The first time I watched “BoJack Horseman,” I thought I’d seen this sort of thing too many times before. This may sound like an odd thing to say about an animated comedy featuring a washed-up sitcom actor who happens to be a horse, but bear with me.
The premise felt like one more cynical take on showbiz shallowness and debauchery: “Entourage” and “Episodes” crammed into two ends of a horse costume.
The players were familiar types: an entitled, has-been title character (Will Arnett); his tightly wound agent and ex-lover, Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), a cat; his shiftless houseguest, Todd (Aaron Paul), a 20-something human; his amiable frenemy, a Labrador retriever named Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins).
But by the middle of the first season and throughout its spectacular second one, “BoJack Horseman,” created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, revealed itself as another, much more thoughtful creature.
Tired of living on the residual money and fame from his corny hit ’90s sitcom (“Horsin’ Around,” about a horse who adopts three human children), BoJack decides to pursue his dream of starring in the biopic “Secretariat.” (Tagline: “He’s tired of running in circles.”)
The process forces him to get serious about his work, to confront the number of people he’s hurt over the course of his career and, ultimately, to grapple with his own self-destructiveness and depression.
BoJack is right in the wheelhouse of Arnett, who has played self-centered oafs like Gob Bluth in “Arrested Development.”
But he’s also deeply, well, human: self-absorbed, self-destructive, but self-aware enough to know that he wants to be better than he is, even as he fails.
In the third season, which is available on Netflix, BoJack has realized his goal, kind of.
After he flaked out on the set of “Secretariat,” the director completed his scenes by using a CGI horse, which, it turned out, played the role better than BoJack himself.
Now he’s doing an awards-season press tour under the eye of his “Oscar whisperer” publicist, Ana Spanikopita (Angela Bassett), taking credit for the work of an improved electronic simulacrum of himself.
For the BoJack we thought we knew in the beginning of the series, this might be enough: praise, validation and love, without having to work for them.
Now, he realizes, he wants to be good enough to have done it.
But actually doing the work is hard, and in the amniotic infinity pool of celebrity that BoJack floats in, there are too many incentives just to do the easy thing. BoJack is, among other things, an addict — booze, drugs, sex — and the endorphin rush of public adulation is one of the toughest buzzes for him to kick.
The Oscar campaign provides the arc of the new season, as BoJack endures press interviews (including one with a reporter from “Manatee Fair”) and schmoozes with industry types at parties including a “bat bat mitzvah,” where the young celebrant becoming an adult is, in fact, a bat. (“BoJack” is not above a broad animal joke; when Ana orders soup in a restaurant, the waiter who brings it is, naturally, a fly.)
The absurdist comedy and hallucinatory visuals match the series’ take on Hollywood as a reality-distortion field. But the series never takes an attitude of easy superiority to its showbiz characters.
At heart, “BoJack Horseman” is a comedy about lonely people (and animals) who are never by themselves.
That melancholy spirit comes through beautifully in the stunning fourth episode of the new season, in which BoJack has to attend the premiere of “Secretariat” at the Pacific Ocean Film Fest, held underwater.
When he arrives by submarine, he’s fitted with a diving helmet that muffles the sound, and the sea creatures speak in unintelligible squeaks.
He can’t understand anyone, and no one can understand him. Cranky and confused, BoJack wanders off and ends up on an underwater bus, helping a pregnant male sea horse (biology lesson here) deliver a litter of babies.
The episode unfolds almost entirely free of dialogue, with a trippy electronic score. I could watch it again and again. It’s like a marriage of “Lost in Translation” and a Chuck Jones Looney Tunes short: haunting, disorienting and ingeniously slapstick.
But the episode is also distinctively “BoJack” in the way that it forces its protagonist to push past his alienation and, briefly, care for someone other than himself.
Show business is this comedy’s setting, but its real subject is connection, and the hurdles that people put in the way of it.
For “BoJack Horseman,” the race to happiness is not a straightaway; it’s a steeplechase.