An animated series about an anthropomorphic horse TV-sitcom star, might be too high a barrier for some to give it a chance, but BOJACK HORSEMAN through its first three seasons has consistently provided some of the most honest looks at what being human means, and I’m very happy to say that that trend continues through season four. In its absurd reality of animals and puns, the show is always irreverently digging at the existential questions. What is it to be happy? Who are we and what do we really want out of life? Bojack as the successful yet constantly unsatisfied actor is an old trope that’s been tied to fame and fortune from day one. But in presenting this familiar story to us in the weird and often nightmarish reality of Hollywoo, his struggle is universalized and we find at the heart of the layers of jokes, the simple comic tragedy of what is to be alive without knowing why or how. It’s an incredibly wise show that should not be dismissed for its sillier gags and storylines, and I find its deepest moments to be more touching than almost anything else on television these days. This season’s focus is centered on Bojack connecting with the daughter he never knew about, and as they search for her mother the series takes a beautiful look at family and how we’re helplessly shaped by the generations before us.
After a fun premier catching us up with Todd and everyone else still in Hollywoo, episode two let’s us finally see where Bojack has been spending his year in seclusion after his drive to oblivion in last season’s finale. He’s been in Michigan rebuilding his grandparents home and trying to find some peace and quiet away from the fame he’s spent so much time working to attain. The episode is beautifully unraveled in dual timelines that swim into and on top of one another, giving us a context to everything Bojack has had to deal with in his life, namely through the childhood of his mother Beatrice. As Bojack works with his neighbor to repair the old home, we see his family dealing with post-war social mores and the destructive way they threaded through everyone’s lives. The episode is filled with in jokes about old movies and 1940s culture, but importantly ends with his grandmother getting lobotomized and imprinting a cynicism in his young mother that only gets paid off by season’s end. The compassion and understanding the series demands to give its least appealing characters forces us to never take anybody granted.
We watch throughout the season as Bojack has to deal with his senile mother whom he’s praying will have a moment of clarity, just so he can shove it in her face that she was a horrible mother is now going to die alone. It’s played for laughs and truly most of the interactions between them are hilarious. But the tragedy is that we get to see her whole story while Bojack is doomed to only see the sliver of his own experience. He doesn’t know about the mistakes her parents and husband made that pushed her towards being the horse-woman he was terrorized by all his childhood. By the end of it he still doesn’t know, and yet when the moment comes to tell her off and she finally recognizes him, he doesn’t have the heart to ruin her last moments. A weaker show would have equipped Bojack with all the knowledge of her hard life to evoke his sympathy for her in this scene. But Bojack doesn’t need that because ultimately he is a good person, and the rot that he’s been dealing with has been effectively put upon him by the hardships his family has endured.
Bojack for four seasons has constantly struggled with self-loathing and self-sabotage, but we finally get to see how that is only part of the greater story. His grandmother getting a lobotomy because of her grief for her dead son is not played for laughs. She isn’t a bad human for not being present as a mother to Bea, and neither is her husband for thinking that at the time a lobotomy might be a good solution. The effects of these decisions and actions though leave a lasting legacy of pain and internal calamity for the Horseman clan. Bojack decides to impulsively demolish the house and move on from the past in episode two. But those ghosts are a lot more work to exorcize beyond the symbolic gesture he takes, and it ultimately requires the possibility of building a new future by season’s end to give Bojack a chance. He may always carry the history of his family’s darkness with him, but at least now in Hollyhock, he has a sister to work them through with and find a way to not pass them on further.
This season brings in some new visual styling that also works wonderfully with the humor to pinpoint the emotional moments. Almost every episode this season has a flourish that extends the show’s visual scope. Take for example the animations of Bojack’s internal monologue as he works through his demons in episode six, or in “Ruthie” when Princess Caroline’s immigrant family history is revealed. These choices work extremely well in keeping up the humor while not dismissing the gravity of the scenes they’re portraying. I particularly loved the way the creators chose to portray Bea’s mental deterioration and how they kept so many of the characters in her memory faceless. It’s a deeply jarring way to present her psyche and evokes more empathy from the viewers than most live action films ever could.
For all the emotional strength the series has exemplified thus far though, I don’t want to neglect the fact that the show has some of the most well developed comedy writing around. It’s a series that doesn’t suffer fools gladly and does expect a certain understanding of culture and history to understand many of its jokes. But at the same time it doesn’t hold any disdain to those who lack the requisite info and so many of the bits are straight farce that work in plain sight. It’s certainly an added chuckle to know that one of Todd’s clown dentist’s is doing an Ed Wynn impression, but that character’s actions are still funny regardless. At one point Todd is told his new business is “a cotton candy nightmare of Freudian invention that shakes one to the core,” a line that speaks to the show’s typical expectations of its viewers intelligence, which I credit as just very smart and precise writing. The combination of that sort of precision to the humor, to the characters, and to the animations, makes Bojack Horseman one of the best series on television.
Season 4, Episodes 1-12 (S04E01-12)
Bojack Horseman airs Friday 9/8 on Netflix
Greg Brecher | Contributor