The unbearable lightness of being BoJack Horseman
Time marches like an arrow, we’re told, even though we’ve never seen an arrow marching. Time is actually a squigglier bastard—less reliable, less straight—and this year it both unravels and plays havoc with the narrative of the best show on television. A new season of Netflix’s exquisite BoJack Horseman came to our screens on Friday, and I couldn’t be more grateful.
I have gone on about BoJack Horseman before. Created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the show topped my list of best TV shows of 2016 by some margin and, early this year, I dedicated a column to gushing about its genius. There has never been finer satire about Hollywood and the formerly-famous. Yes, an animated show built on visual puns, where horses, humans and houseflies coexist as characters, does indeed cut deeper than Sunset Boulevard. Now this fourth season breaks boundaries further, obliterating the line between comedy and drama with such grace that we are left wondering if there was ever a line at all. Or if it ever mattered.
One episode, for instance, is set far, far into the future, where time is told by bean units and the episode is narrated from the point of view of the descendant of a beloved character. It is the story of a hideous day, but, since the descendant is chirpily telling us how the ancestor moved past it to get to a happy ending, we take the blows on the chin knowing the pain is momentary. Until we realize that the descendant is fictional, a coping mechanism conjured up by the character dealing, in the present, with a day from hell. This is storytelling at its most devastating.
I am, of course, jumping ahead of myself. As is Los Angeles without BoJack, who drifted away at the end of the third season. As he returns to find his more celebrated friend Mr Peanutbutter standing for an election, things are zanier than ever. The idea of a celebrity running for office is skewered hard, and the general meanness toward celebrities is savage. People are finally ready to settle for comic Chris Kattan (boardgame reference alert), Jessica Biel has launched a perfume called Bielist, which sounds the same as B-list, and BoJack finds himself cornered by a young horse named Hollyhock, who believes he’s her biological father and wants to find her mother. “What do I look like, Josh Radnor?” BoJack asks indignantly, only for no reaction from the girl for this well-timed How I Met Your Mother joke. Time slows its march for no sitcom, clearly.
Neither, alas, does it slow to keep pace with a diminishing mind. Mental degeneration and dementia are the big issues Season 4 grapples with, and many perspectives are pieced together from inherited voices we hear in the head and voices we need to hear. Despite the clever shenanigans, this is a psychologically incisive show that does get heavy, and I strongly recommend cutting your BoJack dosage with something lighter between episodes. The best thing about BoJack is the way the show saves its sharpest bits for between the lines. At one point, a suffering character says “I have half a mind…” and tapers off into nothingness, the unfinished sentence saying more—and with more accuracy—than anything words could.
The voice work is excellent, as always, with Will Arnett’s BoJack, Amy Sedaris’ Princess Carolyn, Aaron Paul’s Todd Chavez and Alison Brie’s Diane Nguyen holding things brilliantly in place while new additions like Aparna Nacherla (as Hollyhock), Jessica Biel (as herself), Jane Krakowski, Andre Braugher, Sharon Horgan and Colman Domingo all have moments to shine. The fabulous Wendie Malick, who voices BoJack’s mother Beatrice, should immediately be delivered an Emmy.
This season is ostensibly a mystery—something BoJack finds tiresome because of the way television mysteries unfailingly revolve around random details suddenly making everything fall into place—but there is so much more going on. There is a tender story arc involving asexuality, a surprisingly effective marriage analogy about lollipops, a revelation about which fruit is the Jared Leto of fruits, and the lesson that 5,000 fake books are never a good idea. In the middle of it all stands BoJack, still moaning about fame—“Everybody gives me what I want all the time. It is an existential curse but a huge day- to-day convenience”—while trying, inch by inch, to be less awful. He still can’t help lying, but he tries to follow it up with the truth a little later. “That was, like, 15 minutes of lie.”
BoJack Horseman has never pulled its punches. This is a brutal season that, through characters so real we can feel them bleed, puts the audience’s heart in a wringer. Yet, this year, we see a crack of light in its nihilistic darkness. There is compassion and affection and hope that we—even those of us without Chinatown-style mysteries at our core—are all capable of change. Our sentence remains unfinished.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online.
The writer tweets at @rajasen