When the Netflix original show BoJack Horseman debuted last summer, some viewers didn’t quite take to the sad undercurrent running through the animated show about a former ’90s sitcom actor who’s trying to make a comeback. Others, however, held on to the slow burn and discovered the show’s heart.
And once fans were in, they were in deep.
The show’s cast of main characters—voiced by Will Arnett (BoJack), Amy Sedaris, Aaron Paul, Alison Brie, and Paul F. Tompkins—explored fame, narcissism, loneliness, delusion, self-doubt, addiction, depression, and nostalgia in Hollywood, much like HBO’s The Comeback. (Speaking of which, Comeback star Lisa Kudrow voices BoJack’s new crush in season 2, a TV exec/owl hybrid named Wanda, who’s recently woken up from a 30-year coma.)
In season 1, fans wanted to find meaning alongside BoJack; the deconstruction of episode 11’s epic drug trip took place on Reddit, as fans discussed whether or not BoJack experienced ego death. And further: Had they, at some point in their lives?
The second season, which debuts on Netflix today, tugs on the thread left by season 1’s heart-sinking finale. BoJack has landed the role of Secretariat (voiced by John Krasinski), and struggles with, well, being happy about it. He starts dating. He tries to sublimate his self-loathing into something more positive. He listens to self-help tapes and intones that he can change, he will change. But will he? Those tapes tell him he is literally a metaphor.
The show’s creator, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, says in season 1, BoJack learned he had to change. In season 2, he explores whether he actually can.
“Part of the fun of the show, for us anyway, is, you know, here’s a character who’s pretty depressed and he thinks he knows what’s going to make him happy,” he said. “And we keep giving him the things that he thinks he wants, and he’s still not happy. And really exploring that has been what’s interesting to me, as a writer.”
Much of the charm of BoJack Horseman comes from production designer Lisa Hanawalt’s colorful animal-human hybrid characters, which she’s been drawing for years. Bob-Waksberg says her drawings were integral to the initial Netflix pitch.
“I really liked the idea of a talking horse in a human world,” he said. “You know, like Mr. Ed. What was Mr. Ed like after Mr. Ed was over, was the original most bare-bones concept for the idea. That necessitates humans to react to him. … Then the question was, ‘OK, is he a special talking horse and everybody else is people?’ And then I decided it’s funnier if there’s other animals also, because it gives [us] so many opportunities for different kinds of jokes and situations.”
Hanawalt and Bob-Waksberg have been friends since high school, and she says they used to joke about the TV show they wanted to make together.
“I would doodle things in my sketch book and he would make up voices to go along with them,” she said. After high school, they did an online comic together, and then Bob-Waksberg included some of Hanawalt’s animal drawings in his pitch for what would become BoJack Horseman.
After the pitch moved forward, the production company, Tornante, asked Hanawalt to design 10 characters for the debut season. She relates that after a childhood obsession with wanting to both draw cats and be a cat (“I have drawings I did of myself when I was like 8 years old as a cat person. I specifically wanted to be a cat person who was also Weird Al Yankovic”), she moved on to a fixation with horses after taking riding lessons.
“I was one of those crazy horse girls,” she conceded. “I’m at my most earnest when I’m talking about horses. I just think they’re really special.”
She says she “nailed” what BoJack would look like right away, and she “modeled the coloring of him on a horse I used to lease when I was a teenager. He had a much different personality than BoJack, though. He was very sweet.”
Was there a challenge in having to draw a character she knew would be very sad?
“There was the logistical challenge of drawing a horse face that can show a lot of emotions,” she said. “So we had to give him eyebrows, which horses don’t normally have. And I really had to sketch out his expressions to show that he could be angry or sad or happy. Little things like his ears perking forward when he’s interested makes a huge difference.
“When Raphael first told me the idea for the show, I thought it was too sad,” she added, “and I told him so. ‘Nah, I don’t like it. It’s too dark.’ But I’ve since changed my mind, and now the sad parts on the show are my favorite.”
For all the show’s pathos and id deconstruction, one of the most interesting dynamics is gender, especially in a world where humans and animals coexist. Bob-Waksberg dissected the approach to gender in comedy in a January Tumblr post about the “default” male character.
For episode 9 of season 1, Hanawalt “drew a gag where a big droopy dog is standing on a street corner next to a businessman and the wind from a passing car blows the dog’s tongue and slobber onto the man’s face. When Lisa designed the characters she made both the dog and the businessperson women.”
My first gut reaction to the designs was, “This feels weird.” I said to Lisa, “I feel like these characters should be guys.” She said, “Why?” I thought about it for a little bit, realized I didn’t have a good reason, and went back to her and said, “You’re right, let’s make them ladies.
“It was the first time I really put my foot down about it,” Hanawalt said. “Because I noticed the problem cropping up here and there. … It was an argument that lasted days. Like, I was really alone on it for a while. But Raphael’s wonderful because not only is he an outspoken feminist, but when he has a blind spot and is wrong about something, he will think about it and talk to it. And this was just a blind spot of his. He thought it would be too complicated if both characters were women, and I just finally convinced him that was wrong.”
“There’s a moment from working on season 2 that I really remember,” Bob-Waksberg said. “Where they were trying to pitch ideas for an episode, and one of my female writers pitched a joke and all the women in the room laughed. None of the men did. And I thought, ‘That’s really interesting.’ And so we put the joke in the show, clearly because there’s a segment of our audience that would like it. But also, I wonder how many times someone pitched a joke where all the men laughed and none of the women have, and I didn’t even notice.”
BoJack Horseman’s closest spiritual twin might be Rick and Morty, another animated show with sharp jokes and a serious heart. Bob-Waksberg says animation is still an evolving art, though.
“Twenty years ago, there was this big movement from, animation is not just for kids anymore, right?” he said. “And The Simpsons is the first big holder of that flag. But I think since then, we’ve kind of gotten stuck in a similar rut of people [saying] animation is for kids, or it’s for fratty 20-year-old boys. And the fact is, that’s not true.
“Animation can be for anyone; it’s just that people aren’t necessarily making those shows for other types of people, and that animation is a format, not a genre. And I’m really excited to see where it goes in the next five years.”
Photo courtesy of Netflix