Warning: If you are put off by curse words, sexual references, or the portrayal of drug use (alcohol and otherwise) onscreen, this show is not for you. Please do not interpret this review as an endorsement that this show is for everyone. In fact, I endorse that you not watch it if this sort of comedy gives you pause. But if you’re willing to look past the crudeness in order to find the deep truths behind it (or if you’re just into that sort of comedy), read on.
Elevator pitch: A washed-up ‘90s sitcom star resurfaces after years of hiding out in his Hollywood mansion, promising to write a tell-all memoir detailing the “real story” behind his rise to fame and fall from grace. Worn down by years of self-pity and drug abuse, the former star must find the strength to return to normal life, confront the skeletons in his closet, and deal with first-world problems like basic microwave usage. Sounds pretty cookie-cutter, right?
What if I told you the protagonist of the show was an animated horse, and that animated horse is played by none other than Will Arnett? What if I told you that horse’s name was BoJack and that he lived in a world populated by anthropomorphic animals of all kinds? What if I told you BoJack would be joined by such interesting supporting characters as a human author played by Alison Brie, a feline talent agent played by Amy Sedaris, a dim-witted dog played by Paul F. Tompkins, and a free-loader named Todd played by Aaron Paul? Maybe not quite so typical.
BoJack Horseman has been around on Netflix for three years now, and in that time, it’s covered all of the ground you’d expect based on its premise. The first three seasons of the show comprise a ruthless takedown of the toxic world of Hollywood and the celebrities it unceasingly churns out. Through the experiences of BoJack and his friends (if you could call them that), the viewer experiences just how empty and soul-crushing stardom can be. The show is witty, self-aware, and insightful about the state of our world today, especially its obsession with celebrity. In a word, it’s great.
But three seasons of Hollywood analysis is more than enough, and the writers can only show BoJack relapse into his selfish, childish ways so many times before it becomes predictable. And it’s with that in mind that the staff took a completely different approach to season four. Sure, it’s got all of the cynicism, biting humor, and guest star cameos that viewers have come to expect, but it also has something more: This season has a psychological depth that the show has previously flirted with but never been brave enough to venture into fully.
The shift in focus is clear from the very first episode, which doesn’t feature BoJack at all. In fact, BoJack spends much of the season isolated from his friends and, more importantly, his Hollywood career. Instead, he spends his time connecting with his family, which gives the writers ample opportunity to explore BoJack’s psyche and how forces beyond his Hollywood life (already explored thoroughly in previous seasons) have influenced him.
There are a couple of episodes that really stand out as representations of just how deep the writers are willing to go into BoJack’s psychology, as well as the impact this exploration can have on the viewer. Episode 4.02, entitled “The Old Sugarman Place,” features a unique structure that alternates between BoJack’s experience staying at his grandparents’ cabin in 2017 and his mother’s formative moments there as a child. The parallels between BoJack and his mother are stark, and they open the door for the season’s extended but subtle conversation about generational trauma.
Episode 4.06 (which features a title not appropriate for repeating in this article) portrays a day in the life of BoJack from a first-person perspective. Whereas in the past, viewers have simply had to ascertain BoJack’s thoughts and emotions based on his actions, this episode goes so far as to pause the plot, zoom in on his inner monologue, and then return to show his external responses to what’s going on in his head. The result is not only a more sympathetic understanding of BoJack’s point-of-view, but more broadly a glimpse into the life of a person living with clinical anxiety, which I found groundbreaking and extremely valuable.
Of course, the show isn’t just about BoJack. In fact, this season dives deep on every main character. The episodes that center around Todd (4.03, “Hooray! Todd Episode!”) and Princess Caroline (4.09, “Ruthie”) are particularly impactful. The audience has spent over three seasons with these characters, and it’s refreshing to finally get a more nuanced look at their psychological and emotional experiences rather than just their antics.
All of that is not to say that this season doesn’t have its fair share of jokes and cultural criticism. Mr. Peanutbutter’s campaign to become governor of California is a hilarious satire of the contemporary political climate. Episode 4.05 (“Thoughts and Prayers”) temporarily returns the show’s focus back to its roots of making fun of Hollywood. And there are more self-degrading celebrity cameos in this season than any before it. This is still BoJack Horseman, after all.
But the focus on the characters’ inner experiences adds a layer of complexity and insight that the show just hasn’t featured before, and it only adds to its value. It also gives viewers a new reason to pay close attention to the overarching plot of the season. Though previous seasons have featured story arcs, they weren’t of particular importance in light of the show’s comedy and satirical nature. This year, the plot and the character development are tightly interwoven, giving the story an added sense of weight. This is a story worth watching more than once, and not just for the laughs.
All of this bodes well for the future of BoJack Horseman. Netflix has already ordered more episodes, and there’s no way the writers will be able to create a fifth season that’s as groundbreaking and emotionally impactful as this one, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Viewers have seen BoJack go through a lot, and after four seasons, he’s finally starting to show some serious growth. It will be interesting to see how that growth plays out next season when BoJack will seemingly return to Hollywood for another shot at stardom.