So Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) renewed BoJack Horseman for a second season, less than a week after the grand premiere. To many Netflix customers, BoJack looks like an odd duck -- a cartoon about a foul-mouthed, anthropomorphic horse, strictly for adults -- that has no business getting a second season at all. In fact, that's how I felt about BoJack, based on the trailer and prerelease marketing materials.
But Netflix bases its business decisions on hard data, not wild guesses. So I eventually had to dive in and binge-watch the show. What's the big idea?
The first couple of episodes proved me right. BoJack really is full of easy jokes and juvenile humor, the kind that paradoxically pushes the show into a "mature" rating. Every line a cliche, you can construct the pilot episode's back story from cigarette butts, empty scotch bottles, and VHS tapes of Full House left to wither in the sun since 1995.
It's dirty, it's ugly, and kind of hard to watch. So I kept watching. "Dutifully" would be an accurate description.
And ... it got better.
Let me rephrase that. The show didn't change. My perception of it changed.
I started to understand what the show was really attempting to do. Seen in a new light, even the cringe-worthy pilot episode made sense on a second viewing.
Now, I get why Netflix wants more of BoJack.
Start with the story; the rest will follow
The main thing to know about this show is, the writers injected it with real, solid character development. That's rare enough in any show not named Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones these days, but even more unusual in a sitcom format. An animated sitcom, no less. That's three strikes against traditional storytelling techniques, but BoJack 's writers stepped up to the plate anyhow.
Let's start with the titular character, voiced by Arrested Development and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles star Will Arnett. He quite literally starts out as a bitter, foul-mouthed beast. By the end of the first season, you'll root for him anyhow. He starts to soften up while we learn why he's so jaded in the first place.
It's careful, piecemeal storytelling that probably wouldn't fly in a weekly cable TV format. Custom writing for the binge-viewing era.
If BoJack was the only character with a serious character arc, that would be enough to make his show interesting. BoJack Horseman goes further than that. Slacker roomie Todd, ghost writer Diane, agent Princess Carolyn, even arch-antagonist Mr. Peanutbutter (one word!) all carry their own storylines, sometimes intertwining.
You still have to get over the show's often foul language and don't-show-the-kids plot points. And at the end of the season, it's probably best to go back and rewatch the early stuff. Like I said, you'll see everything in a different light, kind of like going back to Walter White's early days in the meth business after absorbing Ozymandias and Felina from season 5 of Breaking Bad.
The network effect
That's the core of what makes BoJack Horseman tick. The story is strong, the voice acting always excellent (legends like Stanley Tucci and Anjelica Huston lend their voices to minor characters), and the many story arcs virtually scream, "Sequel!"
The presence of brand-name stars will help BoJack find an audience. Some might watch it to see how Breaking Bad alum Aaron Paul handles a voiceover role. Others follow Arnett over from Arrested Development, or Alison Brie from Mad Men. You'll note that all of these prior shows already stream on Netflix, extending BoJack 's potential fan base and increasing its eyeball-grabbing value.
Let me give you an anecdotal example. I liked the first season of Orange Is the New Black. When the first season ended, I wanted more material like that. So I noticed that Orange creator Jenji Kohan also stood behind Showtime hit Weeds, which was just a click away from Orange in the Netflix universe.
Now I'll watch anything starring Mary-Louise Parker and get a Pavlovian reaction to "Little Boxes." All thanks to Orange Is the New Black.
That's the spirit!
That's the kind of networking action Netflix wants out of BoJack Horseman. It's done by creating high-quality narratives with compelling actors and performances. Preferably, there are plenty of loose ends left untied at the end of the season, making viewers want more. While waiting for another season, the audience should branch out and start getting addicted to related materials in the Netflix catalog.
Netflix bets on reactions like these, based on more than a decade's worth of peerless audience data. This time, it's wrapped up in a challenging package -- let's face it, the cover art alone will keep a lot of people away. Many customers will never give BoJack a chance, and others will step out halfway through the first episode.
But the ones who stay just got drawn deeper into the Netflix experience. Sticky eyeballs; that's a good thing, right?