse, a has-been sitcom star jonesing for some relevance, for some share of the Hollywood spotlight. Actually, let me correct that: Sometime during the first season, a drunken Bojack steals the D from the HOLLYWOOD sign, and from that point on, Los Angeles acknowledges its new label and is known simply and forever as Hollywoo. The Hollywoo spotlight, then.

It starts off relatively simple, a highly talented cast taking on a scathing send-up. We see Bojack fumble through the absurdities of small-time celebrity, a self-obsessed C-lister dreaming forever of the big-time.

(As an aside, I must wonder: does American television just want us to love their comics forever? The former sitcom-star premise has become a trope in itself, with low-rent Sunset Boulevardiers spreadeagled all over television schedules like wrinkly, retro centrefolds. Everyone who used to tell jokes to a laugh track is now unfunny and old, and cable TV insists their unshiny life is poignant to the point of Emmy Nominations. Anyway, I digress.)

Bojack’s quest for a sixteenth minute of fame would make a fine comedy in itself, but somewhere through the conversations these jaded, animated characters keep having makes it clear that this show is about more than just (sublime) visual gags and terrific voice acting. Drunken disagreement, profound scolding, squabbles between couples stretched well past their sell-by date… There is a heartbreaking amount of existential unease. This show might be peopled by two-dimensional cartoons but it is, frighteningly, far from flat.

A highly nuanced and emotionally aware study of ego and narcissism, the show fearlessly digs deep. As Bojack’s life gets screwier and screwier, the show heads into profoundly depressing directions — while staying phenomenally funny — and I reckon creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg only made this an animated comedy in order to keep us from breaking down and killing ourselves. It cuts too close to the bone.

This year, Bojack is told he’s an Oscar nominee. “How do you feel?" asks his agent and current girlfriend, Ana Spanikopita, played breathlessly by Angela Bassett. Bojack — at the high point of his career following a racehorse biopic where his performance was replaced by a computer-generated double — has no words. He’s lived quite a life and let down many, many friends, and now he has what he thinks he wants. Will Arnett, who voices Bojack, clears his throat. “I feel… the same."

The writing is magnificent. This is a staggeringly self-aware show that shoots down self-pity, and rests on glorious conceits like that of Wanda Pierce, an owl who has been in a 30-year coma, and, upon waking — and realising a three-decade gulf in her pop-culture — is promptly made a high-ranking executive at a television network. It is a show where the Oscar nominations envelope is presided over by a pair of sinister monks called Brother Pricewater and Brother Housecoopers, and where Bojack declares the need to party. But not just any party. “We gotta party like it’s 1982, the year Prince released 1999."

Amen to that, you doomed roman candle of a hero, you.

Anyway, back to the raven. In this show a dolphin is a popstar, penguins run Penguin publishing and — here’s my odd way to sell this lovely lunacy to you — filmmaker Cameron Crowe is a raven. Everyone assumes he’s a crow because of his last name, Crowe asserts wearily, but even after he points out the truth, the difference doesn’t matter.

What matters is that this melancholic Netflix original is now the best thing on television, forever going deeper into the psyche of a character insistently beyond redemption. Its most recent season included a wordless show — set underwater, where Bojack can’t talk (or drink, or smoke) — that may be one of the very finest episodes in television memory. It is a mesmerising masterwork, and, as far as equine actors go, I’ll say Bojack’s life is even more wretched than the horse who gave up his head for that bloody scene in The Godfather.

Bojack would agree. The other guy was in an Oscar-winning movie.

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