My #1 Animated Feature on Netflix is…

Last week’s post ended with a cliff hanger of sorts.  One Redditor very compassionately commented “Coming next week?  F*ck you.”  People are sweet.  In all honesty, I had originally planned to include #1, but the post was becoming too large.  And I decided my last post deserved it’s own post.  So what could possibly take my number one spot over Fantasia?

1. BoJack Horseman

Am I serious?  Yessir!  Dear readers, I beg you to hear me out.  The show follows 90s sitcom star, BoJack Horseman.  But, the 90’s are gone and it is 2014.  The first episode introduces us to a BoJack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett) who spends his morning drinking booze in front of the television, watching reruns of his old show, and struggling to write the first chapter of his biography. He has an on-again/off-again romantic relationship with his agent, a fluffy pink cat named Princess Caroline. A homeless young man named Todd (voiced by Aaron Paul) is the eternal optimist who sleeps on BoJack’s couch.  And Diane is a ghost writer who is quickly burdened with finishing the aforementioned biography.  BoJack is a man (or rather, a horse) in search of wholeness in the wake of broken relationships with producers, actors, old friends, and so on.  It is evident in the first episode just how bankrupt BoJack’s selfishness has made him, and the depths he will dive into denial to evade that reality.

BoJack Horseman stands out among similar animated shows: it’s humor is similar to Archer. While shows with crude humor are a dime-a-dozen, and some of them may have a continuing narrative from season to season, Bojack is the only one in which the characters develop. These characters all have their own history and struggles, all have their dysfunctional tendencies in relationships, and they are all living in the riches of Hollywood (Hollywoo..?) trying to comprehend the emptiness that lurks inside themselves. Den of the Geek and Vox each wrote articles back in 2015 drawing strong comparisons between BoJack Horseman and AMC’s Mad Men. And having watched both in their entirety, I couldn’t agree more. Yet, while thematically similar, the despair of BoJack lies not in a secretive, polished life a la Don Draper, but in the comedic cynicism that makes one both laugh and cry. I laugh because it is so absurd to hear it voiced out loud by a drunk BoJack during a 9am interview on PBS, where he asks if it’s okay that he parked in a handicapped spot. I cry because it is makes BoJack’s pain so visceral and transparent even when he is not honest with himself about it.

But does this show even need animation? Is it enhanced at all by not being live-action? It’s not full of costly action like Archer or science fiction tropes like Futurama. It doesn’t display the exuberant insanity of Animaniacs or the epic washes of color and motion of Fantasia. What does such a medium bring to BoJack Horseman?

The opening scene of the series is the theme and title to BoJack’s sitcom, Horsin’ Around in which a horse in ugly sweaters adopts three kids and raises them. It has all the hallmarks of an early 90s sitcom, and the animation and color palette feels oddly reminiscent of cartoons from that period. Characters have soft, curved features not dissimilar from shows like Care Bears, Doug, or even Rugrats. Everything visual about the show from the outset invites the viewer into 90s nostalgia, which is so culturally pervasive today. But no sooner does our introduction to Horsin’ Around appear then we are introduced to 21st century BoJack and all his cynicism and longing for his fame. However, the color palette and animation style never changes. BoJack and his cohorts are still in a world of pastels and talking animals, yet unable to see that the world they inhabit has many of the same woes and joys as the foregone 90s.

The animation of BoJack takes us further into our own 90s nostalgia, and like BoJack we are wondering what this new era means for us. The romanticized (perhaps exaggerated) safety and security of the 90s are gone, yet Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Full House, and even The X-Files have been given reboots. BoJack Horseman visually looks right a home next to such beloved 90s shows, as well as their reboots. The brilliance of BoJack is that it beckons us to reflect on how desperate we are to return to a period nearly thirty years in the past. And the writers know it. In the second season, a television producer (a penguin who formerly worked for Penguin Publishing) expresses that “Everything feels fresh if you just forget the last thirty years ever happened” (s2e2).

Animals are regular characters, and they live very human lives alongside humans. They work jobs, pay taxes, and go on dates–nearly always outside their species. The animal characters are painted like the animal-themed cartoons of our youth, only they are adults bearing scowls and grimaces. It is almost as if the fun animals we loved as children have grown up with us, and are now cynics just trying to get by. In BoJack Horseman, humans and animals alike are from a variety of generations: Baby Boomers and WWII folks to Gen-X, Millennials, and beyond. And each generational incarnation is in the search for purpose and joy in an uncertain world.

Yet the more flashbacks we see, the more it becomes evident that BoJack and friends were the same cynics, optimists, and everything in between, long before 2014. BoJack slowly comes to this painful realization by the end of season 1 (SPOILER AHEAD!). Speaking to Diane, he pleads…

“I mean am I just doomed to be the person that I am? The person in that book? I mean it’s not too late for me, is it? It’s not too late? Diane, I need you to tell me it’s not too late…I need you to tell me that I’m a good person. I know that I can be selfish and narcissistic and self-destructive, but underneath all that, deep down, I’m a good person, and I need you to tell me that I’m good. Diane? Tell me, please, Diane. Tell me that I’m good.” (s1e11).

BoJack Horseman is a show that is not only about longing for the bright and vivid colors of the past and stumbling around to find such vibrancy in our own age. It is a reminder that seasons of disorientation and confusion expose us, and invite us to heal.
Season 4 aires September 8.

Did I miss any gems on Netflix?  Think I couldn’t be more wrong?  Please comment and let me know!

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