The first time I watched BoJack Horseman, I didn’t get it. This was around Christmas of 2015, and my younger brother was watching the first season when I was visiting my family for the holidays. We tried to watch the first few episodes, and the appeal seemed beyond my grasp. A Hollywood satire in a world where anthropomorphic animals live alongside humans, centered around a literary cliche of a rich, depressed, alcoholic, and middle-aged (horse)man?
I remember walking out of the room in the middle of an episode. I’d expect some of you, if you try the show, might have similar thoughts at first. It takes a suspension of disbelief, and if that’s too far for some viewers to go, that’s understandable. But those people are missing out on what might be the best show out there.
The fourth season premiered on Friday, and having watched the first half of the 12-episode run, it’s now apparent that the odd world of the show, and its animation, what might initially turn some people off, is actually the show’s greatest strength. It allows for the experimentation that’s become BoJack‘s calling card, while also framing the emotional depth and darkness (often the same thing) in a way that allows you to laugh at puns and visual animal humor while also feeling every single emotional body blow.
That’s not an original observation, but it’s a true one:
time to settle in for Bojack season 4, the sound you hear off in the distance is me laughing and then bursting into tears
— Brandon Stroud (@MrBrandonStroud) September 8, 2017
BoJack Horseman remains, technically, a cartoon with talking animals that’s also a Hollywood showbiz send-up, a sort of double-bagged protection for what it actually is: the most honest examination of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and self-destruction that we’ve seen in some time. This is a show where an ex-sitcom-star dog is now running for governor of California, and we see his ears perk up as he gives a speech at a fundraiser, because he’s just realized there’s an earthquake coming, which is a result of the fracking he’s allowed on his own property in Beverly Hills.
And though that sounds ridiculous, and what follows in that episode (which is delightful for both fans and haters of Zach Braff, among other things) is even more ridiculous, it all makes sense in context, and the silliness of it serves a vital purpose in cushioning other moments in the season, like Princess Carolyn’s attempts to get pregnant after turning 40, or Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter’s marital issues, or Bojack’s, well, everything.
The show has been telling essentially the same stories for four seasons now, and though it’s still laugh-out-loud funny at every turn, and we’re invested in just about every main character, it’s sometimes difficult to stay fresh when your entire show’s theme is “people don’t (or can’t) change.” From a narrative standpoint, that generally means the same storyline recycled over and over, where a flawed protagonist almost rises above his or her demons, only to be dragged down again. (See: Mad Men, another show that got away with it for the most part.)
Me: I like the funny horse cartoon
Bojack: you inherit your parents' trauma but you will never fully understand it
Me: haha the cops a cat
— minor dilficulties (@ruff_bluffs) September 10, 2017
BoJack Horseman avoids that feeling of sameness in a few ways. First, by spooning out more and more of the world it’s created, like the undersea city in season 3, or BoJack’s family backstory in season 4. And perhaps more importantly, by not being afraid to play with structure and format, even by episode. That undersea episode last year was one of the best for any series, and this year the show takes another chance by staging essentially an entire episode (“Stupid Piece of Sh*t”) inside BoJack’s head. We get his internal monologue (some of Will Arnett’s best work), which unsurprisingly is filled with the self-loathing and and self-destructive impulses we’ve seen from the outside for more than three seasons worth of episodes.
But that episode also features one of the more touching moments of the season, interactions with his illegitimate daughter (Hollyhock), who is beginning to feel similar instincts, and who hints at a similar inner voice in her head already. She asks if it ever goes away, and even though we just got plenty of evidence that it won’t, and that BoJack, as a character, might be irredeemable because of what’s inside him, he pauses, and then says it will.
An act of kindness, even if it ends up a lie, which he certainly thinks it is.
Maybe some people can change, after all.