Will Arnett is one of our finer character actors and his lighthearted, blustery machismo is a welcome addition to any TV show or movie he pops up in. Of course, his best known role is as Gob Bluth in Arrested Development. On that show, he’s an incredibly entertaining sideshow, but he leaves the heavy lifting to Jason Bateman, the de facto lead and Arnett’s real life BFF.
Arnett is eager to break out of the mold of character actor, though, and he wants you to see him as a leading dramatic actor. Flaked, his Netflix show that he co-created, co-wrote, and lone-stars in, is personal to him. He came up with the idea of a broken man biking around Venice, trying to avoid the ghosts of his past while he was going through a real-life divorce with Amy Poehler, his wife of nine years.
Flaked probably isn’t quite autobiographical, but it’s definitely deeply personal, and Arnett took the negative reviews hard. Truthfully, the show is a slow burn, and it takes about four episodes for the main plot to begin to take shape. Arnett plays Chip, a selfish alcoholic that sabotages everything and everyone in his life. Everyone keeps reminding him (convincing the audience) that he is a good person deep down, despite all evidence to the contrary. Chip routinely back-stabs his best friend Dennis, constantly flakes (hey! that’s the name of this show!) on his sort-of girlfriend Cara, and lies to everyone about everything.
Chip runs an unsuccessful stool shop that makes stools with only three legs. When asked why, he waxes about the beauty of making furniture that only meets the bare minimum requirements for standing up. And that’s Chip – only ever interested in getting by with the bare minimum. When we first meet Chip, he’s running an AA meeting in order to meet girls and make people like him. He can say all the right things, but he doesn’t believe them.
Chip’s story is a bittersweet tale about the necessity of hitting rock bottom and the importance of having a strong support system. It’s a good show, and it’s well-worthy of Arnett’s efforts, but it pales in comparison to Arnett’s other somber Netflix show, Bojack Horseman. Arnett voices the title character in the often hilarious, always heartbreaking look at a washed-up TV star (also he’s a horse). It may seem like just another vulgar animated television show made to appeal to men who still haven’t grown up, but it’s actually an intricate look at the causes of depression and loneliness. “Well, that’s the problem with life, right? Either you know what you want and then you don’t get what you want, or you get what you want, and then you don’t know what you want.” Moments like this – of the characters grappling with with their own purpose and morality – come often, and the show doesn’t shy away from the full emotional resonance.
Bojack, much like Chip, is depressed, but for entirely different reasons. Bojack hit success on a broad, wildly popular family sitcom in the 1990s (think Bob Saget or Tim Allen). Now, it’s twenty years later, and he still has the vestiges of fame — a nice house, an agent girlfriend, and fans that occasionally recognize him. But the show focuses on what he doesn’t have: love, self-worth, and happiness. Bojack ruins every positive relationship in his life and grapples with his various existential crises while not really doing anything about them. Sound depressing? It is! But his character is offset by the rest of the cast, particularly Mr. Peanutbutter, a literal Labrador Retriever. Mr. Peanutbutter was also an untalented ’90s sitcom star (Bojack contends that his show was a ripoff of his own) but he has no such crises. He’s eternally positive and optimistic, or at least, he has a bit of a different view on happiness. “The universe is a cruel, uncaring void. The key to being happy isn’t the search for meaning, it’s to just keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense and eventually, you’ll be dead.” So his worldview is just as bleak, but it’s masked by Paul F. Tompkins’ incessantly positive voice acting.
Of course, Arnett’s foray into midlife/post-divorce career isn’t particularly new material. Comedians go through tough times and they want to show their beloved audiences more than just their goofy side. There’s a long tradition of comedians grappling with tragedy and depression – from Charlie Chaplin himself to Jim Carrey to Louis C.K. The interesting thing about Arnett’s crisis is that it’s going virtually unnoticed. It’s unfair to give him all the credit for Bojack — that should go to creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg and designer Lisa Hanawalt. But there’s something that attracted him to the project, and there’s something that made him want to create Flaked. Bojack is the far superior show, but they both grapple with mortality and morality, and they both believe that even if you make bad choices, you can be a good person deep, deep down. I think Arnett has to believe that, too.