The third season of Netflix’s surprise animated hit brings the expected mix of comedy (sharp dialogue, pop-culture references, Hollywood satire, animal puns) and genuine heart. It’s a comedy show which isn’t afraid to be genuinely sad, or to have almost entire episodes avoiding gags while progressing the often bittersweet and angst-filled drama.
The second episode, set in 2007, is indicative of the comedic aspect, a twenty-five minute comedy tour-de-force full of piercing celebrity satire, rapid fire banter and knowing in-jokes (although you could argue it’s easy to load up the pop-culture zingers when you’ve had nine years to write them.)
Rather than sticking to a comfortable format, the writing team is also prepared to take risks, at least on an episode-by-episode basis. Episode four contains almost no dialogue (it’s largely set underwater….you’ll see when you get there), but works thanks to an excellent score and strong visual storytelling. Taking away one of BoJack’s strongest suits (the dialogue) could have been a huge backfire, but everyone involved raises to the challenge and creates what could be the series highpoint to date.
The episode also serves as a reminder of one of BoJack’s other key strengths: the world building. From little signs and interactions going on in the background of scenes, to little sketches that play out as opens for new scenes, the anthropomorphised world of Hollywoo is rich and alive. Also, everything happens for a reason. It’s a joy to watch as a throwaway joke one episode becomes an important plot point down the line and the meticulous planning of the creative team pays off as things link together.
Some episodes don’t fully work – Episode six seems to be on the verge of saying profound about the battle between the Pro Choice and Pro Life camps; as well as the modern 24 hour media culture that allows us all to form ill-informed opinions about people we will never know in situations drastically different to our own; but fails to pull it off with anything like the panache and satirical genius that has become the hallmark of say, South Park at its zenith. It’s far from a poor episode; but reminds that when BoJack does pick its satirical targets it should stick to what it does best: directly targeted Hollywood satire and ruminations on the loneliness of fame. And animal puns.
After a strong start, things peter out before the end, with a series of episodes that lack the sharp humour of earlier instalments and for once the dramatic elements fail to hit home. For all the risks the writers are prepared to take in individual episodes, they’re very staid and rigid in their story arcs. The problem is we’ve seen it all before: BoJack is caught in a circle of depression and destructive behaviour, he then realises the hurt he’s caused and his remorse makes him do more destructive and hurtful things. The situations are slightly different each time but the basic drama is the same has it has been for three seasons now. Yes, it’s hard to break a cycle when you’re caught in one; a point the series raises, but seeing the same story happen again and again for three years, with the same troughs and peaks at the same places in a season doesn’t make for the most fresh and entertaining of programmes. The support cast are stuck in a rut too; Princess Caroline looks for love, Mr. Peanutbutter and Diane work on their relationship. Character Actress Margo Martindale does something insane and hugely illegal to avoid being arrested. Their stories are unchanged.
Also some of the supporting characters feel more sidelined then ever. This is especially true of Brie’s Diane; who one episode aside is rarely involved and hardly linked to the main storylines at all.
After a couple of the shakiest episodes yet, the finale picks up; providing laughs and paying off on a few elements which have been building all season; but even that feels like it’s doing a balancing job of providing dramatic resolution to the previous episode’s cliff-hanger (it fails) and setting up some hooks for season four (many of which, to be fair, are interesting.)
On the whole it’s a tough one to rate: If you take what seems to be the blueprint for a season of BoJack (a few out-and-out comedy episodes to kick off before the character drama and musings on the emptiness of celebrity takes over) it’s pretty strong and arguably the best overall season yet; and as a satire on Hollywood and celebrity culture it’s still cutting; but taken as the third season of a continuing drama? Then, the drama doesn’t seem to be continuing at all.
The Verdict: When it’s funny it’s still outstanding, but after a very strong start season three runs out of steam. A little variety in the format should make the already commissioned season four a home-run. As it is, season three is still strong, but getting a little too familiar.