1. BOJACK HORSEMAN (NETFLIX)
Streaming services and DVRs have abounded in recent years with so-called “sadcoms” - half hour explorations of depression, ennui and the pretensions to artiste-ery of people who resent having made their names in the low arts of comedy. I’ve repeatedly ragged on these shows for being full of themselves, and there’s something perfect about how the funniest show on TV is a half hour exploration of the depression, ennui and pretensions to artiste-ery of a cartoon horse who resents how he made his name in the low art of comedy.
It’s also better at exploring that depression and ennui than just about any show on TV (last year, I compared it, favorably, to Mad Men more than its more direct cartoon peers). Despite being entirely consistent in both its comedic and emotional ethos for 4 seasons, it still surprises that some of the most affecting things I saw this year revolved around the disintegrating marriage between a woman and a deranged golden retriever, or the mid-life crisis of a workaholic cat racing against her biological clock with the help of a fertility app voiced by Harvey Fierstein (the voice you want to hear rasping “Let’s put a baby in you!”). And as I puzzle over why that is, I am struck by the idea that it is the animation that makes not just the jokey jokes, but the heavier emotions hit harder. With the auteur-driven “sadcom” – a Louie, a Maron, an Insecure, a Master Of None (takes breath…), a Better Things, a One Mississippi, a Girls, even some I really enjoy like Atlanta – the examinations of despair, addiction, prejudice, grief and other Real Issues can seem to carry an inescapable whiff of self-indulgence. And I think a lot of that is related to how we know the face on the screen, our guide through this exploration of Real Issues, also belongs to the creator, writer, executive producer and possibly director of this particular exploration, playing an at-best thinly veiled version of themselves that probably shares their first name. It feels like they are, to use Bojack’s vernacular, “fetishizing their own sadness”.
So the “heavy” sitcoms that work best for me tend to be the ones that have the auteur/stars playing roles that may be recognizable as their type of characters, but are definitely characters – like Baskets or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. They also tend to have a slightly larger cast to mitigate the solipsistic nature of the more autobiographical material. Bojack’s animated nature works at once to obscure those autobiographical (and thus potentially self-aggrandizing) elements by adding another layer to the performances, and to sprawl the scope past the myopic perspective of the main character, and to embrace the abject silliness that helps cut through any hints of pretension or treacle. I know I’ve said some similar things about Brockmire, Rick And Morty, and The Good Place throughout this list, and in other pieces before it, but I am adamant about this point: comedy should be funny.
And Bojack Horseman is really, screamingly funny. The grim psychological, and cultural*, insights at the base of the show never get in the way of delivering constant laughs, or drown the basic, hard-won hope (as opposed optimism) at its deepest core. There are certain fundamental truths that Bojack never loses sight of, no matter how bleak an episode’s final punchline may be: that the unfairness of life is both unrelenting and also really silly, that happiness is possible but really, really hard, and that stupid puns paradoxically get more worth it as their setups grow increasingly tortured and byzantine. It can be devastating, but it’s also the only sadcom where I always want to see the next episode right away.
Watch It For: “Popular actor and soundtrack artisan” Zach Braff being burned alive and eaten by Jessica Biel. Although it is a refusal to eat an avocado, rather than said act of cannibalism, that derails her campaign for governor of California.
*This season had an entire episode called “Thoughts And Prayers” all about a bunch of disingenuous cartoon ghouls using that meaningless phrase to ignore any inconvenient fallout from constant mass murders, which was released months before Las Vegas saw everyone calling out GOP lawmakers for that exact thing