To live in Los Angeles means forever catching glimpses of your street or favorite restaurant staged as a stand-in for someplace else. Moving around town becomes an exercise in avoiding those film shoots, a constant reminder that we reside on a giant soundstage, where at any given moment, a beloved block or building is being carefully snipped from the surrounding context.
In the last few years, however, shows have been set in actual LA neighborhoods, with characters referencing real places, sometimes with stunning geographic accuracy. There’s the show Love, which takes place in a well-known apartment complex in the Valley. In Transparent, the neighborhoods where the family members live, from Silver Lake to Marina del Rey, provide cues about their characters. LA’s noir past intersects with present-day addresses in the thriller Bosch. Issa Rae’s Insecure is probably the best example of the genre, offering a look at everyday life in South LA with locations as mundane as a Rite-Aid pharmacy.
But BoJack Horseman—the animated Netflix show by writer Raphael Bob-Waksberg and artist Lisa Hanawalt, who were high school friends—is the first show to create an entire Los Angeles universe that feels like it was made for people in LA.
For people who don’t live here, BoJack Horseman might appear to be an endless string of cliches: a narcissistic washed-up sitcom star (who is also a horse) voiced by Will Arnett, colonnades of palm trees, candy-colored convertibles, and jabs at celebrity culture. But tucked into the narrative are disarmingly familiar glimpses of actual Los Angeles—well, Los Angeles if it were mostly occupied by animals.
Every street scene sends me scrambling to hit pause. There are LA landmarks like Chateau Marmoset, Fred Seagull, Parrotmount Studios, and Moose-O & Frank Grill, but it doesn’t stop with obvious parodies—next door to Moose-O’s is Garcetti & Meatballs, the winkingest nod to our Italian-Jewish-Mexican American mayor. Billboard icon Angelyne is portrayed as an angelfish. Even small neighborhood businesses get cameos, like l.a. Aye-Ayeworks, Secret Hindquarters and confusingly named local grocery chains. A dutifully updated Instagram devoted to the hidden jokes has become the best way to catch the ones I’ve missed.
And then there’s BoJack’s modernist home, a sterile compound of excess rimmed in privacy hedges, cantilevered over the Hollywood Hills. Of course I mean “Hollywoo” Hills. The running gag pokes at the sign’s oft-altered history—and somehow never seems to get old. (The best part is seeing a map a few seasons later showing the greater LA area and noticing that, at some point, Inglewood changed its name to “Inglewoo.”)
Not all the LA inside jokes are visual gags. The storylines feature scenarios familiar to longtime Angelenos, like an effort to recall the governor of California and replace him with a local celebrity (which… actually happened), or the existential panic that sets in during an earthquake. Other people might find these scenes funny, but Angelenos are in on the joke.
Some of my favorite references are played completely straight, like the imposing granite fortress of the Stanley Mosk Courthouse, or an unassuming Capitol Records building seen in passing. At the end of season one, BoJack contemplates his future while staring out at the city from Griffith Observatory. The apartment buildings are the best. The way the freeway sails innocuously over a character’s 1960s-era post-breakup dingbat, complete with script reading “Le Triste”—we’ve all lived in that place. It’s just too real.
Many of the LA gags are added by the animators, according to Nick Adams, a writer for the show. “We watch the episodes and get surprised like everyone else,” he says.
But in recent seasons the LA references have become more pointed, more surreal, and more scathing. What I’ve realized is that the visual jokes are providing necessary comic relief as the show grows darker and, often, more difficult to watch. The fact that a rehab facility in Malibu is named Pastiches, with pitch-perfect faux-Tuscan architecture, provides a glimmer of levity during a character’s heartbreaking spiral into addiction.
BoJack is coming back for a sixth season, but the return is bittersweet. A spinoff, Tuca & Bertie, which had a triumphant first season, was not renewed by Netflix. According to Hanawalt, they are still looking for a home for the show, which is centered around two women characters, a rarity for TV, even if they are anthropomorphized birds.
Tuca & Bertie isn’t set in LA—it takes place in an exuberant, bustling city named Bird Town, which the animators say is a mashup of LA, New York City, and Mumbai. Imagine Broad City… but with feathers. And a public transit system operated by snakes, caterpillars, and snails. And buildings with breasts! And so, so, so many plants.
Where BoJack has me laughing sardonically at a city built and inevitably broken by men—and boy, does that describe Los Angeles—Bird Town has the bouncy, believable energy of a community designed by women, for women. I love nodding my head at BoJack’s LA—but Bird Town is where I really want to live.