If you gave up on BoJack Horseman halfway through the first season, its presence on so many “Best TV Shows of the Decade” lists must be downright baffling. Critics from the Hollywood Reporter, Rolling Stone, and Entertainment Weekly all put the series in their Top 10s of the 2010s. Time hails it as “the best animated series of its generation,” while IndieWire calls it “one of the best animated series ever made.” Vanity Fair goes even further, awarding BoJack Horseman the No. 1 slot on its list, above such prestigious live-action fare as Fleabag, Atlanta, and Rectify.
It’s difficult to reconcile this kind of praise with the first episode of BoJack Horseman, in which the main character, a former ’90s sitcom star who is also—you guessed it—a horse man, projectile vomits cotton candy twice in the space of 25 minutes. Part of Netflix’s early wave of original series, BoJack Horseman started out as an above-average but fairly standard-issue adult animated comedy, satirizing the entertainment industry with medium cleverness and considerable raunch. In the first episode, for instance, we see narcissistic BoJack (voiced by Will Arnett) have sex with a human woman, orgasming to his own hackneyed performance on Horsin’ Around, a sendup of Full House and its ilk, playing on a TV just behind her.
There’s little in that first episode that hints at the show BoJack Horseman would go on to become: a daring, often devastating exploration of fame, depression, trauma, substance abuse, relationships, social issues, and identity. Though many of BoJack’s cohorts are, like him, anthropomorphic creatures, the show is so achingly human that it would work just fine even if you decided to ignore the fact that half the characters are animals (not that you’d want to—production designer Lisa Hanawalt’s unique hybrid style, and the show’s many related background gags, are part of the fun).
If you’re a newcomer looking to experience the show’s appeal for yourself, or you’re a returning viewer trying to figure out what it is you missed the first time around, you’ll need to skip ahead to Season 1, Episode 7, “Say Anything.” Written by Joe Lawson, who would go on to write many of the series’ other standouts, “Say Anything” follows BoJack’s agent, a pink cat named Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) who also happens to be his on-again, off-again girlfriend. After spending several episodes as a one-note caricature, here we get to see her at work, wheeling and dealing expertly with the likes of Cate Blanchett, Quentin Tarantulino, Cameron Crowe (a raven, not a crow), and BoJack, coming off one of his characteristic benders.
But Princess Carolyn’s professional life is thrown into upheaval after she’s undermined at work by her equally shrewd nemesis Vanessa Gekko, who despite the name is revealed to be a sinister, singsong human voiced by a gleeful Kristin Chenoweth. Her personal life soon follows: BoJack abandons the bourbon commercial Princess Carolyn set up for him, instead hanging around her office insisting that she’s “the best thing that ever happened” to him in an effort to rekindle their romantic relationship.
As a movie about Hitler’s mistress Eva Braun falls apart—and somehow becomes a romantic comedy—Princess Carolyn decides to take a chance on BoJack and let herself be happy for once, only to inevitably be let down. “You know the worst part?” she says. “I knew this was gonna happen and I let myself get excited anyway.”
It might seem strange to start watching a show called BoJack Horseman with an episode that isn’t really about BoJack Horseman, but “Say Anything” marks a turning point for both the series and the character. This is our first glimpse of BoJack as not just a run-of-the-mill selfish jerk but, to borrow a phrase from one of the show’s later seasons, “a barely scabbed-over wound of a person” who has been hurt in the past and now hurts the people around him. Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg singled out “Say Anything” as the moment when the writers could start to show that their central character is “not this fun asshole that can get away with anything.” It’s not the first time we see BoJack screw over someone he loves—a prior episode sees him sabotage the nascent success of his housemate’s rock opera so that he won’t move out. (The convoluted scheme involves enlisting the help of character actress Margo Martindale, who will become a regular guest star.) But it is the first time BoJack hurts someone in a way that feels real instead of merely cartoonish.
Though Princess Carolyn “always lands on her feet,” as she often says, “Say Anything” ends on a grim joke and a sad tune instead of the usual end-credits theme song. You’ll want to stick around for the even bleaker follow-up episode, “The Telescope,” which explains the bad blood between BoJack and his former friend, the showrunner of Horsin’ Around (Stanley Tucci). If the promise of something bleaker than the ending of “Say Anything” doesn’t speak to you, then it’s possible BoJack Horseman really isn’t the show for you. But at least now you’ll know what you’re passing up.