Best TV of the Decade, No. 1: “Bojack Horseman”

Bojack

Over the past month, I’ve discussed a lot of great television. Shows that made me laugh, made me cry, made me think, and renewed my faith in humanity (if only for an hour each week). It’s been an extraordinary decade for television, both as a form and a medium, and it’s been a thrill to discuss some of the major TV accomplishments of the last ten years.

But now we arrive at the end of our journey. The #1 show of the decade, the series that will end everything on the highest of high notes.

And I am faced with a conundrum.

I’d like for there to be an air of finality to the last spot on this list; a sense of closure, both for myself and all you TV superfans who’ve been following along. But as of this writing, the show I’ve reserved for my #1 spot has not actually ended. It’s aired the bulk of its run, but the final episodes won’t see daylight until next month.

I have no idea how this show will conclude. Whether it will stick the landing, whether it will gallop or clip-clop to the finish line. I don’t know if the series will end with a bang, and I’m unsure if it’s the type of show that should end with a bang. We’re so close to the end, yet so inexorably far.

But while I wish that the show’s conclusion could be included in the current decade, I can’t deny that – of the five-and-a-half seasons that did air – no other show made me laugh, cry, think, or renew my faith in humanity (for six hours a year) the way this one did.

And so no matter how the series ends, Bojack Horseman stands tall as my #1 show of the decade.

Created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Bojack Horseman debuted on Netflix in July 2014. The animated series, which takes place in a world where humans coexist with human-animal hybrids, follows the titular Bojack (voiced by Will Arnett), the washed-up TV star of Horsin’ Around, a treacly ’90s sitcom. Though stuck sharing his home with loopy slacker Todd (Aaron Paul), Bojack has is mind set on a comeback career, helped by his agent, the cat-lady Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), as well as biographer Diane Nguyen (Allison Brie), a woman who begins the series dating Bojack’s once and future TV rival, dog-man Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Thompkins).

If the premise and characters sound absurd to you, you’re not alone. When the show was first released, Netflix heavily marketed its silly and off-color humor. Critics, who’d previewed the first six episodes, were mixed in their response, labeling the show as just another crass animated comedy in the Adult Swim vein.

One wonders how the initial reaction would have been had Netflix decided to further supply critics with the back half of Season One. Odds are that the reaction would have been markedly more positive. Because as the first season progressed, Bojack began focusing less on animal puns and shock humor and more on peeling back the unexpectedly deep layers of their lead characters. This, I would argue, was the show’s signature trick – draw viewers in with dry, off-color jokes, then pull the rug out from beneath them with some of the most poignant and affecting drama anywhere on television.

Bojack was initially painted as unfailingly coarse and amoral, his cartoon design underscoring his cynical and inhuman personality. But as we learned more about him – about his childhood, his time on Horsin’ Around, and his slew of failed connections and relationships – we began to slowly understand the man within the horse. And eventually, we began to root for him – and the more we watched him slide back into the world of drugs, booze, and instant gratification, the more we became convinced that he could climb his way out of it.

This was the hook by which we came to understand the other characters as well. Carolyn and Peanutbutter were initially written as one-joke characters, but the show soon revealed them to be far more compelling than their two-dimensional appearances made them seem – her conflicting paths to being a mother and career woman, and his insatiable desire to keep everything positive, gave them emotional arcs that we could easily latch onto.

And once we did latch onto them, the show took its characters into increasingly strange and fascinating places. “Chickens” explored the dichotomy between animal characters treated as human and those classified as food. “INT. SUB” told a difficult chapter of Bojack’s life with the aid of ludicrous new character designs and imagery. “Free Churro” spent its 22-minute running time on Bojack delivering the greatest TV eulogy since Mary Richards immortalized Chuckles the Clown. Best of all was “Fish Out of Water,” a mostly silent episode spent in the underwater world of fish-humanoids that stands as one of the greatest animated achievements of the new millennium.

On both a seasonal and episodic level, Bojack delivered. It gave us fascinating characters and immersive storylines. And it managed to do so while also being one of the funniest shows on television. The show’s breadth and depth of tongue-twisting one-liners, celebrity in-jokes, and background wordplay rivals that of The Simpsons. Bob-Waksberg and co. have a clear and unapologetic love for all things Hollywood (or “Hollywoo”), and every episode is packed with satirical references and throwaway jokes about actors and directors past and present.

(One area in which the show doesn’t usually excel is social commentary. Episodes like “Hank After Dark,” “Brrap Brrap Pew Pew,” and “Thoughts and Prayers” try to filter the show through a contemporary lens, but lack the surefootedness that makes the show’s highlights so effective, and as such are among the show’s infrequent weak episodes. The series has more luck when the commentary is more directly linked to Hollywood, as in Season Five’s riff on the #MeToo movement.)

If you haven’t seen Bojack Horseman yet, there’s still time to catch up. The final eight episodes drop on Netflix on January 31, and at the average rate of two episodes a day, it shouldn’t be difficult to get swept up by then. Just remember to give the show a bit of time to warm up. It may initially seem to be a crass funny-animal comedy – but given time, it develops into so much more.

And it’s the deftness of its transformation which pushes it to the decade’s top spot. The show’s mastery of tone – its deft balance of drama and comedy, pathos and satire – is like no other series on television. It’s one of the most ambitious and affecting TV shows I’ve ever seen, and I’m not horsing around when I call it the greatest show of the decade.

Honorable Mentions

If only I had the time to make a Top 40… but alas, the month is only so long. Here are twenty other great shows from this decade that missed the cut:

American Crime, American Vandal, Barry, Bob’s Burgers, Broad City, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Carmichael Show, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Enlightened, Gravity Falls, Jane the Virgin, The Legend of Korra, One Day at a Time, Orange is the New Black, Rectify, Rick and Morty, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Search Party, Terriers, You’re the Worst

Been an adventurous month… but we’re still not done! Tune in shortly for my Top 10 TV Shows of 2019!

The Rest of the List

20. Person of Interest
19. Justified
18. Hannibal
17. The Americans
16. Atlanta
15. Manhattan
14. The Leftovers
13. Better Things
12. Mad Men
11. Fleabag
10. Review
9. Better Call Saul
8. Community
7. The Good Wife
6. Master of None
5. Fargo
4. Breaking Bad
3. Halt and Catch Fire
2. Parks and Recreation

3 thoughts on “Best TV of the Decade, No. 1: “Bojack Horseman””

  1. Great review on Bojack Horseman. It is one of the best animated shows ever conceived.

    Wish you had time to do reviews on Brooklyn 99, Gravity Falls, Enlightened, and You’re the Worst.

    Like

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