The second episode of BoJack Horseman‘s fourth season picks up just where we left our eponymous hero, watching a gaggle of his equine brethren running free. Voiced again by Will Arnett, BoJack turns from watching his fellow horsemen to a cellphone call from Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), who has been trying to find him with increasing desperation. BoJack ignores the call and in doing so, he’s as much turning his back on her (for the moment) as he is the idea of being connected to anyone easily, by cellphone or by sympathy. He gets into his car, drives off into the country, and Michelle Branch & Patrick Carney‘s lovely cover of America’s “A Horse With No Name” kicks in. How it’s taken this long for this song to be used in this show is unclear. What is clear is that BoJack no longer wants to be anyone, no longer wants to be known by those who hate, tolerate, like, or even love him.
As Raphael Bob-Waksberg‘s brilliant animated series has continued on, the writing has latched onto its darker emotional undercurrents with a stirring seriousness that doesn’t scrub off its wry, unyielding humor and absurdity. It’s a very funny show about some very serious matters, ranging from marital strife and addiction to depression and sexual identity, in a world populated by animal-people and humans. In the wake of the show’s third and best season, in which BoJack had to confront both his hedonistic emotional wreckage of a past and a potential second act as an in-demand movie star, the series could have gone in several directions. A depiction of what it’s like to be a middle-age marquee star in a Hollywood that increasingly relies on name recognition as its primary sales method would not have been out of order. Instead, the series doubles down on the sense of loss and existential malaise that helped fortify the more audacious narrative passages of Season 3.
While BoJack makes his way to the Sugarman family home in Michigan, Diane is back in Los Angeles with Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins) and their marriage has hit a bit of a rough patch. The first episode charts Mr. Peanut Butter’s half-assed yet surprisingly effective ascension into the political arena as he decides to challenge the sitting governor, Chuck Woodchuck (Andre Braugher), in a run-off election following a skiing competition that ends with Todd (Aaron Paul) momentarily taking office before relinquishing. Such preposterous series of events are not uncharacteristic of Bob-Waksberg’s show but in this particular case, the allusion is clearly to the faux-populist rise of Donald J. Trump. Peanutbutter’s ambivalence toward the nuances of politics, populism, and social concern make him a perfect candidate for many Angelenos but for Diane, who now writes for a female-centric news blog, his empty-headed forge for little more than applause and plaudits is repellent and dangerous. It makes loving him a lot harder, even as their warring bouts of punditry give their sex life a much-needed shot in the arm.
The complexities of caring for someone who offends you, either in action, character, or philosophy, is elemental to Season 4’s ultimate focus on forgiveness and the struggles of not just knowing oneself but being able to keep a clear eye on who you are becoming. Diane’s rift with her husband only goes to underline her clear attraction and love for BoJack, but she seems to bury that longing while, for lack of a better phrase, hate-fucking Mr. Peanutbutter. In contrast, BoJack forces himself to look directly at his legacy and the tragic formative years of his verbally abusive mother, Beatrice (Wendie Malick), while in Michigan. Unlike so many more overtly self-serious shows, most of which do not feature a widowed dragonfly-human with a knack for home construction, BoJack Horseman continues to explore relationships from a variety of emotional and historical angles, colored in by an array of soulful, complex characters.
In the second episode, one of the best episodes of TV so far this year, Bob-Waksberg lays out the early days of Beatrice as the youngest in the wealthy Sugarman family of the 1940s. The storyline is familiar: Beatrice’s young brother, Crackerjack, went off to war and was killed in combat, leaving Beatrice’s mother in a lacerating state of grief and loss, which in turn leads to BoJack’s grandfather, Joseph (Matthew Broderick), leaving the family. The show’s creative team ingeniously subvert or outwardly criticize elements of this rote set-up but they also know exactly when to play things straight, such as when Beatrice’s mother breaks down at a local dance or when Earl (Colman Domingo), the aforementioned dragonfly, is confronted with his hand in the death of his wife. More than ever, BoJack Horseman feels fully in touch with the tragedies and triumphs, mistakes and moments of sheer luck that shape or contort all people, both outside and in.
Beatrice and BoJack’s relationship comes to the fore in the first half of the season, as does his developing relationship with Holly (Lake Bell), a young horse-woman who believes BoJack to be her father. Season 4 is anchored to the tangled binds between children and parents, how the expected support or wisdom of the old is often lacking, and calls upon the young to truly be the adults in a number of situations. In attempting to connect and care for Beatrice, BoJack wants to make peace with not just the person who has wreaked the most emotional damage on him but also with the damage itself, to live knowing that he has a dangerous side and knowing that such personality traits are not sexy or even necessarily signs of wisdom. Holly may well be called on to do the same in future episodes.
The sight gags, diverse deliveries, and witty wordplay are still here in spades: witness Todd’s “drone throne” storyline in the first episode or Princess Carolyn’s (Amy Sedaris) consistently uproarious interactions with Hollywood execs and colleagues, particularly Lenny Turtletaub (J.K. Simmons). The jokes are always there but what pushes BoJack Horseman toward the front of the American animation pack is its intimate attention toward behavior and the unknowable, uncontrollable inner life of these characters. For a show that takes on the realities of asexuality, the hollow, numbed responses to mass shootings, and the toxic patterns of media punditry, BoJack Horseman never feels as if its grasping for relevancy or looking for a quick, cynical laugh to show its edge. They give vibrant, convincing life to the world that surrounds BoJack, even as he continues to struggle to look beyond his own snout.
Rating: ★★★★ — Damn fine television
BoJack Horseman Season 4 premieres in full on Netflix starting September 8th.