Thursday, September 18, 2014

Bojack Horseman is a bad comedy but maybe not a bad show

Bojack Horseman is a half hour adult animated comedy created by Netflix and put out this past August 2014. It's shooting for exactly the target you think it's shooting for. And since it's on Netflix, it's PACKED with actors I like. Seriously, the main cast is Will Arnet, Alison Brie, Amy Sedaris, Paul F Tompkins, and Aaron Paul.

The premise is that Bojack (Arnet) is a late-40s horse (this world is populated by about 50% humans and 50% anthropomorphic animals) and also the star of the 80s sitcom "Horsin' Around!" which put him as the father figure to three rascally kids (it's Full House). So take that target you were imagining before and add in the theme of "everything used to be great in the 80s before we realized that everything sucks and now everything sucks".

These days, Bojack sits around generally being an asshole, wasting his life, and wishing he was still valued by someone. His agent (Sedaris), an anthropomorphic cat named Princess (get it? She's named Princess because she's a cat, kind of like how Bojack is kind of a horse name), spends more time cleaning up Bojack's messes than getting any real work done, and she's now pressuring him to open up to a ghost writer (Brie) who looks like she can write him a great memoir that will bring some money in.

Maybe you stuck it through those descriptive paragraphs, maybe not. It's not that exciting of a premise. I should've just said "adult animated comedy, main character is anthropomorphic horse slash washed up 80s sitcom star, cue animal jokes and light-hearted nihilistic themes". Yeah, let's go with that.

I watched the first episode of Bojack because I wanted a half hour comedy. Haven't found a new one I like in a while, and having 13 episodes all ready to go from a just released show is always appealing (the internet is going to kill TV, etc, etc).

I did not think it was funny. The jokes were all lame. The dialog frequently brandished exposition in my face, hoping against hope that the flimsy jokes laid on top of said exposition would disguise its true nature. Well sorry, but that only works with funny jokes and even then only sometimes.

At this point I intended to throw up some YouTube links to the not funny jokes so you could see how they're not funny, but for some reason it's hard to find copywritten material that isn't funny and / or music on YouTube. Suffice to say if you want proof, go watch the first episode and see if you agree with me.

Anyway, after a day or so, I got bored at my computer again and felt like giving the show another chance. I'm not sure why, but I was bored, so what the hell. Afterwards, I felt basically the same way about it, if not even more pessimistic. But I watched a third ep. And a fourth. And eventually I realized that the rest of my afternoon was doomed to be spent watching the rest of this show.

It never got funny. I think in twelve episodes I laughed out loud four times. Not a good hit ratio. But by the end, I did have an appreciation for the show. Because it turns out the show made for a decent drama.

I don't know if I can think of a half hour comedy other than Arrested Development that took the time to really try and give itself a long term plot, and even AD didn't make the effort Bojack makes over its first season to try and see its characters grow and change. Seriously, it's weird. Every major character has depth by the end of the season, each of them are empathetic in their own way. Most of them are really sad and pathetic, because that's the point the show is trying to make. And it's not the most groundbreaking show in the world, but it does a decent job of doing all that from a dramatic standpoint, even leading to really nice last scene of the season, a moment that I think took a lot of guts to end on.

Except for it didn't really, because the show still feels like such a throwaway. I'm sure the production values are so low they could basically do whatever they wanted (given the animation, the entire budget probably went to writers and cast), and Netflix is making a name for itself trying to do things that wouldn't be done on TV. This is definitely a show that would've been canceled after a few episodes on TV and had what little depth and arc was there in the first few eps beaten out of it. In the end, it's not risky to end on an interesting / very much not funny moment in a show like this because there are NO stakes. Nothing is riding on this show. The only marketing is going to be suggestions to people on Netflix and whatever publicity gets generated by online reviews. This is exactly the kind of show to try stuff out on.

So what the hell is Bojack? It's a reasonable half hour drama that's put on comedy clothes and shoehorned in one-liners as often as it can so that it can be marketed as a comedy. But good comedy doesn't come from someone running through the script trying to punch it up by twisted every third line into something that resembles a joke. It's like, they know how jokes are structured with setup and punchline, and you as the audience can feel all the laugh points and beats, it's just there's no heart (funny, considering that's what the show is about).

Good comedy is about characters being themselves and ending up in uncomfortable places. It's about characters saying something because that's what they'd say here and having it go horribly wrong. Or it's about surprise, about the unexpected. Or maybe it's a bunch of other things, I'm no comedy theorist. But even I know it's not "zingers", fresh off the assembly line.

Oddly enough, Bojack gets one particular kind of comedy dead on: the world building stuff. The small details. Like, whenever there's an establishing shot, there's some kind of anthropomorphic animals in the foreground doing something that animal would do but that it's funny for that animal to do as a person. So... pigeons flying above the capital building... in business suits. Or raccoons scavenging in a dumpster. Or the sheep trimming hedges who then takes a bite of the hedges. None of those things are laugh out loud funny, but they're nice little comedic moments in what would otherwise be a plain establishing shot.

Other details: Princess is an anthropomorphic cat, so when she goes to the gym and runs on a treadmill, she hangs a little catnip mouse in front of her while she runs. Again, not particularly funny, but nice. Or the publishing company working with Bojack on his book is Penguin Books, and everyone who works there is a penguin.

Meanwhile, the latter half of the season has three or four of these dramatic moments that really floored me. They're really great, and they wouldn't be possible without the freedom to really base the show on long term story. Seriously, how is this not more common in comedies? Obviously The Office and Parks n Rec have been getting great long term moments out of their writing, and it's not like every show automatically reboots itself at the end of every episode anymore. But I haven't seen a comedy where I feel like every episode a viewer might be lost without having seen the previous stuff. All hail Netflix!

So what the hell is Bojack? I know I just asked that, but I still don't know. It's an adult animated comedy trying to go deeper and reach some dramatic moments. It succeeds in so many aspects - world building, character arcs, those dramatic moments - but fails in the most important: being funny. And that's too bad, because if this show was funny, it'd be one to come back to again and again.