In its four seasons on the air—or at least online, where the best stuff increasingly resides—Bojack Horseman has cemented itself as one of the best shows on television, animated or otherwise. There is almost too much that can be said for it: that nearly every frame of any given episode could be isolated, framed and hung on a wall; that it has one of the best casts on television; and that it is, along with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and You’re the Worst, one of the boldest explorations of mental illness in popular culture.
The show’s fourth season, which was released earlier this month, goes some of the way to addressing the few criticisms that have been fairly levelled at in the past. Most notable among these is the fact that, despite being a horse, the titular character is still essentially a white man, the show failing to transcend the tendency of television to concentrate on such characters at the expense of others. The fourth season’s ninth episode, ‘Ruthie’, which is almost solely concerned with Amy Sedaris’s Princess Caroline, as well as its episodes dealing with Bojack’s mother Beatrice (Wendie Malick), address this criticism head-on.
But it is becoming difficult to see how the show—a Hollywood satire set in a world where anthropomorphic animals live alongside human beings—can keep its winning streak up, at least as far as its lead is concerned. It seems almost not to know what to do with him. The reason for this is obvious enough: when we met him in season one, Bojack (Will Arnett) was already, or very nearly, at his nadir, a washed-up former television star with a substance abuse problem that could kill, well, a horse. In this respect, Bojack Horseman has always suffered from the same problem HBO’s ill-fated Vinyl, which opened with Bobby Canavale’s Richie Finestra in a state it took Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White and other anti-heroes of their (mostly white male) ilk several seasons to reach. (Draper hit rock bottom in season four and then again, to a lesser extent, mid-way through season seven; Soprano and White continued to go downhill, steadily but inexorably, into their final episodes.)
If the series were telling a redemption story, starting at rock bottom like this would have made sense, and indeed there have been hints, especially in the season three finale, that the show might eventually tend that way. But to do so would be to start thinking about the endgame, giving the character less room to manoeuvre, to change, over the course of an as-yet-undertermined number of seasons. A notable problem with American television in general (as opposed to its British and Australian counterparts, as well as American anthology series like Fargo and American Horror Story, where arcs and endings are usually baked in) is that the goal is always to keep on going, season after season, until either the creator, the audience or both are ready to move on or have done so already. The solution is all too often a reset. Indeed, we never see where that herd of wild horses is heading at the end of season three because Diane (Alison Brie) calls Bojack as he’s about to run down and join them.
But where to descend to now? Bojack has already propositioned his best friend’s daughter (still the character’s lowest point and, emotionally, the series’ most devastating) and seen his former co-star die of a heroin overdose for which he was largely responsible. How much darker could he, or the show, get this time around? The series’ answer has been to spin its wheels, at least as far as he’s concerned, and to explore his depression and substance abuse in generational terms instead. It does so by introducing us to a girl who claims to be his daughter, Hollyhock (Aparna Nancherla), and by greatly expanding Beatrice’s role. (The season’s second and best-directed episode, ‘The Old Sugarman Place’, contrasts and compares mother and son by having her past and his present unfold simultaneously in a manner that recalls Michel Gondry’s video for the White Stripes’ ‘Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground’.)
The fourth season also foregrounds the show’s other characters to a heretofore unprecedented degree. In addition to the Princess Caroline episode, there’s the aptly titled ‘Hooray! Todd Episode!’, not to mention the season’s central plot line. The season premiere, ‘See Mr. Peanutbutter Run’, kicks this latter into gear without actually featuring Bojack at all, focusing instead on Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins) and his ill-advised run for governor. In the past, Bojack himself has been at the centre of each season’s narrative arc: the ghostwriting of his memoir in season one; the struggle to get his movie, Secretariat, off the ground in season two; and the production and post-production of that movie (in which he is eventually replaced by a CGI version of himself) in season three. This is not the case here: Bojack isn’t at the centre of season four, despite the show still carrying his name, and this decision suggests that perhaps moving forward, he can’t or shouldn’t be the centre of his own show.
