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Office Argument: Is ‘BoJack Horseman’ Great or Terrible?

Alison Herman and K. Austin Collins fight over the show’s bizarre underwater episode

Netflix
Netflix

The third season of Netflix’s animated series BoJack Horseman dropped last Friday, which means that fans of the show’s grim-’n’-witty psychedelia are deep in binge mode. In "Fish Out of Water," the titular horse(man) spends a half-hour underwater, hitting an undersea film festival and babysitting a sea horse. For BoJack lovers, it’s an off-kilter triumph. For haters, it’s a self-involved therapy session. Here, Ringer writers Alison Herman and K. Austin Collins duke it out.

AH: In a season with more self-contained stunts than any other, "Fish Out of Water" stands out. For 25 minutes, the Netflix show follows its protagonist to the Pacific Ocean Film Festival and goes almost completely silent. It’s Lost in Translation meets "Hush" from Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets that episode of SpongeBob SquarePants where SpongeBob misses the bus.

But imagine my surprise, Kam, when I emerged from the emotional haze of a BoJack Horseman binge to find … this. It appears not everyone (i.e., you) is as enamored by "Fish Out of Water" as everyone else (i.e., me)! So, in the spirit of BoJack himself, I abrasively demand you explain yourself.

KAC: Let’s start with this: the episode is fine! It’s lively and unusually colorful (for this show). It relies almost entirely on cute visual gags (which isn’t so foreign to BoJack) but doesn’t belabor them with the reference-heavy punch line diarrhea that characterizes every other scene of every other episode. But BoJack Horseman is an animated show, so praising the mere fact of it being visually dynamic and creative — which it should be — feels like praising water for being wet. And even then, BoJack’s best episode is wildly frustrating.

Anyone who watches BoJack already senses where a BoJack episode titled "Fish Out of Water" is going: BoJack is bummed out. Again. Predictability and stale symbolism don’t have to be flaws: a good show can make anything feel new. But it’s Season 3, Episode 4, and we’re still coming up with creatively convoluted, punny ways to demonstrate that BoJack is lonely. My beef is that a show about a fish out of water, a man out of place in his own life because his depression and self-involvement have cut him off from everyone else, has waited this long to say, "Fam. The fish. It’s BoJack. He’s in the water in this episode — because he’s out of it."

AH: Sure, the metaphor is a little clunky. But there’s more going on here. There’s the simple fact of a show as writing-driven as BoJack voluntarily giving up dialogue, and a funky electronic score further differentiates this from BoJack-as-usual. But the really striking thing is the way writers Jordan Young and Elijah Aron fold a one-off adventure into the broader themes of the show — BoJack’s failure to change, and his self-sabotaged attempts to form meaningful relationships. Even when BoJack is quite literally wallowing at the bottom of the sea, it still takes time to smell the seaweed.

KAC: I think we agree that a silent BoJack episode is a good thing, though in my case it may be because of how often I wish BoJack would shut the hell up. For the record, though, I don’t mind dwelling on existential dilemmas. But the show’s worst habit is that it keeps coming up with answers, little pearls of depressive wisdom for its characters to wallow in. BoJack’s conclusions about loneliness feel redundant, from season to season, and even worse, they feel too neat: these aren’t easily resolved problems, they can’t be summarized as easily discernible life lessons, and yet the show keeps passing off its ideas as such. This episode is a case in point: it has BoJack find a way to express himself, and then, to really drive home the dime-store existentialism, it thwarts that attempt with outside forces. Too easy.

AH: But just because BoJack hasn’t moved forward doesn’t mean he hasn’t moved. His constant failing upward highlights the growing chasm between how the world sees BoJack (a beloved entertainer) and how BoJack sees himself (a jackass). He’s become more than an over-the-hill sitcom actor, but he’s still miserable.

And now we’re grappling with how BoJack’s unhappiness affects people he genuinely cares about. As creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg has pointed out in interviews, Season 3 finds BoJack doing irreparable damage to longer-term relationships, not just ones we’ve seen develop over a handful of episodes or in flashback. This is all going somewhere, and I’m happy to take a dip under the sea along the way.

KAC: I keep coming back to the end of this sea horse journey, when the baby sea horse’s dad offers BoJack food, and BoJack declines, so he offers BoJack money, and BoJack declines that, too. So, frustrated, daddy sea horse gestures: What do you want? And BoJack shrugs forlornly, looking in on a family of sea horses that resembles nothing like what he has in his own life.

Is that a Season 3 revelation? Isn’t that just the premise of the show … again?

And three seasons in, has BoJack really gotten past that premise? It feels introspective, but I don’t buy it. BoJack isn’t just a depressive, he’s also a narcissist, and when the show dwells on his introspection, it feels indulgent. Maybe my problem is that the best possible version of BoJack already exists: Louie. That’s a show that embraces its hero’s mistakes without letting him get away with them. That makes the devastation awkward and uncomfortable, rather than relatable. BoJack Horseman is a show in which BoJack gets to be his own worst critic, and we can relate. Louie is a show in which the show, itself, is its hero’s worst critic, and we don’t want to relate. A depressive narcissist should be held at a little bit of a distance.

AH: I’m sensing some broader frustration here. Could it be that we have too many TV characters who have everything except something to fill the hole inside them? Is it possible we have too many shows that confuse terrible people with interesting people, when so often they’re precisely the opposite? I’ll readily concede both these points about television, and I can see how that criticism might apply to BoJack Horseman.

But where you see a show spinning its wheels, I see a show going admirably deep on depression — not just its thought processes, but also its intractability. "Fish Out of Water" may be about BoJack’s alienation, but the show at large is equally smart about Princess Carolyn’s workaholism, or Diane’s nagging self-consciousness. All of them are still struggling, though we’ve learned more about the how and why of it along the way.

As BoJack’s ex-partner Cuddlywhiskers sagely told us in the previous episode, it really does take a long time to realize you’re miserable, and even longer to realize you can change. Showing that takes a while. About three seasons, to be precise.