Bojack Horseman. Archer. Rick and Morty. All of them are big-name shows, finding huge adult viewerships. All of them are worthy of the praise and attention lavished upon them. And, most intriguingly, all of them are cartoons. However, despite finding success within a few years of one another, each of them has carved out its own niche in this increasingly crowded sub-genre.
Archer hews most closely to what one might expect from an adult cartoon: a ridiculous, raucous, raunchy spectacle of anarchic violence, the show succeeds thanks to the quality and variety of its comedy. It is a masterclass in the modulation of various comedic disciplines, sometimes dabbling in gross-out humour, always replete with quick-fire dialogue, and perennially bursting at the seams with recurring gags. In fact, the show has developed such a rich tapestry of recurring jokes—be it Sterling shouting “Lana,” or the inevitable refrain of “phrasing” that follows every innuendo—that all it has to do is stitch them together in new ways to produce quality content.
This approach, this drive towards the distillation of pure comedy, is entirely distinct from those taken by Rick and Morty and Bojack Horseman, shows which marry their surreal hilarity with darker, more mature themes.
Rick and Morty, for instance, returns time and time again to Rick’s abusiveness, his oscillation between affection for his family and absolute disregard for their fates, between unlikely hero and vulgar villain. And yet, despite this interlacing of mature drama and madcap comedy, there’s something reticent about Rick and Morty. For all its off-the-wall humour, idiosyncratic gags, and wild plot twists, it seems somewhat unwilling to deal with the full ramifications of its darkest moments.
For me, at least, this is why Bojack Horseman stands above Rick and Morty and Archer. Bojack is, at its core, an exploration of the darkest recesses of the human experience. It is as much tragedy as comedy, as much a tale of depression as it is a colourful cartoon populated by anthropomorphised animals. While Rick and Morty might still have found great success if it had excised its forays into genuine drama, it is entirely impossible to imagine an iteration of Bojack devoid of the strain of sadness that runs throughout it.
Each of these styles has a place within the expanding territory of adult cartoons, and it would be entirely incorrect to suggest that Rick and Morty or Archer have somehow made a mistake by adopting different styles. Bojack Horseman, however, is a masterwork, an effortless blend of comedy and drama, and a series that deserves its place amongst the great shows of recent years, be they animated or not.