Sometimes life is like the second season of Friday Night Lights. You got to push through and hope there’s better stuff ahead. – Princess Carolyn
Netflix is a haven for variety and originality in its exclusive programming, which has set the bar not just for streaming services, but arguably for television as a whole. While attending the ATX Television Festival in June, I listened to executives from FX, Showtime, NBC, HBO, and Hulu all sit on stage together and toss a few jokes Netflix’s way. While it was largely good-natured, there was clearly at least some semblance of envy in respect to the behemoth’s successes and maybe more so in its ability to burn money if it had to in order to pump out something new.
Although Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale is 2017’s biggest streaming revelation, in terms of sheer attrition, Netflix wins and it’s not even a close race. There’s a variance of quality within the Netflix originals, where for every Narcos, there’s a Santa Clarita Diet, and for every GLOW, there’s an Iron Fist. Generally, however, there’s something for everyone on the service.
Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s BoJack Horseman is a series that doesn’t appear to be for the widest audience, but as I’ve written many times before, it’s not just one of Netflix’s best, it’s been one of television’s best since the midway point of its first season. We’ve now arrived at Season 4 of BoJack, which often is the time when a once iconic, once great series starts to show signs of age. The initial ideas wear a little thin in the third year, and writers rooms take risks to differentiate what IS now from what WAS then.
It’s not always the case, but we’ve seen many examples of shows that found their creative peaks at some point in the second year, held onto it for a third, and then began to decline. The first part of that certainly applies to BoJack Horseman, as Season 2 was nearly perfect television. Season 3 was almost as good, but went a little further into the bizarre to tell its story. It did feature the best TV episode of any type in 2016, the utterly brilliant “Fish Out of Water,” which took our wounded protagonist underwater in a 25 minute romp where he (and everyone) couldn’t speak.
Season 3 saw BoJack staring longingly at wild horses running through the desert, following more professional and personal failures. The barrier to entry for the series has always been the animation, which is simply a turn-off for a certain segment of adults unwilling to accept that storytelling doesn’t require live action or human actors to succeed. Keep in mind that none of your favorite books featured actors, and remember that Mad Men is just as much a fake creation as Archer, Bob’s Burgers, or Batman the Animated Series.
Still, regardless of quality, I have to sell BoJack and Rick and Morty harder than anything else, because some people simply will not open their minds to the possibility that what they deem normal isn’t entirely so. Or, even if it is, “normal” is meaningless. Great fiction can come from anywhere, and in the case of BoJack Horseman, not only has the story been good, it’s also been among television’s darkest. Will Arnett’s voice can certainly provide laughter, but when necessary, it can also be the most depressing sound available anywhere on the flat screen.
The ad campaigns and teasers for Season 4 asked “Where’s BoJack” and also revealed a California gubernatorial campaign for Paul F. Tompkins’ popular Mr. Peanutbutter character. Without doubt, Raphael Bob-Waksberg and his team were willing to move the series into uncharted territory. And, in the season opener, we spend our time with just about anyone not named BoJack Horseman. In fact, throughout the season, we often watch the characters we’ve come to know and love (or loathe) interacting in previously untapped universes.
And, most of the time, it works.
That’s the story of BoJack Horseman‘s fourth season, which is uneven, daring, and only partially successful. This is one of my favorite shows on television, so believe me when I tell you, I wanted to like the complete new slate of episodes more than I did. Coming off two stellar seasons, it felt like there was a little bit of overthinking to portions of the proceedings. It certainly has many highlights, and brings with it some of the series’ most impressive dialogue, but when it was over, for the first time…
I was a little, just a little happier to be done with this part of the story.
Sometimes, a band reinvents its sound, but the audience isn’t done with the original vibe. That’s not entirely applicable to BoJack Horseman, because at its essence, this is still the same show, but the new sheen and the creative direction has shifted. For example, Mr. Peanutbutter and Diane Nguyen’s (Alison Brie) marriage has always been rocky, but the rift takes center stage as the former attempts political aspirations and the latter spirals yet again into a spot of self-loathing and depression from absence of purpose.
BoJack Horseman, if boiled down to one concept, is about various people attempting to discover happiness and inner peace. Whether a former Hollywood sitcom star, an agent, a squatter, or a third wave feminist, everybody on this show is searching for something lasting and emotionally satisfying. The show doesn’t exist to help them find it long term, but to rely on short term successes and near immediate falls from grace. The lesson, even if unintentional at times, is smiles can be fleeting, but what we do and how we treat people often do follow us much longer than the awards, the trophies, the money, and the adulation.
When it’s at its best, this is a show that places its most recognizable players in the same orbit. BoJack interacting with his sometimes agent, sometimes girlfriend, sometimes manager, and sometimes neither, Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), has brought some of the show’s best drama, as have his scenes with Diane. Season 4’s strongest moments often feature BoJack and Diane together, as they’re the Harry Potter and Hermione Granger of Bob-Waksberg’s book series.
