At a glance, Bojack Horseman must seem silly to non-viewers. From the anthropomorphic animals, to the ridiculous names (how could anyone take a show seriously with characters named Mr. Peanutbutter, Princess Carolyn, and Bojack Horseman?), it’s easy to see why many could overlook the show as a standard juvenile cartoon. The show wears the ridiculousness of its premise as a disguise however, masking its adult drama about a self-destructive, alcoholic ex-celebrity with light jabs at Hollywood culture and animal puns. Make no mistake, Bojack Horseman is truly one of the darkest television shows out there, and I don’t say this lightly in a time when nearly every show is marketed as such. After three seasons of following our anti-hero Bojack (Will Arnett) as he continues to slip further into self-destructive behavior, with more devastating consequences each mistake he makes, Season 4 manages to offer a beacon of hope. Bojack may have done irreparable damage to his relationships, but his chance at happiness is never completely out of sight.
Taking the focus slightly off of Bojack, this season opts to spend more time with its other characters and their flawed relationships. Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins) and Diane’s (Allison Brie) shaky marriage is put under incredible strain as he runs for Governor despite his incredible lack of experience; similarly, Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) struggles to start a family with her boyfriend amongst fertility problems and his overbearing family. After his angry confrontation with Bojack in Season 3, Todd (Aaron Paul) has finally moved out, continuing his ridiculous entrepreneurial efforts under Mr. Peanutbutter’s unwavering support and learning to embrace his asexuality. Bojack himself has discovered that he may have a daughter, Hollyhock (Aparna Nancherla), and his senile mother (Wendie Malick) moves in with him. Season 4, even more so than its predecessors, is first and foremost a relationship-study, exploring how each of its imperfect characters interact with one another under stress. Though it’s neither as emotionally draining nor quite as compelling, Season 4 is undoubtedly well written and well voice-acted. Unfortunately though, it often winds up feeling more like an intermediate season, setting up a potentially final chapter to Bojack’s story.
A great deal of the comedy this season comes from its timely political humor. Controversial political issues have been handled before on the show, but never as overtly. Like with Fargo’s third season, it seems that most television cannot resist tackling the divisive 2016 Presidential Election, and Bojack Horseman is no different. Mr. Peanutbutter’s gubernatorial run is very much a stand-in for Trump’s campaign, though the two candidates are only superficially similar. Woefully out of his depth on politics and issues of debate, Mr. Peanutbutter finds himself in the now relevant situation of becoming a legitimate candidate for office simply because of his celebrity status and popularity. There’s a particularly humorous jab at President Trump found in Episode 7 (‘Underground’), where Mr. Peanutbutter rallies the support of donors trapped in his collapsed mansion by branding himself an outsider in his own home. The show also satirizes gun violence and feminism in its fifth episode (‘Thoughts and Prayers’), portraying a Congress that opts to ban all firearms rather than give women better rights after there is a small rise in female-caused gun violence. Though it is more apparent than in previous seasons, this political satire is never more than a playful poke at these very real issues, and is appropriately subtle and hilarious.
What Bojack Horseman is best known for is its unwaveringly sober and oppressively bleak depiction of depression, narcissism, and substance abuse. Season 4 eases up on these issues substantially. The show ultimately wasn’t really left with a choice. Season 3 was absolutely devastating, and to push Bojack to any further magnitude of depression would have felt repetitive and undeservedly gloomy. Instead, the show picks up after Bojack spends a year away from his damaged friendships in soulful thinking. Our anti-hero returns from his retreat not completely changed, but certainly more self-aware and cautious of his narcissistic tendencies. Both Bojack and the show itself feel like they are trying to figure out who they are this season. Balancing the toxic relationship with his mother and the newly-formed one with his teenage daughter is an interesting concept, but one that can’t help but feel underdeveloped compared to his interactions in previous seasons with Diane and Herb (Stanley Tucci). This isn’t to say the show completely sidelines Bojack’s flaws. Episode 6 (‘Stupid Piece of Sh*t’) is closest to previous seasons, giving us Bojack’s stream of consciousness, in which he continually refers to himself as a “stupid piece of shit” and second-guesses himself at every turn.
Perhaps the show’s most upsetting element this season is the progression of Bojack’s mother’s Alzheimer’s. In past seasons, we’ve been led to think of Beatrice as a monster, a mother whose incessant degrading of her son’s self esteem may have significantly contributed to his depression later in life. In the penultimate episode (‘Time’s Arrow’), we finally get a second side to her character, shown through dementia-induced flashbacks. As a child, her father groomed her to be someone else’s wife, wrecking her self-esteem and forcing her to constantly think about her appearance. At a formal date with a suitor, Beatrice meets a roguish, working-class horse (also voiced by Will Arnett) at the bar and sleeps with him that night, resulting in an unplanned pregnancy that becomes Bojack. We see the unhappy marriage that spawns from this mistake over the years, and finally understand her transformation into the abusive, chain-smoking mother Bojack has hated his whole life. To make these sequences even more tragic, the flashbacks are portrayed through Beatrice’s inability to distinguish past from present. She becomes anxious and confused as Bojack’s father in the flashback transforms to Bojack, and she mistakes Bojack for her old maid, Henrietta. It’s a particularly upsetting episode for anyone who has witnessed the terrible effects of Alzheimer’s on someone close to them, and it’s one of the most daringly dark subjects the show has ever portrayed.
Bojack Horseman’s fourth season is clearly a transitional season, which works both to its success and detriment. Having Bojack evolve as a character is crucial, but it also means losing some of the darkness that made it such a painful but cathartic piece of television to binge. As the audience, we have wanted Bojack to overcome his narcissism and depression for three seasons now, but now it seems the showrunners often brush these issues to the side as occasional comic relief. On the whole, the show has also generally lightened in tone, with the obvious exception of Episode 11. Unfortunately, this leaves the audience with a feeling that not much has happened over the course of its twelve short episodes, and that sentiment isn’t necessarily wrong. The season manages to finally end on an optimistic note for Bojack however, with his future not looking nearly so bleak. Hopefully Season 5, which could very well be the show’s last, will continue to explore the maturely-written relationships between its sincere characters in the satisfying manner we’ve come to expect from this absurd and resonant comedy.