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“BoJack Horseman," a strange and somewhat delightful animated comedy that began streaming Friday on Netflix, seems at first glance to have arrived several years late to the profane adult-cartoon genre.
It's about a horse who starred in a network sitcom in the 1990s called "Horsin' Around" (try imagining "Charles in Charge" if it starred a bipedal and far more articulate Mister Ed clad in Cosby sweaters) and who now languishes in the Hollywood Hills, whining and occasionally whinnying about his washed-up career.
BoJack is brought to life by the full-ashtray voice of Will Arnett ("Arrested Development"), who lends the character a perfect, gravelly disdain for the vagaries of showbiz success. "Breaking Bad's" Aaron Paul co-stars as the voice of Todd, a human layabout who has crashed on BoJack's couch for years. Amy Sedaris ("Strangers With Candy") provides the voice of Princess Caroline, a pink Persian cat who is BoJack's agent and occasional sex partner.
Yes, the cat has sex with the horse, of course - and it's mediocre sex at that, especially from the cat's perspective. This sort of visual barely registers anymore because adult-themed cartoons crossed so many lines, so long ago, that you sometimes forget to notice simple crimes against nature. That's precisely how this deadpan style of irony thrives.
Whether your animation studies take you as far back as the 1972 cartoon movie "Fritz the Cat" or you joined this journey with the works of Mike Judge and Seth MacFarlane, "South Park" and two decades of the Adult Swim oeuvre on Cartoon Network, there still remains a strange and even sick desire to see a genre meant for children (Cartoons! Gather round, kiddos!) subverted by the hang-ups and odd proclivities of adults.
Sometimes you arrive at a piece of animated work that both grown-ups and savvier kids can share (Fox's "Bob's Burgers" comes to mind), and sometimes you land on a show that, to borrow a phrase from the 1981 hit song "Bette Davis Eyes," knows just what it takes to make a pro blush. (FX's "Archer," for example.)
I mention "Bob's Burgers" and "Archer" only because I happened to give unenthusiastic reviews to both when they first aired, based on a couple of episodes - opinions which grew lonelier and more invalid as each show found its intended audience in ensuing seasons.
I promise that I've howled with laughter at dirty or simply inappropriate cartoons many times before. Viewers respond to cartoons in arbitrary and personal ways - even more, I think, than they respond to live-action comedies. When it comes to animation, something about it just has to click, and what might click for you might not click for the just-as-drunk guy on the other end of your sofa.
All of which is to say it took precisely three episodes for "BoJack Horseman" to click for me. (There are 12 episodes total; as per Netflix custom, you can watch them all in a row if you like.) Up to a certain point, the show feels like another shopworn commentary on the emptiness of Hollywood, produced by and for underemployed artists, comedy writers and voice actors.
But "BoJack Horseman" is better than that. Created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg (who was inspired by Lisa Hanawalt's animal drawings), the show rather cleverly and seamlessly imagines a world of complete anthropomorphisis. Animals and humans in this particular world are the same, with subtly humorous - even happily corny - results.
Here, Keith Olbermann (voiced by the real Keith Olbermann; "BoJack Horseman" is strewn with celeb cameos) is a whale with a nightly news commentary show on MSNBSea. The bartender at Pelican's is a pelican. Paparazzi are birds and pigs. Two lady dogs in the grocery store giggle over how much they love chocolate, even though it will kill them. BoJack's memoir editor at Penguin is a penguin. A Navy SEAL is ... a seal - you're getting it! When BoJack calls Princess Caroline's office, the hold music is always "Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats"; BoJack's nemesis, an overly optimistic sitcom actor and golden retriever named Mr. Peanut Butter (Paul F. Tompkins), has a car trunk full of tennis balls.
Stuff like that puts a viewer in the right sort of giddy mood that makes "BoJack Horseman's" longer and even melancholy story arc a tad more rewarding.