This is not to criticise the gubernatorial plot, which is to the show what similar storylines have been to so many other series in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election late last year. Like Trump, Mr. Peanutbutter is singularly unqualified to hold elected office. Unlike Trump, he recongises this fact himself in what is perhaps the season’s most off-the-wall episode, ‘Underground’, which sees his entire house swallowed by a sinkhole during a celebrity-studded fund-raising event (the result of him allowing his own backyard to be fracked to oblivion). The equivalent in terms of its place in the narrative, if not in terms of balls-to-the-wall brilliance, of last year’s ‘Fish Out of Water’—still the show’s most aesthetically audacious episode—‘Underground’ is a fabulously weird affair and is likely to be what most people remember of the season under review. Jessica Biel goes insane almost immediately, eventually convincing the other guests to burn Zach Braff alive and eat him (which at least shuts him up about getting his parking validated), while the eminently qualified incumbent governor, Woodchuck Coodchuck-Berkowitz (Andre Braugher), who has come to rescue the guests, is tied up for attempting to ration the party snacks. It’s an episode-long parody of Trump-style populism at its most irrational and rabid. (‘He called us a mob!’ someone yells. ‘Let’s kill him!’) Mr. Peanutbutter withdraws from the race, only for Biel to throw her hat into the ring, running on a platform of sheer psychosis.
One can forgive the show for taking a time out to deal with the events of the past year. What’s more, unlike shows like House of Cards, which has become increasingly less easy to care about as it has plunged ever deeper into absurdity in its misguided attempt to out-weird reality, Bojack Horseman is already so mired in the weirdness of its world that it finds itself in a perfect position to do so. (As I wrote last year, before Trump won the Republican nomination, even a murderer like Frank Underwood seems a better, more civil choice of chief executive than the former host of The Apprentice.) At the same time, some of its efforts at topicality seem a little obvious, such as pairing the show’s in-house entertainment reporter, A Ryan Seacrest Type, with new co-anchor A Billy Bush Type, and its gun violence episode, ‘Thoughts and Prayers’, has nothing on last year’s abortion-centric equivalent, ‘Brrap Brrap Pew Pew’. (From ‘Bojack Hates the Troops’ to ‘Hank After Dark’, Bojack has made hot-button topic episodes something of an annual tradition.)
In any case, the gubernatorial sideshow still feels like an attempt to evade what is now the series’ central problem: Bojack and his arc. That arc is going to have to start curving somewhere, if not towards wellness (which would seem a betrayal of the show’s commitment to an honest portrayal of mental illness), then at least towards a state of affairs that’s somewhat better than the one we keep returning to. The fourth season’s finale, ‘What Time is It Right Now’, hints at what such a state of affairs might look like. But it’s difficult not to feel that the ray of light on which it ends may ultimately prove as illusory—as easily extinguishable—as the one that ended season three.
This is not to take away from Bojack Horseman’s qualities, which continue to abound. Everything mentioned in this piece’s opening paragraphs remains as true as it ever was: the show’s animation is impeccable, its attention to detail unrivalled (like the seasons that preceded it, season four demands to be watched more than once simply to get all the background visual jokes, like the ageing centipede hobbling along on multiple walking frames or the well-to-do elephant ladling champagne into his mouth with his trunk); the cast is still at the height of its powers (with Sedaris and Malick the stand-outs this time around); and the exploration of mental illness is as nuanced, non-judgmental and disturbing as ever. The season’s sixth episode, ‘Stupid Piece of S…’, is perhaps the most devastating the show’s ever done. Bojack’s running internal monologue will be all-too-familiar to some.
But if next season begins as this one did, with another return to the harrowing status quo—leavened though it may be with laughter and absurdity—the show, however much it continues to tear our hearts out, will be in serious trouble.
Matthew Clayfield is a freelance foreign correspondent, critic and screenwriter.