As the first month of 2020 draws to a close, two things hang in the balance. One is the fate of the whole of humanity; the other is the fate of one rather damaged cartoon horse. On the surface, glossy sitcom The Good Place and acerbic animation BoJack Horseman do not have much in common. But with their final episodes dropping this week, the bracket of “cerebral TV comedy” is losing two shows that have uprooted expectations and shrewdly asked questions of what it means both to be good and to be happy.
Neither show is an easy sell: one a high-concept comedy about moral philosophy set in the afterlife; the other an anthropomorphic satire of celebrity culture centred on a Hollywood has-been horse reckoning with his own unhappiness. But both became critical and word-of-mouth successes, providing escapism, wit and warmth, not to mention an unexpected penchant for puns, from The Good Place eateries such as Sushi and the Banshees to BoJack’s endless riffs on celebrities, like Quentin Tarantulino and Cindy Crawfish.
There were other similarities, too: both shows feature self-destructive protagonists – BoJack, voiced by Will Arnett, and Kristen Bell’s self-obsessed “Arizona dirtbag” Eleanor Shellstrop – who begin to recognise the error of their ways and attempt to forge meaningful relationships that, until then, had eluded them. Their momentum is towards betterment, overtly so in The Good Place and far more complicatedly in BoJack, and in direct opposition to most TV comedy they deal in consequences.
As each examined what it means to be a good person, The Good Place wrote its ethical lessons on a blackboard while BoJack used animation as a lens through which to make its points, directly naming men implicated by real-world scandals, as the show tackled its own corresponding #MeToo storyline. BoJack has eased us into the end, splitting its final season in two, as we await the fate of the washed-up, egotistical figure at its heart. We care because the show has so painfully explored BoJack’s heartbreaking inner monologue and depression, without letting his terrible behaviour off the hook. It has repeatedly been praised for showing tough subject matter unprecedented empathy, allowing entire episodes to plunge into the mind of BoJack’s dementia-suffering mother, or giving him a 22-minute monologue at her funeral.
The Good Place has similarly pushed boundaries. By definition, situation comedies are usually anchored by one solid premise, with the comedy generated by familiarity with the characters. The Good Place is not only set in a limitless afterlife but is primarily driven by its characters’ growth. It promised cute but delivered conceptual, and can certainly be credited with reclaiming the plot twist from soapland. Although later seasons have somewhat failed to live up to the ingenuity of the first two (partly due to baggier storytelling, splitting up core characters and some unforgivable Australian accents), it has maintained its element of surprise, with a recent episode featuring D’Arcy Carden playing multiple versions of her character, Janet, necessitating the kind of visual effects a half-hour comedy would not normally attempt.
In the golden age of TV, each has given us standout episodes. For BoJack, it was Fish Out of Water, set underwater and without dialogue. An exquisite, blisteringly sad silent film of an episode, it epitomised the show’s inventiveness. For The Good Place it was the first season finale, when the already lofty premise was ripped up and, with it, the blueprint for modern sitcoms.
These were two shows designed for the streaming age, with a level of visual detail made for pausing, screen-grabbing and sharing. And at a time when TV audiences were being emotionally battered by the bleak and the bloody – Black Mirror, Game of Thrones, The Handmaid’s Tale – they offered something different. BoJack was part of a raft of series, including Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, You’re the Worst and Fleabag, that were broadly comedic but dealt unflinchingly with mental health. Once audiences saw past the Hollywood parodies, it went from kooky animation to a prestige sadcom that resonated deeply with viewers. Meanwhile, The Good Place widened the scope of comedic storytelling with its ambitious concept and approach to reinvention. You can feel its DNA in the likes of Forever and Russian Doll, shows that also probed the question of what happens when we die.
With the finish line in sight, the world-building that underwrites BoJack and The Good Place has evolved, and they have set a new bar, both for what is possible in short-form comedy and for how many sight gags can be crammed into half an hour. These characters have shown us that they – and therefore we – are capable of change and even redemption. Whether or not they will make it, we’ll have to wait and see.
The Good Place and BoJack Horseman are on Netflix now