“You know what your problem is? You want to think of yourself as the good guy. Well, I know you better than anyone, and I can tell you that you’re not. In fact, you’d probably sleep a lot better at night if you just admitted to yourself that you’re a selfish goddamn coward who takes whatever he wants and doesn’t give a shit about who he hurts. That’s you. That’s BoJack Horseman.”
BoJack Horseman tricked all of us.
For the first half of the series, BoJack Horseman was fine. It was relatively enjoyable, something you could put on and watch the first few episodes of but not feel a major attachment to, an early stab by Netflix to capture some of the Adult Swim audience. It had a cast viewers would have plenty of affection for from other projects, even if they weren’t doing anything that would surprise anyone who watched those projects. It was funny enough, eye-catching, and unexpectedly dark on occasion, but it was the sort of thing that you’d watch and let float back into the stream. And it wasn’t just us—publications like The Boston Globe, Indiewire, UPROXX, and IGN were all lukewarm to the first six episodes Netflix sent in advance.
But if they’d given critics one or two more episodes, those early impressions would have been much different. “Say Anything” began to clear up the show’s mission statement, a focal switch to Princess Carolyn allowing it to move its undercurrents of loneliness and desperation to the forefront. And now, “The Telescope” draws it all into perfect focus. This isn’t a silly show about celebrity emptiness, this is a deeply dark comedy about how truly empty one particular celebrity is inside. BoJack’s navel-gazing, fragile ego, and sabotaging of himself and others have all been played for laughs over the course of the season, but what happens here isn’t funny. It’s raw, emotional, shocking, and upends everything you think you thought about the series.
Thankfully “The Telescope” doesn’t hit you over the head with that realization, but lets the tragedy play out in slow motion. Over half of the episode’s run time is devoted to a flashback as BoJack finally tells the story of Herb Kazazz, the old friend whose cancer diagnosis back in “Prickly-Muffin” has rattled his usual unshakable self-centeredness. We got a glimpse of this friendship in the opening “Zoës And Zeldas” flashback, and “The Telescope” fills in the whole story. Turns out Herb wasn’t just an old stand-up buddy of BoJack’s, he was BoJack’s best friend and partner in the trenches of trying to make it big in Hollywood. And he was also the giver of big breaks, the showrunner of Horsin’ Around who made BoJack starring in his show a vital condition to getting it on the air.
The flashbacks are split between the before and after of Horsin’ Around, giving us a vital glimpse at how success changed BoJack—a change already teased by the difference in flashbacks between “Zoës And Zeldas” and “Prickly-Muffin.” Herb’s girlfriend Charlotte (Olivia Wilde) bridges the gap by warning about this city and its industry pulling people under like the tar pits it’s built on, and it’s obvious none of that advice was heeded. Eighties BoJack is good-natured and friendly, keeping sober before auditions and working hard towards his dream of playing Secretariat in a movie. Nineties BoJack is a success and wants everyone to know it, insulting the writers and unable to stay out of the tabloids for long. Even with years compressed into minutes you can see his friendship with Herb deteriorate as a result of their supposed conquering of Hollywood, going from speaking in simpatico comedy routines (“Just say the thing. You don’t need to introduce the concept that there’s going to be a thing”) to barely talking at all (“I’ll jerk this limp script until it gets hard”). And it’s no stretch to see how this leads to present-day BoJack, who’s now removed from all that fame but still feels that the respect is owed to him.
When a sex scandal pulls Herb out of the closet and into the network crosshairs, he begs BoJack to stand up for him in front of the network suits. And BoJack, under consideration for his dream role of Secretariat, doesn’t. The sequence where ABC executive Angela Diaz coldly cuts down his objections before he even voices them is brutal to witness—even if a tremendously steely Angelica Huston wasn’t the one delivering the speech—because it’s exactly the way those of us who have seen 2014 BoJack would expect. Think back to the decisions BoJack’s made this season: not seriously discussing any part of his relationship with Princess Carolyn until “Say Anything,” not telling Todd that he didn’t want him to move out, not committing to tell Diane he had feelings for her. This isn’t a revelation, it’s pattern recognition, laying bare the weakness and desperation that lies behind all BoJack’s actions.
That synopsis may give the impression the show is being sucked dry of its humor, but that’s not true at all. Going back in time gives BoJack Horseman the excuse to pack the episode full of jokes about the past, rich with digs at the trends and fashions of the decades. The jokes could be too much, but writer Mehar Sethi smartly puts everyone on the same page early in the process, hanging the lampshade when BoJack calls out Back To The Future for heavy references and then ordering a New Coke. (Other beverages referenced: Herb’s Crystal Pepsi and the Zima BoJack keeps trying to like.) Lisa Hanawalt and her production team have a field day getting to render the Hollywood of old, the businesses and billboards of the 80s and 90s soaked to the bone in period-specific puns. It’s a scene designed for the show’s Netflix audience, the show finally taking advantage of the audience tendency to pause and rewind to get every reference.
