What is the point of art? Is its goal to entertain us? To make us think? Remind us how to feel, and how other people are feeling? To push the boundaries of storytelling, whether through live action or animation? Or is it some combination of all of these? Whatever the answer, BoJack Horseman has had all of these characteristics consistently throughout its four-year run. And as it wraps one of its best seasons yet, I’m willing to go as far as to say that BoJack Horseman is the culmination of art, bringing together every reason for its existence in one magical 48 episode saga of changing the game – narratively, visually, and emotionally.
It’s been a year since BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett) suffered a mental breakdown and disappeared. We don’t see him in the entirety of the first episode. Diane (Alison Brie) is writing for the Buzzfeed-esque blog Girl Croosh. Her husband, celebrity Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins) is running for governor of California. Princess Carolyn is trying to balance her job as a manager with her attempts to get pregnant with boyfriend Ralph Stilton (Raúl Esparza). Todd (Aaron Paul) is still living his carefree life while coming to terms with his asexuality. And BoJack? Well, when he does show up, it isn’t in Hollywoo – it’s in his maternal grandparents’ summer home in Michigan. However, the appearance of a seventeen-year-old horse named Hollyhock Manheim-Manheim-Guerrero-Robinson-Zilberschlag-Hsung-Fonzerelli-McQuack (Aparna Nancherla) may change things forever.
Each season of BoJack is about trying to live a good life while suffering from depression. Season One focused on admitting that there is a problem. Season Two focused on the realization that there is no easy fix. Season Three focused on realizing you can’t just blame everything else for your problems, you have to accept responsibility. Season Four is when things finally begin to progress, and the characters can finally begin to accept themselves in a positive way. BoJack may indeed be broken, and he will never be an “upstanding member of society,” but he isn’t beyond saving. This is the season where we begin to see that progress. Through the revelation that he may be a father, BoJack tries his best to change his ways, and to open himself up to the world around him. He makes amends with those that he wronged, he tries to do the right thing, and he tries to understand, for the first time, what it means to love his fellow human beings. Meanwhile, through these changes in BoJack, we begin to see those around him begin to come to terms with their own limitations, and work towards their own happiness. Todd finally understands who he is, and for the first time in his life, he begins to work towards accepting himself – a refreshing and beautiful arc considering it Todd is the first openly asexual character on television, and the show beautifully explains what that means in a way that helps not only those who don’t know about the orientation, but those who haven’t been able to understand themselves before. Princess Carolyn begins to understand her limitations as a human being, and begins to come to terms with what becoming pregnant at a late age is. A revelation coming late in the season, during the heartbreaking episode “Ruthie” proves this, taking on a serious issue in a thoughtful, emotional way, while still allowing for some of the darkest, most hilarious humor on television (I won’t spoil it here, but the Albino Rhino Gyno Wino has a killer Charles Lindbergh joke). And Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter begin to face the real, hard truths in their relationship that need to be addressed in order to finally be happy. The season never loses its dark, biting edge, but it knows that the path to escaping depression is through love and acceptance, and that is what this season chooses to be about, creating a more uplifting, human experience overall.
However, if this season has one theme beyond “acceptance,” it would have to be the importance of coming to terms with our past. And while no episode is as out there thematically as Season Three’s “Fish Out Of Water,” there are several episodes that play with the idea of time, in order to represent accepting our past to move into the future. In Episode Two, “The Old Sugarman Place,” time jumps between 2017 and 1945, tracing BoJack’s broken genes back to their creation in his grandmother, a brokenhearted horse who lost her son to World War II and found herself lobotomized by an uncaring husband, leaving BoJack’s previously villainous mother uncared for and unloved. Episode Nine, the aforementioned “Ruthie,” tells the story from a supposed future, trying to put current problems of various sizes into the grand scheme of things. Episode Ten, “lovin that cali lifestyle!!” jumps back and forth over the course of a week, demonstrating how much things can change in that period of time, for better or worse, and how our actions one week can severely impact what happens the following week. However, no episode is as brilliant as Episode 11, “Time’s Arrow.” I don’t want to give too much away about what may be the crowning achievement of this year’s television slate, but I will say “Time’s Arrow” plays with memory, depression, love, acceptance, family, and dementia in one of the most innovative, intelligent ways I’ve ever seen in any medium. It is one of the greatest episodes this show has ever done, and it changes the game in storytelling.
