Back in the Saddle

Watching BoJack Horseman season four on Netflix

At the end of the third season of BoJack Horseman, the titular anthropomorphic horse/washed-up TV star seems at the end of his rope. Having indirectly caused the overdose of his former co-star, destroyed his relationship with his only loyal friend, and bottomed out on the artificial bravado that sustained him through a short-lived career renewal, we last see BoJack gazing at a herd of wild horses running through the desert, eyes empty of hope. He can, it seems, go no lower.

Of course, in this most nihilistic of animated sitcoms, this seemed to be true at every new low the unique and brilliantly constructed character has achieved over the course of the show. Will BoJack, voiced by Will Arnett, see the error of his ways after seducing his lifelong friend’s teenage daughter, who has come to see him as a father? Perhaps after sabotaging the burgeoning career of his co-dependent roommate, Todd (Aaron Paul)? Or after trying to kiss his biographer, Diane (Alison Brie), at exactly the wrong time? How many Hollywood (or, in the parlance of this dizzyingly complex alternate universe, Hollywoo) projects, friendships, and relationships can he possibly jettison, before the show veers into overkill? Is there a limit?

Apparently, yes. As unlikely as it may appear, the show’s writers, led by the hugely ambitious show-runner and creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg, appear to be building their woebegone horse a bridle path to redemption. The awkward entry into the newly dropped season four—BoJack doesn’t appear in the premiere, and only returns to the fold in the second episode, which constitutes nearly a year of his life—is a relatively easy restart for the viewer who has been absent from Hollywoo a while. But that doesn’t mean it’ll seem entirely familiar. In the first six episodes, some of the show’s characteristic heavy themes—especially, early on, the death of family members—are treated with totally uncharacteristic callousness. The show’s mix of rapid-fire, 30 Rockstyle humor and the emotional resonance of Golden Age drama is beginning to wear thin. Inevitably, this blend confuses the question of where the audience’s loyalties should lie—ought we to cheer BoJack on his baby steps toward mental health or laugh at him for trying?

The jokes are superb, and the voice acting—the best on television bar none—is even better. Aaron Paul, especially, is, an absolute joy as Todd—his versatility and timing should long ago have landed him a post-Breaking Bad role less misbegotten than the one he plays in Hulu’s The Path. He, among others, benefits from the hit-or-miss but probably wise choice to start the season off with episodes dedicated to singular characters rather than the ensemble as a whole. His installment is called “Hooray! Todd Episode!” I second that.

As a sitcom, BoJack continues to outpace nearly all its competition. But this season, more than its predecessors, feels episodic—disjointed; some of its arcs go unfulfilled or disappear until needed. Plot points, increasingly, are recurring gags only used to maximize their effect. Too much of this season feels like an ensemble of those Very Special Episodes from nineties sitcoms that Waksberg has made his life’s work to ridicule—“Todd Learns About Sexual Labels,” maybe, or “Diane Gets a Gun.” We don’t get the kind of spectacular twist that concluded last season (it involved an underwater city and a few tons of pasta, and has to be seen to be believed). Instead, the thesis of the season—that family depression resounds over generations—is reiterated in different permutations as the season winds to a close. It’s true, and devastating, and presented in as eloquent and effective a package as could be imagined for a cartoon about a horse. But the meat of BoJack’s issues is largely ignored, especially given that the most egregious errors of the season aren’t even his. Much like the end of previous seasons, as this fourth installment winds to a close, we’re left wondering: What now? The difference now is that an answer to that question seems ever less likely to be in the offing.

The show’s concept episodes get pride of place. The eleventh episode, “Time’s Arrow,” on BoJack’s mother’s dementia, is nowhere near as revolutionary as it’s hyped up to be, but the sixth episode, “Stupid Piece of Shit,” astounds—a simple, uncomplicated, heartbreaking elucidation of BoJack’s depression that wounds as often as it amuses. It should be experienced spoiler-free, and as part of a binge; that’s always been the right way to watch the show, letting the innumerable quips wash over you and the enormity of the characters’ complexities overwhelm you. And in the context of its longer history, the fourth season of BoJack still does that. But the structural genius of the show was once that, when binged, the descending arrow of BoJack’s life could be clearly delineated episode to episode. If he was going down, he was taking you down with him. But disappointingly, now that BoJack’s long-lost daughter (Aparna Nancherla) has begun to nudge him towards righteousness, his recovery or rupture is no longer a continuous curve. The depths of his depression seem to surface as the writers feel is necessary for their granular-level setups and for no other reason. The long-term plan is hard to see.

BoJack has never not been worth watching. And your desperation to see what will next wreck the emotional lives of its characters—an edge-of-your-seat desire usually reserved for action-heavy potboilers—is unlikely to be affected by a slight decline in quality. But the audience for the show, conditioned to recognize the gorgeous intricacy of its construction, deserves consistency, even if BoJack isn’t ever likely to find it in his own life.