Just over a minute into the third season of the Netflix animated comedy BoJack Horseman, an entertainment-news interviewer asks our hero, “What would an Oscar nomination mean for BoJack Horseman?” The rest of the season is dedicated to answering that question, tracking BoJack (voiced by Will Arnett) from press junkets to the big awards night. Not-really-a-spoiler alert: As longtime fans could tell you without even watching, to BoJack, an Oscar nomination turns out not to mean much.
Fans can guess that before the show reveals it because BoJack has done such a fantastic job, over its first two seasons, of developing its characters into real people (and cats and frogs — half the characters, including BoJack, are talking animals). It would be strange for BoJack, a bottomless pit of self-hatred, to suddenly feel satisfied, even with an Oscar nod. And, on the lighter side, you’d never think of it before the sight gag hits, but of course his Labrador best-frenemy Mr. Peanutbutter sports Ed Hardy and Von Dutch in a flashback episode set in 2007 — not because he's a douchebag, but because he's a naïvely enthusiastic guy. Few shows, and almost no animated ones, shape characters so carefully that even wardrobes stay philosophically consistent across decades.
Key to that success is the animation, designed ingeniously by Lisa Hanawalt. It’s spatially flat but vividly colored. Sparing indications of texture are deployed thoughtfully — J.D. Salinger’s (yes, that one) tweed jacket, or an acid-washed skirt in the 2007 flashback. Big movements are reserved mostly for facial expressions. All this creates just enough realism that, against significant odds, viewers end up invested in these anthropomorphic animals. The flexibility of Hanawalt’s playful style is forgiving: A visit to a neon-lit orca-striptease theme park ends up being just as believable as a nightmarish conference call (this being a show set in L.A., there are many conference calls).
Such appealing visuals make it easy to buy into what’s often a bizarre ride. While this season’s arc is straightforward, subplots and individual scenes often aren’t. There’s a near-silent episode in which BoJack adopts an orphaned seahorse while trying to attend an underwater awards show, which sounds ridiculous until you see (and maybe tear up at) the poetic, dreamlike result. Earlier in the season, aggressively feminist writer Diane tries to start a national dialogue about abortion but instead inspires a gleefully pro-feticide pop song, whose tasteless video, thanks to the animation, is uproariously funny.
Underpinning these outlandish moments are guttingly familiar human behaviors. BoJack embarks on his adventure as a seahorse foster parent because he wants to do good, something he struggles harder and more earnestly to achieve this season than ever before. Diane, relegated as most writers are these days to social-media management, starts her unsavory journey with the hope that she can use a boring job to create positive change. These are things that real people would do, and instead of over-dramatizing their behavior in the style of a live-action show, BoJack leans into that beautiful animation and gives the audience some room to laugh, breathe and recognize itself on the screen.
Despite all its surreal touches, BoJack still resembles a live-action TV series more than it does even its closest adult-cartoon cousins like Archer. The show almost doesn’t need to be animated, but because it is, the writers can sink deeper and hit harder than live-action scripters fruitfully could. BoJack is depressingly realistic: Its main character lets his friends down constantly, and they respond by spouting off bracing truths about the creeping disillusionment that characterizes adulthood. It would be unbearable to watch a human being subjected to such hopeful suffering season after season, as we often are in our own lives, and from an actor’s mouth, the endless stream of brutal observations would sound overwrought. But from a horse’s? Yeah. That works pretty well.