The Netflix Original animated show returns valiantly with BoJack Horseman season 4.
We seem to be at an absolute high point for animation. And while those handing out awards don’t always take notice, critics, consumers and creators seem to be putting their eggs in the animation basket.
Fall TV has officially kicked off, and on September 8 animated knockout BoJack Horseman season four hit Netflix. The series premiered in 2014 to decent reviews, showing promise but not to its fullest extent. But BoJack didn’t disappoint in the next few seasons, building steam and distinguishing itself as a truly singular show with a dark twist and a bleeding heart.
The show was created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg and stars Will Arnett as the world’s most beloved and be-hated sitcom horse.
For those unfamiliar with the premise of the show, it’s rather simple: in a world similar to our own, save for the anthropomorphic animals, BoJack Horseman is a semi-retired star of the Full House–like ’90s hit Horsin’ Around. Nearly 20 years later we find him self-obsessed and clinically depressed, still riding the glory that being America’s favorite horse dad brought him. Just as in the real world, Hollywood (renamed Hollywoo after some shenanigans happened to the D) is an unforgiving, shallow place that seems to only bring out the worst in BoJack and our supporting cast: his former costars, agent, competitors and family.
The roundup for this season, after the disastrous events of the last, is a story split between the primary characters. BoJack returns to Los Angeles after his depressive retreat and is confronted with his estranged biological daughter Hollyhock, his rival and the world’s most loved dog Mr. Peanutbutter running for governor of California, while his wife Diane’s attempt to find meaning in her work seems to contrast with her husband’s platform. Meanwhile BoJack’s former agent Princess Carolyn struggles toward a pregnancy, his former roommate Todd comes to terms with his asexuality, and we gradually piece together the story of BoJack’s abusive and now senile mother Beatrice.
For a cartoon, it certainly grapples with more true-to-life issues than most live-action television can.
In this season alone, we see issues of elder care, fracking, media blindfolding, apathy toward gun violence, health care for women, body image and street harassment — and all are touched on so efficiently that they barely need more than an episode to get the point across. And these are really only the minor issues touched on in single-episode arcs. We haven’t even gotten to the major themes of abuse, depression, family and the burdens of responsibility quite yet.
We will, but first it needs to be stated: this show has always been and remains a comedy. It’s a dark comedy, and it retains its unique brand of humor this season. The show has always been platformed on the dismal schadenfreude of its characters, but the humor rests in the basics of sight gags, animal puns and a plethora of silly tongue-twisting alliterations. BoJack Horseman season four is particularly ripe with those, by the way, so buckle up for eye-rollers beyond the classic “Neal McBeil the Navy Seal” (“I don’t know if I’ve got the pep in my step to take that show where it needs to go, you know? I’ve got a really pepless step, Shep!”).
But the goofy wordplay seems to be sort of a clever distraction to lift the spirits between feats of insanely dismal realities that BoJack Horseman is continuing to explore in exceedingly dark and depressing ways. (If you haven’t watched seasons one through three, spoiler alert!) And after last season’s cataclysmic feature of the death of child-star-turned-media-bad-girl Sarah Lynn, one would think it couldn’t get worse.
It pretty much doesn’t need to be said that this show has a unique way of being depressingly real, considering it’s sort of the show’s MO. BoJack has a history of reaching out and grabbing its audience in the most captivating but straight-up uncomfortable ways. I personally am no stranger to this, and have discussed my own distressingly personal connection to the previous season of BoJack.
Of course BoJack Horseman season four didn’t disappoint me. My best friend and dear roommate watched the day before I did and was sure to text my fiancé something along the lines of “Are you sure she can handle this season?”
So for those out there with mother issues and a history of parental abuse, this season is definitely for you!
This season fully introduced the character of BoJack’s mother Beatrice, whom Hollyhock is continually trying to redeem as just an old woman with crippling dementia. And while BoJack himself is on a quest to make her finally recognize him so that he can properly tell her off for the parental abuse she put him through, the overarching writing is continually almost redeeming her.
But what this show did masterfully, what made it so applicable to any victim of abuse, is that while the show fully and beautifully explains why Beatrice was the way she was, it never excuses it. Her story was a tragedy for certain, but by the end of the series I found myself finally actually taking BoJack’s side as he tells her to rot in her cell of a room at an elder care facility. It’s almost satisfying but not quite, and it really shouldn’t be. There’s no joy ever taken in vindication toward an abusive parent, and the way I could personally relate was, as it was last time, nothing short of skin-crawling. Beatrice was understood but not redeemed: and it highlighted the way one should see an abuser. It’s possible to understand, but there shouldn’t be forgiveness in exchange for empathy.
It made me think back to how BoJack Horseman initially “got me,” and it traces back to the sight gags and alliteration puns that I was discussing before. This show is about a cartoon horse, and it has to be. It wouldn’t be able to succeed if it was anything other than animated.
Animation is reaching its pinnacle, as stated before, and it’s because there are things a story can achieve within a cartoon that couldn’t be achieved elsewhere. For most it’s in the visuals. But for shows like BoJack Horseman, it’s the subversion that the visuals provide.
The cartoon animals, the soft textures, the bright colors and the cartoony wordplay are really just a shiny and silly package over the dark and terrible discussion the show is going to pull you into. It’s a candy coating on a very bitter pill about the reality of how depression destroys your ability to form meaningful relationships and on how the damages our parents pass to us we inevitably pass on to our children. This show needs a cartoon horse to be the one to break your heart, because anything else would just be ham-fisted or brusque or too hard to approach.
BoJack Horseman season four has taken yet another swing at the harsh reality of a cartoon world and in so doing has taken aim at the awards the show so terribly deserves, accolades it has frankly been robbed of for the last three seasons.
Because ultimately this season is a buildup of the same formula that has worked and continues to work, a further exploration into the dark recesses of depression. It builds on itself, but BoJack Horseman season four is no great break from the BoJack that has been there for three seasons. It doesn’t need to be, and it shouldn’t be. It stays true to the show’s spirit but brings the audience deeper into this incredible world of anthropomorphic Hollywoo and the brightly colored misery that sits beneath it.