All good things must come to an end, and Netflix Original BoJack Horseman has been pretty bloody damn good. But a remarkable and disappointingly unsustainable run sees BoJack finally pass its zenith. It has taken three whole seasons and one Christmas special to get there, but the greatest sitcom of the past half-decade has regrettably taken a dip in quality.
The animated sitcom about a tragically depressed alcoholic horse and former 90’s TV star has consistently been one of the most bittersweet and downright hilarious shows available on the streaming service. A notoriously shaky first few episodes – which forced IndieWire to reconsider its reviewing structure after rating the first season based only on the opening half-dozen episodes – soon gave way to one of the most open explorations of depression and anxiety in television history, yet it still managed to produce a constant stream of laughs in every episode. Surely ‘up’ was the only possible direction that season four could head in after the extraordinary third season of Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s comedy series?
BoJack Horseman‘s ratio of situation to comedy has always been skewed more towards the former than the latter, but the latest season is the heaviest (and darkest) to date, and is very light on relief. BoJack (Will Arnett) is AWOL through much of the early part of the season as his existential crisis leads him to his old family home. The setting acts as a linking device between present day BoJack and the traumatic history of the Sugarman family to great effect. Afraid that his mental illness runs in the family, BoJack begins to fear that what his mother (Wendie Malick) gave to him, he might too pass on to Hollyhock (Aparna Nancherla). Meanwhile, Mr Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins) runs as mayor reluctantly supported by his wife Diane (Alison Brie), Todd (Aaron Paul) has more whacky adventures launching a clown dental practice, and Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) has family woes of her own.
But that is merely an overview of the plot for what is a complex and deeply layered dissection of a fragile mental wellbeing and the toil of fractured relationships. The quality of episodes varies tremendously as the Todd-centric ‘Hooray! Todd Episode!’ was again the worst of the bunch, whilst the supporting cast-led first episode did not feature BoJack at all. The title card displays the year 1992 as two Zoe and Zelda types are recording a pilot for a new sitcom. The opening dialogue begins:
“So you said let’s do the show about the horse, but this time without the horse. And I said ‘that’s a terrible idea’. And you said ‘I got someone even better, I got..’ what’s this asshole’s name again?”
That asshole would be Full Metal Jacket and Netflix’s Daredevil star Vincent D’Onofrio, who is failing miserably at winning over the studio audience. Mr Peanutbutter wanders onto set and is immediately likeable, foreshadowing the entire season’s content: being likeable does not constitute success, happiness or being of moral fibre. The wryly satirical takedown of political campaigning is no doubt a swipe at the recent domestic election process in the US, which seems a far too easy target for a show which has been built on internal emotional depth in the past. It is a joke that quickly outstays its welcome as more and more ludicrous scenarios emerge for Mr Peanutbutter to edge closer to mayoral candidacy, culminating in a ski race down Hollywoo’s Devil Mountain in the first episode.
Todd also features quite heavily in the first three episodes as the character continues to get crushed under the burden of being a vessel for worthy messages. His dilemma at being “labelled” as asexual is indicative of a show that commendably continues to normalise fringe concepts or less understood ideas into the mainstream, but Todd’s strength is being the comic foil to BoJack’s depressive episodes. Alas, attempts to create more “wouldn’t it be funny if…” scenarios for Todd feel as though the writers were obligated to include them and as a result weigh the show down.
However, the season does contain some of its trademark emotional gut-punches. Beatrice’s onset of dementia and traumatic childhood told in faded memories are arguably the most original contribution to season four as we learn more about BoJack’s family history. Rather than being cynical and shallow attempt to get the viewer to pity a pretty obnoxious and amoral narcissist, the BoJack at the end of the season is still the same ol’ BoJack we know and love/hate, but you have a greater understanding of why he loathes himself so much; and why he cannot help but loathe himself.
Ultimately, everything that can be expected of BoJack Horseman is still present. Fun can be had spotting the visual gags, animal puns and sometimes meta-jokes, but from a series that has delivered some of the most accomplished television in recent memory, it was far below its usual 5-star standard. Fingers crossed for season 5, which was re-commissioned by Netflix on Thursday 21 September only 14 days after season four was added to Netflix. And it was revealed with typical BoJack humour over on Twitter.