Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd is considered by many people (myself included) to be one of the greatest films of all time. It takes on its story from several different angles: it’s a Hollywood satire, showing the ridiculousness of the entire industry, a parable about the cost of fame and depression, and a mystery/film noir. And this is not a technique unique to Blvd. Wilder uses these techniques in all of his films: Some Like It Hot, Double Indemnity, The Apartment and more all seamlessly blend humor and drama to get to the one thing that exists at the heart of every story: humanity. He’s not afraid to see the humor in even the darkest moments; hell, his 1960 film The Apartment ends with a suicide joke! The reason I’m telling you all this is because I’m convinced that if Wilder were alive today, he would at the very least approve of, if not create and direct, television’s BoJack Horseman.
I’m not just drawing this comparison because BoJack Horseman season 3 features a blatant reference to The Lost Weekend (another Wilder film) in its very first episode. I’m drawing this comparison because Horseman takes on several different themes and ideas with a keen eye and a sharp wit. It’s the only show on television that, all in one episode, could have a joke about Catwoman killing Halle Berry’s career after winning an Oscar, followed by a treatise on if people truly have the capability of loving if they can’t love themselves, and then again jump to a simple animal joke, like a table of donkeys saying “Children, let us bow our heads and bray,” and then doing just that. That’s three different styles of storytelling, all in the course of thirty minutes. Lots of shows don’t do that in an hour.
There are several times during the course of this show that I’m convinced that they are writing it just for me. I’m not simply referring to the horrifically close-to-home, reflective discussions on depression and happiness, which truly do seem to be written directly for me. I’m talking about all of the jokes that seem written solely for someone who follows film and television the way I do. There’s an episode solely dedicated to the Oscar nominations that seems so brutal it could only come out of a masochist’s mind-specifically my own. There’s a recurring joke that one of my favorite actresses, Margo Martindale, plays herself, referred to only as Character Actress Margo Martindale, who is so dedicated to the craft that she has turned herself into an FBI’s Most Wanted criminal due to her “method acting.” There’s an entire bit about how much John Edwards has “touched” his volunteers. George Clooney is featured as an actor competing for the Oscar based on his work in The Nazi Who Played Yahtzee, except his name is Jurj Clooners, for no other reason than that is the greatest name in history. And Fred Savage, a former child star, plays a former child star who has gone off the rails and opened a strip club inspired by SeaWorld. There are so many in-jokes and satirical blows in that one sentence alone I don’t know where to start. And the season builds up to a Fuller House that both damns the cash grab as well as praises it for what it can do for society. How many shows can claim that they use Fuller House as a sign for hope in the world?
The weirdest thing I could possibly say about the show is that these actors are putting out their best work, but it’s shockingly too. I know it’s hard to believe that Will Arnett is topping Arrested Development, Amy Sedaris is topping Strangers With Candy, Aaron Paul is topping Breaking Bad, or that Kristen Schaal is topping Bob’s Burgers or Gravity Falls or Flight of the Conchords or Last Man on Earth…look, Schaal is a national treasure, ok? But all of these are true. Arnett and Sedaris put such a delicate and nuanced spin on BoJack and super-agent Princess Carolyn that I can promise you that if this show was live action, and sans animals, then these two would not only be nominated for Emmys, but could very possibly win. Paul, meanwhile, alternates between humor and drama with a very skillful panache, showing off a range that fans never got to witness in Jesse “Yeah, Bitch” Pinkman. He has two monologues in two of the last episodes that are up there with the “box” speech from his former show, including coming out as American television’s first asexual. Todd has transformed from a stereotypical slacker into a three-dimensional, well-intentioned twenty-something. However, above all, in a one-episode stint, Schaal demonstrates her incredible acting abilities. Schaal’s Sarah Lynn has been a scene-stealer since the third episode of the show’s run, serving as the “easy” joke about teen stars like Lohan, Bynes and the Olsen Twins. However, this time around, they give Sarah Lynn her moment in the sun, and we get to relish in Schaal’s performance, ranging from comedic to absolutely gut-wrenching. It’s undeniably harder to make you completely feel for a character based on the voice alone, and the fact that they are capable of doing this on an episodic basis is a true marvel.
However, as good as the voice actors are, there is one episode of the show that deserves particular praise. Sure, “Best Thing That Ever Happened” is a character-driven tour de force, and “That’s Too Much, Man!” might be one of their most heartbreaking eleventh episodes yet, but the episode that truly reaches the heart of the entire show is the fourth episode “Fish Out of Water.” Visually and conceptually an allusion to Lost in Translation by way of a silent Chaplin film, the episode follows BoJack at the Pacific Ocean Film Festival (a spot-on sendup to the Toronto International Film Festival), a country whose language he does not speak and one that requires he be trapped in a soundless air helmet, BoJack goes on a journey through the city, consistently getting into shenanigans, miserably realizing he can’t drink or smoke, desperately trying to reach out to the director he got fired, and exasperatedly trying to save an abandoned baby seahorse. With allusions to Coppola, Spongebob, Midnight Cowboy and Modern Times, the episode is not just a monumental achievement for the show, but a monumental achievement in animation. It is a perfect testament to loneliness, desperation, misanthropy and physical comedy, all rolled into one, and an Emmy isn’t enough praise for this project. Only the Pulitzer is worthy enough for director Mike Hollingsworth’s accomplishment.
I could go on and on describing what BoJack Horseman is like. It’s a cutthroat Hollywood satire that balances humor and depression; it’s Billy Wilder! It’s got thousands of background jokes; it’s The Simpsons! It’s social satire is deft and ridiculous; it’s South Park! It’s about a self-loathing anti-hero; it’s Mad Men/The Sopranos/etc. Yes, BoJack is all of these things. But above all, it’s BoJack Horseman. It’s funny, depressing, witty, sobering, smart and critical. It is also wholly and uniquely itself. And that’s the best thing for television right now.