‘BoJack Horseman’s Epic Bender Episode Is a Classic of Non-Linear Storytelling
BoJack Horseman, Netflix’s first foray into animated programming, is a horseman of a different color in almost every regard. Just when you think you’re getting the hang of the pitch perfect lampoon of Hollywoo(d) and all of its vices, it throws devastating emotional swings at you that show off its humanity and honesty. BoJack Horseman is one of the funnier shows on television, but it’s also one of the most brutally raw ones. The series’ storytelling has only gotten stronger over time, but the show’s most recent season also sees the series trying a number of stylistic experiments that show a growing confidence. Much fanfare has been raised over this latest season’s silent episode, “Fish Out of Water” — and rightly so — but other installments push storytelling limits in creative ways, too. “Stop the Presses” is an episode that involves so many frame narratives that it ends up becoming a joke about the concept. The episode from the season that I think is the true stand-out though, both in terms of intense emotion and inspired structuring, is the season’s penultimate entry, “That’s Too Much, Man!”
At this point at the end of the season BoJack is really at his nadir and continuing a terrible tailspin. He teams up with Sarah Lynn, someone who he knows can be just as self-destructive as he is, and the two go on the bender to end all benders. “That’s Too Much, Man!” is essentially a scathing episode all about the dangers of being an alcoholic and addict, but what’s really special about it is that the entire thing is told through blackouts. That is to say, time jumps around in a chaotic nature, as BoJack continues to “come to” in new situations with his blackouts dictating the story progression. It works especially well because this frenetic way of telling their story is happening because they’re indulging so heartily throughout this episode. It’s not just doing something flashy to be different; it’s letting their emotional states infer the story structure in a synthesis that just works so well.
BoJack’s blackouts are certainly a scary thing, and made even more so by the fact that he really isn’t in control this episode. He’s forgetting most of what’s going on. We’re missing full musical montages and costumes sequences due to these debilitating blackouts. That being said, these blackouts are also used to tremendous comedic effect and are a brilliant thing to structure an episode around. I think it’s fair to say that one of the most beloved episodes of Futurama is their time jump installment, “Time Keeps on Slippin’.” It’s a master class in how to cram a crazy amount of jokes into 22 minutes of television where you’re simply getting an excess of punchlines with none of the fat. “That’s Too Much, Man!” arguably outperforms that episode of Futurama, while also having an infinitely more tragic core.
The efficiency of this episode’s structure is really what blows me away here. Community’s “fake clipshow” episode operates with a lot of the same manic nature that then doesn’t try to explain itself. Once more though, the core and theme of BoJack is what pushes this one further. This is a show that has grown so much. Its world and cast of characters has ballooned so greatly; this episode focuses just on two people yet still has no difficulty creating a whole cast’s worth of jokes. There’s a largely held belief in comedy writing that shorter is better and this episode’s structure allows that in the best possible way. The fact that BoJack’s increasingly unaware of what’s going on around him only heightens the situation.
This episode steamrolls through jokes like nobody’s business with every single blackout leading to a delightful new set piece, all of which manage to set BoJack back further on his progress. There’s a heartbreaking scene where BoJack takes over an AA meeting and talks about how much damage he’s done and how it’s all just part of an ongoing pattern for him. What’s worse is that this doesn’t improve. He just keeps doing worse things, we see that he feels bad about them, but just isn’t capable of changing. These blackouts quickly transform into presenting a nightmare version of amends for BoJack. This is a whole episode where you’re saying, “Oh BoJack, don’t…” while watching through your hands.
And then a blackout smash cut will have you laughing harder than before. It’s crazy.
This bipolar quality of the episode is also very emblematic of the relationship that BoJack and Sarah Lynn share. This episode focuses purely on them and their unique and poisonous bond and all the different stages that it’s been through. They’re on an eerily parallel path, especially with Sarah Lynn nonchalantly becoming an Oscar winner on the very night of their bender. These blackouts persist until the very ending when BoJack needs the greatest sobering up of all. The episode’s message hits more than ever in the wreckage of its final minutes with the silver lining being the hope that maybe this will be the straw that break’s the horse’s back and has BoJack pull himself together. Otherwise, he’s going to be next.
BoJack Horseman’s third season goes to many fun, ambitious, exciting places, but the episodes that stick the hardest are the ones that find a way to marry together the series’ very two distinct halves. There’s no better example of that then, “That’s Too Much, Man!”