What makes for good television nowadays? Personally, I’d argue it’s the same qualities that have made for good novels, movies, and even comic books. A story that’s interesting and progresses along instead of staying in the same situation forever, a setting that’s deep enough to have a personality of its own, or even just characters that are identifiable, but change and evolve in a way so that they’re never boring and keep your attention. It can just be one of these traits, or a mix of all three (and then some). Game of Thrones, Doctor Who, House of Cards, The Flash; all of these are series that have said traits, and they all have strong fanbases, along with critical acclaim. But they’re all live action shows with a focus on drama; what about an animated comedy? Can something like that achieve similar success? Well, if a Netflix original series and a show from Adult Swim of all things are of any indication, yes, it most certainly can.
Even though they’re both cartoons with... distinct senses of humor, Bojack Horseman and Rick and Morty are radically different from one another (and nearly every other show out there for that matter). Bojack Horseman details the daily life of a has-been TV actor who’s trying to mount a comeback for a career he never really had, in a Hollywood that’s populated with both humans and anthropomorphic animals. Rick and Morty details the adventures of a brilliant but alcoholic scientist and his grandson, who travel through the universe, and further on to the multiverse. One has more of an Entourage setting (but thankfully with a completely different tone), while the other is more like a twisted, down to earth version of Doctor Who.
As you’ve probably already realized, these shows have that “setting with a personality of its own” part down. While Bojack’s world of talking animals is mostly used for great visual gags (never ask a cow waitress for steak when you’re at the diner, by the way), R&M’s concept of jumping in-between alternate realities and other (mis)uses of strange science is used to great effect to explore damn near any situation the writers can think of. Shrinking down to explore a theme-park inside a sick person (“Welcome... To Anatomy Park!”)? Yup. An intergalactic version of American Idol where an entire planet has a day to come up with a hit song, or face destruction? You got it. Rick running into an ex-girlfriend, who’s a hive mind that’s taken over an entire planet? Of course. Heck, some of the situations are improvisations made up on the spot by the show’s writers, and they fully incorporated it into the show verbatim because it’s unbelievably funny to see stuff like that animated.
One thing Bojack does have up on R&M though is its overarching story. While R&M does have a firm continuity in it, an average viewer can freely jump into all but one episode, and have no trouble understanding what’s going on. Bojack though focuses on its titular star, and each of the two seasons focus on a singular story: season one is about Bojack ghostwriting his memoirs, and him coming to realize just how broken he actually is after denying it for a dozen episodes; season two is about him landing the role he’s always wanted (playing Secretariat, of course), while he tries to find something that actually, truly makes him happy. Rick and Morty is akin to the standard Adult Swim show where 90% of the episodes are all basically one-off adventures, while Bojack Horseman is like a standard Netflix original: it’s meant to be binge-watched, with a single story told over multiple episodes.
So one has a cosmically diverse setting, while the other has a singular, continuous story; what about the characters? Oddly enough, this is where both of these shows really shine. Bojack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett, who does some of his best work in years) is a defined, deeply flawed, but understandable character: he became instantly famous in the 90s through a popular TV show, and ever since has been riding that “fame” until the modern day where he has no work and like most Hollywood celebrities, has to grapple with his own messed up life and those of the people around him. He’s vain, a borderline alcoholic, sleeps around (more to avoid his own pain, rather than for actual enjoyment), and acts like he’s the most important person on Earth even when he’s out of a job. But over the course of the first season, he admits to being a terrible person, and throughout season two, he tries to fix himself as best he can, but ends up spectacularly failing and somewhat succeeding all at once.
There’s also his agent Princess Carolyn, a house-cat who’s his ex and is herself trying to find something good for herself since she’s on the steps of a full-on midlife crisis. The ghostwriter Diane Nguyen (played by Allison Brie) who wants to be a more respected writer, but has to settle for less than she expected. The happy-go-lucky but unwanted house guest Todd (voiced by Aaron Paul), someone who Bojack says he detests, but is probably the closest thing the horse has to a friend, and Mr. Peanutbutter, a Labrador who is the nicest person on the show, but is perhaps too nice for the world the show’s set in. None of them are great people, but they all have amazing chemistry with each other, and they are all ultimately identifiable.
This kind of character depth also exists in Rick and Morty. Rick acts like the smartest guy in the room (because he almost always is), and wants to do fun shit for the sake of doing fun shit, even when it’s extremely immoral... but like Bojack, he’s also a broken and overall terrible person (and he also knows it), albeit for different reasons. The show has yet to get into the cause of his depression and overall attitude, but there are several good fan theories out there. All we know for now is that he explores the universe just for shits and giggles, and unfortunately it’s usually innocent bystanders and his family that pay the price for said giggles. From his teenage, not terribly bright (but good natured) grandson Morty, to his stereotypical teenage granddaughter Summer, his faithful to the point of self-destructive (due to strong abandonment issues) daughter Beth, to his extremely unintelligent and despised son-in-law Jerry; the entire Smith family is already highly, toxically dysfunctional as it is, and Rick’s adventures do little to help their situation.
I could go further still into the voice acting and cameos each series has gotten (from Keith Olbermann as an over reactive newscaster in Bojack Horseman, to THE Werner Herzog as a intergalactic humanitarian in Rick and Morty), to the superb soundtracks in both series, but by now I should’ve made my point: these are for many good reasons truly excellent shows despite their unorthodox means of production, and you should be watching them. For the past two decades, American animation has been noticeably embracing more mature and diverse storytelling, and if these shows are of any indication (along with many others including Adventure Time, The Legend of Korra, and Steven Universe just to list a few examples), it’s has a bright future ahead of it.
Seasons one and two of Bojack Horseman are available to stream via Netflix, and season one of Rick and Morty is available via Huluplus, while season two is available for purchase through iTunes, Xbox Video, and Amazon Prime.
TGRIP is a film student studying in Portland, OR. TAY’s resident Xbox and racing game fan, he also (part time) reviews and does opinion pieces on games, movies, television, comics, and anime. He also runs his kinja sub blog Work(ing Title) In Progress. You can follow this third person narrating weirdo on Twitter @Dennis_wglasses, and his Gamertag on Xbox Live is “Aventador SV”.