“The Telescope” manages to diffuse some of that tension when we return to the present and BoJack reunites with Herb. Despite being pale and thin from cancer, Herb’s comedy is still sharp, and while it’s directed to cruel cutdowns of BoJack, the two soon find a common target in their unused Vitamix blenders. It’s the most effective move Sethi uses to convey the depth of the friendship between the two men, that even with all the years and hurt there’s still a pattern—conversations that may as well be workshopping stand-up routines, with punchlines the shared language. It works well enough that Herb goes to bed with a positive impression of the way the day was spent, and enough that BoJack swallows his nerves and apologizes for not being there when it mattered.
Herb’s response, in the most casual of tones: “I don’t forgive you.”
Just like that, the tension is back and amplified. BoJack Horseman’s spent a lot of time proving that it’s not Horsin’ Around, that it’s not interested in resolving everything by the end of the episode, but this is far worse than any blackmail plot or coked-out costar. Herb’s anger is real, and it’s justified—if you could see both BoJack and Neal McBeal in the wrong in their dispute, none of that’s visible here. BoJack was a coward in the first place, he’s even more of one for not facing up to it for almost two decades, and even if he wasn’t dying Herb doesn’t owe him a damn thing. It all culminates in a fight scene that director Amy Winfrey frames to maximum effect, pulling in and pushing out as each man attacks the other physically and verbally. Whatever hope or possibility of a resolution is in as many pieces as the telescope Herb gave BoJack so many years ago—a detail it doesn’t call further attention to, but that nobody can miss.
Oh, and “The Telescope” isn’t done ripping apart your emotions after that, as BoJack barely fights off a panic attack on the beach outside Malibu. Diane tries to console him—and even offers to keep the events of today off the record—saying that even if Herb didn’t accept his apology, what he did today mattered. So does BoJack thank her for supporting him? Does he admit that he was wrong and Herb was right? Does he say he’s going to do better in the future? No. He takes the coward’s route again, grabs the first thing resembling a lifeline in front of him, and kisses Diane. Who turns around, silently walks back to the car, and leaves him staring out at the ocean alone.
And that’s where it ends—no punchline, no cutaway, not even any words. What’s happened here isn’t being played for laughs, and it’s not the sort of thing easily forgotten in the next episode. That’s someone being brought face to face with the awful thing they did, and then turning right around and doing another awful thing. That’s a emotionally devastating moment that all the cartoonish drawings and pun work in the world can’t make better. That’s a show unafraid to give your emotions a swift kick in the urethra and remind you that when something’s broken, more often than not it stays that way.
That’s BoJack Horseman.
- Achievement in Voice Acting: For the first time in the history of this category, we’re going to have to split the award. Stanley Tucci is tremendous as Herb Kazazz, getting to play a lot of different sides—calm and supportive comedian, stressed and besieged showrunner, darkly comic and embittered cancer patient. Yet Angelica Huston’s network executive Angela Diaz is so confident and so terrifying, one scene is all she needs to make a run for the title.
- The action of the episode is intertwined with the shared Princess Carolyn/BoJack scenes toward the end of “Say Anything,” one of the more obvious signs that the creative team knows they’re constructing a show for Netflix where viewers will keep watching and impressions of the earlier episodes will still be fresh.
- Much as he’s left on the lawn at the end of the episode, Todd’s left out of the action, trying to get the car turned around in Herb’s driveway and ambushed by two girls loaded down with Kardashian swag. His ability to get through to the Celebrity Stealing Club and then get knocked out by them makes for a welcome distraction in the emotional heaviness of BoJack’s reunion.
- We also get to see a younger Princess Carolyn in the 1990s flashbacks, sporting a Rachel Green hairstyle and working as an assistant to BoJack’s old-school phlegmy-voiced agent Marv.
- “They’re nodding, which is the executive version of laughter.”
- “An off-the-clock, non-work-related social event? That’s the perfect time to pitch a TV show.”
- “And that’s Ubu, the guy who sits!” “He is a good dog.”
- “Wow, I didn’t realize there were so many day-hookers.”
- “Every one of your ideas is stupid or racist.” “That was one pitch, and I didn’t say they’re all thieves.”
- “This was a good conversation. Productive. If you’re lucky I’ll never talk to you again.”
- “Please come in, you’re letting out all the cancer.”
- “I don’t know why I came here.” “Yeah. You do.”
- Yesterday in Hollywood signs:
Horsin’ Around DVD Commentary:
- This will indeed be the final meeting between BoJack and Herb, as the latter passes away early in season two’s “Still Broken.” The prophecy that BoJack will be denied the final closure he wanted so badly will come to pass.
- Herb drops the first f-bomb in the series to date in this episode. The BoJack Horseman creative team will exercise similar restraint going forward, deploying it only once per season. And in every case, be it “The Telescope,” “Escape From L.A.,” or “It’s You,” it perfectly gets the point across: BoJack’s gone past the point of no return, and no other word will do. (In that vein, Herb’s “That’s you” is the spiritual predecessor to Todd’s “It’s you.”)
- The success of the 80s and 90s flashbacks will spur another such episode in “The BoJack Horseman Show,” right down to the same streets and musical cues.
- The Celebrity Stealing Club make a reappearance in “Love And/Or Marriage,” making off with Alexi Brosefino’s Klimt painting.
Tomorrow: BoJack tries to break up an engagement in “Horse Majeure,” and Princess Carolyn meets someone who could be the man—or three boys in a trenchcoat—of her dreams.