This is the strangest of BoJack‘s four seasons, transporting us to Michigan for nearly an entire episode, underground for an episode, and many decades into the past for an episode. We don’t journey under the sea this time around, but the inherent problem with so much going on is that much of it feels disjointed. We are never able to get comfortable with what’s happening, because something’s around the corner that’s going to turn it on its head, or take us to a completely unique place. This sounds like it would be a good thing, and often it is, but it doesn’t always pan out to the show’s benefit.
I’ve been more negative towards this season than at any other time I’ve discussed BoJack Horseman, but that’s not to say it’s in any way bad. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the past two, although the ninth episode, which is a Princess Carolyn daydream to escape the punishing realities of her life, is another instance where this show can do sorrow and depth unlike any other. Todd Chavez (Aaron Paul) is sometimes at his best and sometimes very much not, but engages in his most over-the-top scheme and character arc yet, featuring clowns and dentists, which coincidentally times out well with the widespread release of It.
We meet a super-important BoJack relative early, and she remains with us throughout the season. I will mention her only in the vaguest of terms because she’s arguably the largest storyline of the year, carrying through to the finale, and detailing it would be a disservice to you as viewer, as well as to the enjoyment of the series. We also spend a good bit of time with BoJack’s mother, Beatrice Horseman (Wendy Malick), and even see how she evolved into the hateful memory her son always sees when he thinks about her. She wasn’t always the woman she is now. There was a cause.
Again, past informs upon present, and the negatives often endure, while the positives are fleeting.
Is this the darkest season of BoJack Horseman? Perhaps, although nothing quite stings the way the Charlotte storyline tied up in New Mexico two years ago with a near sexual experience involving the teenage daughter of a hopeful love interest. That said, there is some TOUGH stuff within the 300 or so minutes of fresh content.
This is also a more political season, and although BoJack Horseman has been willing to tackle issues such as abortion or animal rights, because of Mr. Peanutbutter’s aspirations towards office, we get into gun control, fracking, and a few other hot button concerns. As usual, we do get arguments on both sides, even when the slant is there to be found.
The lunacy and relative ineptitude of the proprietor of PB Livin’ running for Governor is a bit more than just a subtle dig towards the current inhabitant of the White House. Mr. Peanutbutter takes popular positions, despite what he believes (which may actually be nothing), and he pushes some facts, but mainly relies on feelings. That’s not an aberration in politics, and it’s right at home within the BoJack universe, as well as society at large.
The wonderful Andre Braugher joins the voice cast as Woodchuck Couldchuck-Berkowitz, the current Governor of California, and Mr. Peanutbutter’s rival. Of course, in the world of PB, nobody is a true enemy, because his defense mechanism is an attempt at blind optimism as often as possible. These two provide the season’s best comedy, and much of this side of the story is a joy to watch.
What comes in the tail end of the season, which is awfully strong, is that these humans and animals are at least beginning to recognize who they are, as opposed to who they want to be. Whatever the current station in life, it might be a sham, and they seem exhausted by the con. For BoJack himself, his work takes a backseat to his personal life in a much different way than before, and brings with it a legitimately hopeful, almost positive conclusion following an appropriate plot reveal. Even Season 2, which exited after an optimistic uphill running metaphor, didn’t leave the feeling this one does in its last 30 seconds.
The Hollywood satire is as good as ever, the dialogue as crisp as ever, and the characters perhaps more rich than we’ve ever seen them. BoJack Horseman remains one of television’s best shows. This set of episodes would be third on my list, behind Seasons 2 and 3, but it’s a matter of preference and not of quality. Raphael Bob-Waksberg, this incredible voice cast (which now includes the aforementioned Andre Braugher and RuPaul among others, and brings an incredible performance (and returning character) from Jessica Biel), and all the other talented individuals associated with this show have no fear, and they know what they want from this series.
I didn’t have as much fun with Season 4 as I did with its two predecessors, but the richness of story and the willingness to push even further into the psyches of a host of dynamic characters makes it another indispensable experience in a series full of them. Being “fun” isn’t the point of BoJack Horseman, at least not consistently, and thus the season succeeds as a balanced, effective, sometimes outlandish tale of the real and the unreal…and occasionally the absurd.
By the end of the season, BoJack, Diane, Mr. Peanutbutter, Princess Carolyn, and Todd are all far more self-aware than they’ve ever been. Season 4 is comprised of 12 episodes that vary in entertainment value, but never in narrative strength. Deep, depressing, but with a bit more nuance than before, it’s still a can’t miss series four years in.
What the mass awakening means for the future is yet to be determined, but what we can say incontrovertibly is we’ll be ready to see it when they’re ready to bring it.
I’m @JMartOutkick… Horseman… obviously.