This show is the culmination of every great achievement to come before it in one, massive tome of artistic integrity. Let’s put aside for the moment that, artistically, it is one of the most gorgeously animated shows in existence. It is also a show that has the scope of Breaking Bad, the ensemble of Mad Men or The Sopranos, the background world of The Simpsons, the joke ratio of Arrested Development, and the thematic impact of Robert Altman’s The Player. It’s a show that can be as clever as having Amy Sedaris’ character possess a book titled “Me Meow Pretty One Day,” a play on the book by her real-life brother, while being as silly as suggesting trapping Meryl Streep in a movie where she directs herself in every role, or as they call it, “Meryl Streep in a Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps-situation.” It’s a joke that can make jokes like Uncle Cuck, possessing a running joke about the changing seating arrangements in a blog’s office, and a man telling BoJack that Amélie isn’t “a foreign movie, it’s a foreign film,” while also delivering hard truths like “You’re the biggest assh*le I know, and you’re the only thing that makes sense to me.” And it’s a show that knows how to find the humor even in our darkest roots. One of my favorite episodes of the season is Episode 6, “Stupid Piece of Sh*t.” The entire episode jumps between the thoughts in BoJack’s mind and his everyday actions. We see truly how self-loathing and destructive he is, and what’s worse, he knows it. He understands proper social cues, but he is out of his mind’s control. He can only self-critique as every decision he makes is the wrong one, and he can’t stop himself from doing it. It’s one of the funniest, most honest looks at depression ever put on television, and I can’t get over how honest and perfect it was.
Last season, I commented on the fact that Kristen Schaal’s performance as the broken Sarah Lynn deserved awards love, and I’m happy to report that the Emmys took my advice. So hopefully they will listen to me when I report that this season, above all others, is a game-changer in the realm of voice performance. Obviously actors like Will Arnett and Paul F. Tompkins are amongst the greatest actors of our time, giving honest, hilarious, often heartbreaking looks at two men with the same background that ended up at very different points in their lives, but I really want to give attention to the women. Alison Brie and Amy Sedaris have both been this show’s rock since the first season, but it is here in Season 4 they get the chance to shine. Each receives scene after scene of lines and scenarios that any actor would kill for, and they relish in the opportunity. Both have scenes that would earn another actor an Emmy or an Oscar, depending on the scenario. And both have a crying scene that is so haunting to listen to, it moves me more than most live-action films. Meanwhile, Paul is given a more emotional arc than he’s had in the past, allowing him to really bite into material in a way that he hasn’t been allowed since Bad ended in 2013. And Nancherla fits into this ensemble like a glove, winning over the audience almost the minute she appears onscreen. She bucks every stereotype required for a “Cousin Oliver” role – she’s not overly sweet, she’s not naïve, and she’s not entirely perfect (she’s as lazy as BoJack), but this makes her all the more human, and thus, all the more likable. Stand-out guest stars include Andre Braugher as the no-nonsense governor Woodchuck Coodchuck-Berkowitz (God, I love this show), a hauntingly heartbreaking Jane Krakowski as the aforementioned lobotomized grandmother, Esparza as the understanding Ralph Stilton, and, in the most shocking turn of the series, Matthew Broderick, who shows up as BoJack’s grandfather in what seems to be a 1940s satire with his playful misogyny, before he takes a dark turn into uncharted territory. We’ve never seen Broderick as such a nasty, unlikable character, and he adds such a gleeful sadism to his voice, he makes himself unrecognizable, in the best way possible. Meanwhile, Horseman would be nothing without the laundry list of celebrities making fun of themselves. I enjoyed the surprisingly violent Tim Gunn, the self-important Zach Braff (R.I.P.), the hilariously morbid Paul Giamatti, appearing as BoJack on the Ryan Murphy series “American Dead Girl” (something that sounds hauntingly real), but I want to really focus on Jessica Biel. The best celebrity cameos on this show are the ones that go all-in on the camp of it (hi, Character Actress Margo Martindale), and Biel is the world’s happiest camper. Watching Biel go off the deep end in her violent, fire-based impulses is a joy to watch, almost as much as the revelation that she has a perfume called “Bielest,” which is pronounced “B-list.” It would be harsh were it not coming from Biel’s own mouth. However, if Season 4 has an MVP, in the same way as Schaal was Season 3’s MVP, it would be the underrated Wendie Malick. Malick is one of Hollywood’s greatest actresses, adding her sardonic, cold voice to everything, from live action to animation. When she appeared as the voice of BoJack’s uncaring mother in the first season, telling BoJack she wished she’d given him up to his face on his sixth birthday, it was an uncomfortable joy. However, here, in Season 4, as we witness a pathos being given to a monster, we begin to empathize with her in a way that we never knew we wanted to. In the course of five episodes, we fall in love with a woman nearing the end of her life in a powerful, emotional way, and while we never approve of, or even forgive her choices, we do end up finding solace in her comfort, the same way we watch BoJack come to care for the woman that broke so much of his life. Malick’s performance should win every award, be it Oscar, Emmy, or MacArthur Genius Grant.
BoJack Horseman is what art has been building to for two millennia. It possesses the greatest touchstones of every genre, across every medium, to tell a taut story about a man trying to learn what it means to be human. It branches out to create one of the most expansive universes in fiction. It embraces the worlds of satire, pathos, Greek tragedy, spoof, anime, and so much more. Each episode is a lesson in how to change the way we tell stories, and is an invitation for other artists to step up their game. I know it sounds like I’m being hyperbolic, but it’s only because I want to make it clear that this show has moved beyond the normal realm of storytelling. We are witnessing something truly special in Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s magnum opus. And at this point, if you aren’t watching it, you’re not just missing out. You’re missing everything.