BoJack Horseman is my kind of show. On a regular basis it is raunchy, hysterical, ridiculous, dramatically heavy, and devastatingly sad.
If this sounds like a strange description of a cartoon about a talking horse trying to revive his acting career in a parallel Hollywood where humans and anthropomorphized animals coexist (“Hollywoo”), after being typecast in a lowbrow, Full House-esque sitcom … well, you need to watch the show.
Even the most hilarious episodes pivot on emotional gut-punches. For my money, that is Season 2 episode “Let’s Find Out!” where main character, depressive has-been celeb BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett) is a celebrity guest/whipping boy on a game show hosted by his frenemy and main foil, the perpetually upbeat golden retriever Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins). The game show gets weirder and funnier, until BoJack unwisely gets personal with Mr. Peanutbutter, who takes the bait and angrily confronts BoJack about the time BoJack kissed his wife. BoJack is initally defensive, but lets it all go and admits, utterly defeated, that he did it because he was envious of Mr. Peanutbutter’s ability to be happy all the time.
A Netflix production, the full Season 4 dropped last week. I’m going to focus on a few episodes that stood out to me, and I’m mostly going to focus on the story arc of BoJack. Other characters get significant arcs, though. Mr. Peanutbutter runs for governor with the help of his ex-wives, and his long-suffering current wife Diane (Allison Brie) is taken along for the ride only to save the day at every turn; and their marriage hits the rocks, which hits surprisingly hard given how slight of a character Mr. Peanutbutter used to be and how early on it seemed like we were supposed to root for BoJack getting together with Diane. Meanwhile, BoJack’s slacker former-best-friend Todd (Aaron Paul) gets swept into a celebrity sham engagement, starts a terrifying business involving clown dentists, and comes to terms with the fact that he is asexual. And I will talk a little about how pink cat Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), BoJack’s former agent and girlfriend, builds on her dreams of family and fulfillment in her career, only to have them dashed to pieces.
(As a general rule, if a character has a goofy name, the character is an animal; a normal name, a person.)
But BoJack has the most significant arc, as a teenaged horse named Hollyhock who might be his daughter (Aparna Nacherla) comes into his life, moves in, searches for her mother, and fatefully insists that BoJack bring his verbally abusive, mentally declining mother Beatrice (Wendie Mallick) back into his life.
Spoilers ahead (although there probably already have been some) …
Episode 6: “Stupid Piece of Shit”
What’s not to like with a title like that, right?
BoJack Horseman tells a serialized story, each episode building on the last; but the creators also attempt (frequently successfully) to distinguish individual episodes with gimmicky story devices. Past entries have included telling the story entirely in flashback as BoJack describes key plot points on the telephone to a customer service specialist voiced by Candice Bergen (“Stop the Presses”). Or a police procedural in which BoJack and Diane venture into the seedy underbelly of “Whale World,” an explosively funny marriage of Sea World and strip clubs (the “sexy killer whales” jokes never get old) (“BoJack Kills”). The penchant for gimmickery even lead to a series-best episode “Fish Out Of Water,” a dreamy and almost dialogue-free episode where BoJack travels under the sea for an underwater press junket. The episode attains both dreamy strangeness and amazing poignancy. It’s easily regarded among the best episodes of Netflix’s output.
The gimmick of “Stupid Piece of Shit” is that it takes us into BoJack’s inner monologue. And guess what he thinks of himself? The negative self-talk that poor BoJack indulges in is breathtaking. No wonder he always feels so bad about himself – he is addicted to beating himself up with epic rhetorical dexterity. “Come on, you drunk piece of shit! Be less drunk! Now!” It starts when he first wakes up, and continues through to the heartbreaking reveal that Hollyhock has issues with negative self-talk; she plaintively asks her possible dad BoJack if it goes away eventually; and BoJack lies to her, because that is the kindest answer he can give.
BoJack Horseman is also visually inventive. BoJack’s inner monologue is often augmented by frantic scribbled cartoon illustration, as if his mind can hardly keep up with imagery to accompany the light-speed verbal abuse he heaps on himself in his mind.
Episode 9: “Ruthie”
It’s worth writing about “Ruthie” because Princess Carolyn gets two of my favorite puns in rapid succession. Predictably they are both very geeky.
Re: Chris Kattan’s career comeback: “After America was finally ready to settle for Kattan?”
Re: Her client Courtney Portnoy firing her: “Who knew Portnoy had so many complaints?!”
This is also Princess Carolyn’s episode to shine – and to fall hard. She had everything going for her through most of the season – career on the upswing, trusted assistant, loving boyfriend, baby on the way. In one episode, all of that is taken away from her – fired, betrayed by assistant, miscarriage, impulsive breakup. She’s left at the end of the episode an emotional wreck for the first time in a character arc of bouncing back and putting on a brave face.
