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In its second season, Bojack Horseman quits beating a depressed horse

More animal puns, less animal pathos

Netflix

I guess I’ll just try and make you understand

That I’m more horse than a man

Or I’m more man than a horse

Within the first five minutes of the second season of Bojack Horseman, the entire conceit of the show is laid bare, with the help of George Takei. I can change, and I will change, the voice of Takei commands Bojack through a self-help audiobook. You've gotta conquer that hill. The hill is a metaphor. Everything is a metaphor. You are literally a metaphor.

Bojack is a metaphor — most of the show's characters are — and that's one of the reasons it's so unique. Of course, when I first heard about Bojack Horseman, I dismissed it. After being let down so many times by shows that tried to exploit Will Arnett's Arrested Development id, I just didn't see how replacing his body with a cartoon animal could make the same gag remotely watchable. But Bojack was a Trojan horse that forded the moat to my heart with cute animal puns, and then unleashed its depressive soul all over my feelings.

It's an artful balance — profound sadness cloaked in incisive humor — that has made Bojack so compelling. Above all, it's a story about genuine depression: the relentless cycle of self-sabotage that produces universal alienation. In the first season, Bojack slowly evolves from a hopeless narcissistic has-been — so stuck in the past that he literally can't climax without watching himself in reruns of his hit '90s show, Horsin' Around — to a hopeless narcissistic has-been who starts to recognize his self-destructive patterns while coping with brutal rejection and the feeling that he's an impostor. Bojack's struggle is such an authentic portrayal of depression that it cut to my core. So it's really sad that the second season mostly squanders the authenticity it established in the first.

Bojack Horseman is a story about genuine depression

Bojack's weird assortment of animal gags and metaphor work because they're all entangled with the very real pathos of its characters, but in season two, they all too often become mere puns. One aimless caper sees Bojack's roommate Todd (Aaron Paul, as the least interesting iteration of Jesse Pinkman yet) attempt to rescue an escaped chicken that is destined for a slaughterhouse. (She's named "Becca," which sounds like "ba-gok," get it?) The chicken's predicament as a food object plays on the show's ambiguous cohabitation of animals and humans, but it lacks any kind of character motivation and consumes nearly an entire episode.

It's too bad, because it ends up burying far subtler moments. Far less time is given to a great storyline about Bojack's counterpart, an actor named Mr. Peanut Butter (a dog voiced by Paul F. Tompkins). Mr. Peanut Butter is an utterly obedient doofus who loves everyone around him, and in one of seasons two's best moments, he tells his wife Diane (a human voiced by Alison Brie) how unbelievably excited he gets when he waits for her all day and then hears her car pulling into the driveway. You know, like a dog. And like a person!

That metaphor — literal codependent dog is needy human — is only effective when it tugs at a really personal thread, and it does. Mr. Peanut Butter and Diane struggle with realistic portrayals of distrust, vulnerability, and anxiety. Of course, lots of shows do this capably, but none with a dog asking his wife to rub his chin so he remembers things.

Bojack Horseman

A beating heart isn't all Bojack has going for it — it's also vigorously weirder than anything I've seen. But this season is inconsistent in its commitment to that weirdness. A running gag in the first season begins when Bojack's agent and ex-girlfriend, Princess Caroline (a cat voiced by Amy Sedaris), begins revenge-dating "Vincent Adultman" — a character who appears to be three human children stacked inside of a trench coat with a broom for an arm. Bojack insists to Princess Caroline that Vincent is, very obviously, three children inside of a trench coat. But as the joke goes on and on, it becomes less clear whether or not that's just Bojack's envious delusion. We feel as alienated as Bojack does, and it's exactly the kind of sad-funny-absurd tension that makes the show work... until the second season, when the writers inexplicably ruin the gag. I haven't felt so betrayed by writers since Emma Stone watched Michael Keaton fly out of a window at the conclusion of Birdman.

"After you get famous you stop growing, because you don't have to."

Early on in the second season, Bojack's director — he's landed his dream role playing the lead horse in Secretariat — counsels Diane on his stagnation. "After you get famous, you stop growing, because you don't have to," she says. It felt like she was talking to me, but about the second season of Bojack Horseman (at least, the first six episodes I received from Netflix). It seems like the writers decided to cash in on aimless jokes that, while still clever, were ultimately self-indulgent and distracting. Netflix made me care about a talking horse, and then it stopped talking about the horse. Instead, it started talking about the horse's lame human roommate.

I was really hopeful that Bojack Horseman would continue to be one of the best shows on television (or the internet). It was definitely one whose return I was most looking forward to this year — if only because there are few shows that manage to be so genuinely sad and weird at the same time. But most of that sadness lies in its main character, and with everything else going on, he's now forced to take a back seat, despite what Netflix's Horseman-centric trailer would indicate. It's not too late to make me care again, but Bojack needs to take care of itself first.

Bojack Horseman's second season arrives on Netflix on Friday, July 17th.