There’s always a risk of being critically dismissive of comedy. I think we’re conditioned react to it as a genre that favors style over substance, shallowness over depth. It’s perhaps even easier to be dismissive of comedy that combines with science fiction and fantasy; the genres share, I think, a checkered collaborative history. But occasionally shows come along that effectively combine laughter and unfettered imagination, to deliver not just humor and diversion, but innovative worldbuilding, thought-provoking themes, and powerful emotional content.
Created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg.
Produced by Tornante Company, ShadowMachine
First season released August 2014.
Never has this been more true, I think, than with Netflix’s brilliant animated comedy BoJack Horseman, now four seasons deep and renewed for a fifth. On first blush, BoJack may seem like an odd choice for a genre television review; it’s not a series that outwardly screams fantasy and science fiction. But I would argue that with its fantastical worldbuilding and anything-goes sensibility, it lands solidly in the field’s inventive wheelhouse. In many ways a conventional sitcom, the show tells the story of former sitcom star BoJack Horseman (voiced perfectly by Will Arnett), a washed-up has-been who found fame and fortune on the critically reviled ratings monolith Horsin’ Around in the 1990s. For all the show’s success, celebrity hasn’t been kind to BoJack. He may live in a posh mansion in the Hollywood Hills on a pile of money, but he does so in relative obscurity, unfulfilled, with an appalling track record of ethical catastrophes littering his career history. Twenty years out of the limelight, BoJack pushes through his lethargy in search of a comeback when his on-again, off-again girlfriend and agent Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) negotiates the publication of his biography. Enter disaffected liberal ghost writer Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), who starts shadowing BoJack with the goal of conveying his story of stardom to the world in a tell-all, bestselling bio. BoJack goes along with it in the hopes that it will reignite his career, but the process of examining his past forces him to confront the damage he left in his wake during a lifelong pursuit of external validation, and eventually sets him on a slow, painstaking path toward redemption.
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention: BoJack is an actual horse. And Princess Carolyn is a cat. And BoJack’s celebrity rival, Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), is a dog. Indeed, the colorful world of BoJack Horseman is rife with anthropomorphized animals, who casually intermingle with humans—Diane, for example, or BoJack’s ne’er-do-well, unofficial housemate Todd (Aaron Paul)—in a manner that both comically plays up and ignores each character’s species. This leads, of course, to loads of animal puns and hilarious, species-specific sight gags. (In these ways, BoJack resonates strongly with the quirky, wordplay-addicted history of SF humor.) The surface is bright, fast-paced, silly, and diverting. But the show’s emotional core is, in fact, deeply serious, and the singular way BoJack places humans and animals on a level playing field has a peculiar, unexpected power, affording the show a unique method of commenting darkly on the human condition.
Some may bemoan the fact that as a protagonist, BoJack is a clear descendant of the antiheroes of new golden age prestige drama: offensive, toxic, criminally self-interested. But unlike, say, Walter White or Vic Mackey—misguided villains who see themselves as the heroes of their own stories—BoJack is a self-aware prick, who occasionally sees through his own self-destructive bullshit and aspires to be a better horse. As his comeback attempt progresses through several unpredictable contortions over the years, he rarely makes a good decision, but his problematic personality does undergo painstaking, incremental transformation. It is, perhaps, a more realistic version of character change than we usually see in TV, giving the series a sense of gradual, collective momentum—and leading to just enough moments of insight and grace to make the (often surprisingly intense) darkness bearable. A similar cloud of artistic, emotional, and ethical struggle surrounds the other major characters as well. Lightning-quick visual humor and biting satire gives the show a flashy, bracing surface, but the viewer needs to keep their guard up, because the laughs are slippery, often disguising emotional gut-punches that really get at the heart of emotional and creative struggle. In short, there’s a lot more than meets the eye in BoJack Horseman, an uncommonly addictive show that can leave the viewer crying tears of laughter one moment and sadness the next. Not bad for a cartoon about a talking horse.
The Good Place
Created by Michael Schur.
Produced by Fremulon, 3 Arts Entertainment, and Universal Television.
First season released September 2016.
If you prefer genre comedies to be of the live-action variety, but still want to see compelling characters striving for personal improvement, check out The Good Place, now in the middle of its second season. Created by the ever-reliable Michael Schur, The Good Place is an afterlife fantasy that leverages the tools of genre to both comedic and surprisingly philosophical effect. A perfectly cast Kristen Bell stars as Eleanor Shellstrop, who awakens after her death in “the Good Place” to be greeted by the cheerful Michael (a spot-on Ted Danson), who welcomes her to eternity. Hailed as one of Earth’s best-ever people, Eleanor is introduced to her soul mate, an ethical philosophy professor named Chidi (William Jackson Harper), as well as neighboring couple Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jianyu (Manny Jacinto), and tries to get acclimated to the idea that she’s dead. But there’s another, bigger problem: Eleanor is in the wrong place. She was, in fact, a terrible person during her life on Earth. Since owning up to her true nature means being sent to “the Bad Place,” she decides to live the lie of her own goodness—a scheme she ropes her conflicted partner Chidi into abetting. But her attempts to put one over on the angels morph, unexpectedly, into a struggle to actually become a better person, and try to earn her place in Heaven.
Like BoJack, The Good Place presents as more comedy than fantasy. But the technicolor backdrop of this little corner of Heaven delivers plenty of skiffy thought experiments and fantastical eyeball kicks, thanks to the anything-goes possibilities of its premise. As the “architect” of Eleanor’s neighborhood, for example, Michael can shape reality with a snap of his fingers—even if Eleanor’s mistaken presence, it seems, is causing his mysterious afterlife to go spectacularly haywire from time to time. There’s also Janet (D’Arcy Carden), something of a cosmic artificial intelligence who can be summoned and dismissed at will to deliver comical infodumps to aid the characters as they confront dilemmas and develop schemes. The imaginative potential of the scenario is limitless, making it a show that regularly delivers the unexpected—and also isn’t afraid to fearlessly reinvent itself. Considering Schur’s track record of creating cozy, comfortable fictional worlds—his CV boasts The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine—The Good Place is something of a departure in its restless transformations. Yet it also somehow retains Schur’s characteristic upbeat worldview, even if it’s presented through the eyes of Eleanor—that worldview’s antithesis.
Which brings up another similarity to BoJack, which is The Good Place’s use of a wildly imaginative setting to depict the struggles of living ethically and responsibly in an ugly, unreasonable world. Like BoJack, Eleanor is a toxic tire-fire of a person, but The Good Place is not a celebration of her awfulness so much as a hopeful speculation on the idea that even the worst of us can aspire to change. Many great shows of the twenty-first century revel in the evil misdeeds of their lead characters, sometimes to the point of glorification, but The Good Place doesn’t make that mistake. Constantly raising philosophical and ethical questions, the show possesses Schur’s progressive, positive worldview, even if its hero does not. Bonus: It may well be the fastest half-hour comedy in history, blazing past so quickly that the end credits often feel like an unwelcome act break.
With so many comedies wallowing in dubious messaging, merciless punching down, or pitting their characters against each other in mean-spirited competition, it’s refreshing to see shows that buck that trend to show people trying to transcend their worst tendencies, develop empathy, and improve as people. BoJack Horseman and The Good Place, two shows that might at first glance slip under a genre fan’s radar, are comedies that both deliver consistent laughs and do the interesting, creative work of genre fiction.
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