Bojack Horesman is Netflix’s attempt to break into the lucrative world of animation that caters to that holy grail known as the male, 18-35 demographic. The innovation of course, is that this is from Netflix, the pretender to the HBO crown of critically acclaimed programming. For all the success of House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, Bojack fails to hit the same mark and provides the latest scrap of evidence that making animation for anyone older than 16 is a conundrum the continues to bedevil anyone willing to take a crack at it. Why is that the case though?
The Simpsons proved that animation could cater to both kids and adults by using great characters, solid plots, and sharp humour. South Park proved that it could cater to an older crowd by tacking more mature themes and throwing in some coarser language to boot. Yet here we are, closign in on 25 and 20 years respectively from these two shows and things have all but dried up on the innovation front.
To some extent, all animated shows are a relative or variation of both of these shows. That includes Family Guy, whose influence on animated shows has become even more apparent in recent years as the Simpsons glory days slip further into history. Yes, it’s true, Family Guy has set the bar for the kind of toeing-the-line, raunchy, lowbrow comedy that can bring in the audiences.
On the one hand, that’s been good. It proves beyond all doubt that animation is not only suitable for kids, and that it can have broad appeal across many ages and demographics. That said, that show stayed within the comedy genre and its offspring are essentially facsimiles.
Which is where the real problem lies. Animation aimed at older audiences has become terribly stagnant and repetitive. Comedy has almost universal appeal, but not when all shows follow the same formula. Instead of sharp writing, the penchant seems to be for one-off jokes and cutaways. Funny to be sure, but hardly a base on which to build real characters and an audience with a vested interest in them. Remember, Family Guy started off as a character-driven show where the cutaways served to reinforce the characterisations.
The only mainstream show to arguably buck this trend was Futurama, whose blend of sci-fi humour and cast of characters that were neither married or a talking animal continue to set it apart from the crowd. Too bad its phoenix-like ability to rise from the ashes of cancellation has not been enough of an incentive for others to follow in its footsteps.
We haven’t even discussed how animation isn’t even the focus of animated shows any more.
Which makes Bojack Horesman all the more banal. It follows in the well-trodden path and offers nothing we haven’t already seen before with decidedly mixed reviews. Netflix has proven they are willing to take a risk and make innovative programming, yet they have played it decidedly safe when it came to animation. While this may be partly due to this being the company’s first foray into animation that isn’t for kids, it still says a lot when a kids network feels comfortable broadcasting an animated show with weighty, dramatic themes and complicated characters. (It’s Nickelodeon and Legend of Korra in case you were wondering.)
Aside from the scheduling problems that show has had, it appears that animation for older audiences is stuck in a bit of a rut. To make one common assumption as to why, it’s due to the taboo on sex in animation. To make a more accurate statement, it’s because nobody seems to believe that you can make such animation without sex.
Believe it or not, it is possible to make an animated show that is appealing to older audiences and not have sex or violence as the reason why. The appeal of animation as an artform is that it can portray almost anything in almost any style. The animated show that many cry out for is the one with cohesive storytelling and layered plots that have become all the rage in live-action programming. Why don’t we have a show of the cailber of Mad Men, or House of Cards to sink our teeth into?
There exists a glass ceiling of sorts that prevents this. Serious animation is seen as the preserve of features, and even then it is confined to a few select studios and directors. Perhaps it is because what is currently being done is lacking a degree of mass appeal. Perhaps it is because animation continues to lack the gravitas of live-action when it comes to drama.
The answer is that it’s a combination of many factors, but ultimately, until someone sticks their neck out and makes a really good show, animation for adults is going to be stuck with the kind of lowbrow, predictable comedy that we are all too used to.