There are times in which the notion that “someone who wants to go into a new season of TV totally devoid of spoilers should just not read reviews of said season” is implied. OK, that’s ALL the time, but I find it rarely necessary to explicitly state that except in certain special circumstances. I find this infrequently has anything to do with hiding a Sixth Sense-esque twist and more to do with coming into something with as little knowledge of what’s about to unfold as possible. These aren’t seasons of television designed to sucker punch you at the end, but constantly surprise along the way.
The fourth season of BoJack Horseman, which drops on Netflix on Friday, September 8, is just such a season. What I’ll say up front is that it’s as good, if not better, than the seasons that have come before it. If that’s all you need to know, close your browser and come back after you’ve watched it. That’s fine! I actually encourage you to close it. I won’t be offended in the least. I’m doing you a favor here, promise.
For the rest of you…
Enough has been written, both here and elsewhere, about the show’s sad-comedy approach, and how its animated status belies a heart of darkness that nevertheless yearns for love. It’s as open-hearted and optimistic as it is gutting and tear-inducing. It’s rare to root for human characters to overcome their self-imposed obstacles this much, nevermind animated ones. But that’s what viewers do! In the season one episode “Horse Majeure,” the titular character says this:
You know, sometimes I think I was born with a leak, and any goodness I started with just slowly spilled out of me and now it’s all gone. And I’ll never get it back in me. It’s too late. Life is a series of closing doors, isn’t it?
I mean, holy shit. Part of the genius of the show comes from the consistent way it’s approached this central thesis and suggested there’s no way to ever plug that leak, that BoJack will consistently be less than he was before even though he wants to better. And that’s all fine and well to a point, but right about now, the show actually has the guts to wonder if people (or horses) really CAN change.
It’s a powerful idea that drives the central animating force in the majority of great drama: Can people truly change, or are they always set in their ways? Everything from Wuthering Heights through The Sopranos has tackled this age-old dilemma, and just because it’s not original doesn’t mean it’s not potent. At its core, the fourth season of the show is about how trauma is something passed down along with genetics, and how the ripple effects of certain actions have a way of perpetuating themselves through subsequent generations. Those affected often don’t understand how these trauma imprint themselves into every fiber of their psychic being until they themselves have carried the contagion onto their friends and family.
Did I mention this is a comedy?
Because it is! It really is, and in the classic sense as well as the connotative way. There are episodes that will absolutely destroy you (the second and eleventh form perfectly constructed bookends to frame the central action of the season, and the middle sixth episode has one of the all-time great visual depictions of self-loathing I’ve ever seen), but this is a show that constantly asks, “Why not?” versus “Why?”, and that makes all the difference. It’s not just the perpetually peppy Mr. Peanut Butter (Paul F. Tompkins, doing career-best work here) or the well-meaning Todd Chavez (Aaron Paul, who’s somehow more heartbreaking here than in Breaking Bad, and yes I mean it, and yes I will fight you, and yes I was kidding I’m not going to fight you about which show Aaron Paul was most heartbreaking in because that’s just silly). Characters like Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) and Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie) also get lengthy arcs in which they refuse to settle for the status quo.
The fourth season features a lot of comic tropes that suggest these characters will never change. Change is the enemy to television. And I don’t mean to suggest that the characters end up in radically different places by the end. But at least a few end up in extremely interesting places that are earned rather than bestowed. In the case of BoJack, two individuals come into his life that force him to reevaluate everything he thought about his place in the universe. Past seasons would use this as another example of Life-As-Lucy holding out the hope-as-football, only to have BoJack-As-Linus once again lying in pain on the ground. Show creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg smartly avoids going to that well again. Saying more would be giving things away, but it yields a moment of emotional grace so pure and forceful that I ugly cried on the couch as it unfolded.
The secret sauce of BoJack lays in how the show can emotionally devastate you while also throwing in more visual and verbal puns that a Zucker Brothers movie. If you like episodes that involve clown dentists, ski races that determine seats of government, more “Dad jokes” than you can shake a stick at, evil iterations of Jessica Biel, takedowns of SEO-hungry blogs, and inside Hollywood baseball, well, there’s something for you in each of these episodes. You’re always a few seconds away from an amazing Todd reaction or an amazing visual pun or something that will make you want to call your parents and apologize for ever fighting with them.
The possibilities are endless, as does seem the scope of this show. There are so many ideas at play that the entire endeavor feels like it will fly off the handle into the show’s “Hollywoo” sign at any moment. But there’s a clear emotional focus at play that grounds the silliness in something substantial. The main five characters all have hopes, fears, and dreams that they want to accomplish, even if they are often their own worst enemies. We see ourselves in at least one of these people, and if they can achieve a sliver of happiness…well, maybe we can too.
It’s easy to depict how hard life can be. It’s much more difficult to show why it’s still worth living. BoJack Horseman consistently gives an unflinchingly honest look at the former, and has enough courage to suggest how to do the latter. Along with The Leftovers, it’s my favorite show of the year: Both are keenly in tune with the shitshow that is 2017, and still insist there’s light and love to be found.