This episode also has a gimmick that has gotten a lot of attention. The story is told in flashback from a school show-and-tell by a descendent of Princess Carolyn in a Jetson-like future. The little pink cat, named Ruthie, anchors the episode with a notion that everything will turn out alright even as Princess Carolyn’s life crumbles around her. When Ruthie is revealed to be a fantasy that Princess Carolyn uses as a coping mechanism, it makes her suffering throughout the episode far more bleak.
It’s a cute device, but How I Met Your Mother actually did the same device better (and to more devastating effect) in the episode “How I Met Your Father.” As you can probably tell, I am a fan of the saddest episodes of funny shows.
Episode 10: “lovin that cali lifestyle!”
Throughout the season, Hollyhock has been going subtly downhill – refusing to eat, having trouble sleeping, hooked on coffee and progressively more and more OCD. This episode is most notable for her collapse, hospitalization, and the realization that she has overdosed on amphetamines. Based on what BoJack has been through up to this point in the series, we are right there with him and his panic attack as he rushes home and flushes every medication he can find, paralyzed by the notion that he screwed up yet another chance for a real relationship in the most destructive way imaginable.
It shortly becomes clear, though, that BoJack’s senile mother Beatrice has been lacing Hollyhock’s coffee with diet pills, acting out her own body-immage issues on Hollyhock. BoJack loses it, drives Beatrice to the most depressing nursing home imaginable, and prepares to leave her alone in desolation. “This is your life now, Mom. This is what it all added up to. Hope it was worth it. See you never.” Daaaaaaamn …
Episode 11: “Time’s Arrow”
The penultimate episodes of BoJack seasons are justifiably admired and feared. They contain the most inspired storytelling and the biggest emotional gut-punches. “Downer Ending” – on the edge of my seat. “Escape from L.A.” – gasp out loud. “That’s Too Much, Man!” – curled in a ball on my couch, hands over my face.
Between “Downer Ending” and “Fish Out of Water,” BoJack has developed a repuation of going for broke on a dreamy high concept at least once a season. I was looking for what the next one would be, wondering how “Fish Out of Water” could be topped.
Throughout the season, senile Beatrice kept referring to her son BoJack as “Henrietta” with no explanation. As BoJack furiously drives Beatrice to the nursing home where he intends to leave her for drugging his possible daughter, we pan in close to Beatrice … and then the camera pans over to the driver’s seat, to reveal in BoJack’s place a crudely-drawn woman behind the wheel, her face scribbled over as if with pen marks, answering to “Henrietta.” The camera then pans back to a much younger Beatrice in the driver’s seat, the horizon blank and white behind them. I thought “Oh wow … here we go.” This episode would be a journey into Beatrice’s dementia.
Amid the dreamy dementia imagery we get filled in details of Beatrice’s disastrous childhood, marriage, and family life, hinted at early in the series; as well as a reveal about Henrietta’s and Hollyhock’s true place in the story. It was foreshadowed in a number of places, but “Time’s Arrow” hammers it home.
Episode 12: “What Time is it Right Now”
This episode pivots on the emergence of the big reveal of the previous episode: that Hollyhock is not BoJack’s daugther, but his father’s illegitimate child from an affair with family maid Henrietta, given up for adoption.
“Time’s Arrow” has been called out for being a penultimate BoJack episode that BoJack didn’t finish in the depths of moral degradation, burning his bridges with the worst behavior possible, with devastating and irrevocable consequences. Instead, when it mattered the most, he showed his mother kindness – kindness that the foregoing episode had done all it could to show that Beatrice had never been shown earlier in her life.
In BoJack Horseman, kindness is just as likely to be repaid with pain, and BoJack is frequently left at season’s end with more questions than answers, more uncertainty than hope. But God bless BoJack for the massive door to redemption fate opened up to him at the close of Season 4. It was rattling around in my head the whole episode, but the writers made me wait until the last line of the episode, in a truly golden moment with a swelling and happy music cue amid the wreckage of a misspent life.
BOJACK (on the phone with Hollyhock): “Is there anything I can do? I can upgrade your seats … or send you better fruit …”
HOLLYHOCK: “BoJack, look, I never needed you to be a dad. I’m going to be fine. I told you from the beginning, I have eight dads.”
BOJACK: “Yeah ….. yeah …. Good.”
HOLLYHOCK: “But … I’ve never had a brother ……”
And God bless those animators – the look on BoJack’s face before credits roll: first startled … then a little confused … then a ghost of a smile … then a bigger smile, his eyes softening … then the biggest smile he’s ever had on the show.
I’m sad to say that in many of BoJack’s moments of failure and loss, I have said to myself “I know that feel.” Well, for BoJack’s discovery of a win in the ashes of defeat, I’m happy to say, I know that feel.
What did you think of BoJack Horseman, Season 4