Netflix’s original series BoJack Horseman is the kind of show that sneaks up on its audience, playing with the expectations raised by its core conceit then furiously plucking at the viewer’s heartstrings when it’s least expected. BoJack Horseman was never going to be lighthearted—its eponymous lead character’s drug-addled fall- from-grace assured that—but the show’s anthropomorphic characters and heavy use of whimsical wordplay seemed to suggest that, though dark, the show would remain comedic in essence. And yet, over time, BoJack Horseman has cemented itself as perhaps the single most harrowing portrait of mental illness currently on television. In its fourth and best season, the show continues to deftly straddle the line between clever farce and tender tragedy as it explores in further depth the manifestations of melancholia.
Season 4 picks up with the jovial Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Thompkins) preparing his gubernatorial run, Todd Chavez (Aaron Paul) coming to terms with his newly-discovered asexuality and BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett) receiving a visit from his illegitimate daughter Hollyhock Manheim-Mannheim-Guerrero-Robinson-Zilberschlag-Hsung-Fonzerelli-McQuack (Aparna Nancherla), named after the eight polyamorous adoptive fathers who jointly raised her.
The race for governor is perhaps the funniest plotline this season, with Mr. Peanutbutter, aided by his ex-wife and campaign manager Katrina (Lake Bell), running against incumbent California governor Woodchuck Coodchuck-Berkowitz (Andre Braugher). Given that this story is centered around an election, there’s plenty of room for contemporary political critique, and BoJack Horseman comments on the 2016 election without ever drawing too much attention to the fact that it’s doing so. There’s no clear Hillary Clinton and there’s no clear Donald Trump, with the show opting instead to criticize the overall misuse of populist politics we’ve seen in this country and across the globe. By avoiding one-to-one analogues, the show is able to effectively satirize real-life events without paralleling them story beat by story beat.
As with last season’s “Brrap Brrap Pew Pew” and Season 2’s “Hank After Dark,” which dealt with abortion and sexual harassment, respectively, Season 4 has its own topical episode in the form of “Thoughts and Prayers,” an examination of the gun debate in the United States and its disproportionate focus on straight white males. The show, through Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), makes an interesting case in favor of guns, but does so from a wholly different perspective, that of women who feel unsafe in a culture that both victimizes them and blames them for said victimization. Unfortunately, the episode doesn’t really have the same singular focus as its topical predecessors, so it’s not quite as effective as “Brrap Brrap Pew Pew” or “Hank After Dark,” but it approaches a sensitive topic from an entirely new trajectory and does so commendably.
The bulk of the emotional weight of Season 4 comes from BoJack’s plotline. While helping Hollyhock search for her birth mother, BoJack must also take in his own dementia-riddled mother Beatrice (Wendie Malick), whose emotional abuse during BoJack’s childhood years was responsible for shaping him into the self-loathing depressive he becomes as an adult. BoJack’s interactions with both Beatrice and Hollyhock shape the theme of Season 4: how we pass our traumas on to our children. In raising BoJack, Beatrice simply repackages her own anguish and redirects it at BoJack, as seen in the penultimate episode “Time’s Arrow,” the most devastating and insightful thirty minutes the series has given us thus far. Contrastingly, Hollyhock’s own poor self-image can only be genetic, as she’s related by blood to BoJack but had zero interactions with him prior to the series. The show never excuses abusive behaviors, but it does provide a context and reasoning for it.
This nearly-perfect season of television is only hampered by its relegation of Todd to the background. As an asexual man, seeing Todd discover his own asexuality at the end of Season 3 was intensely cathartic for me. Keep in mind, the only two depictions of asexuality I’d seen prior were in the Fox medical drama House and the Lars von Trier film Nymphomaniac. In the former, the asexual character’s asexuality is discovered to have been caused by a brain tumor; in the latter, the asexual character is merely pretending as a means of making women lower their guard so he can sexually assault them. In both instances, asexuality is depicted as a spurious orientation. To see asexuality played off as normal was new for me, but beyond a single episode that feels more like a PSA on asexuality than anything else, Todd has very little to do here. It’s only because of how grateful I am when BoJack Horseman avoids an inimical depiction of asexuality that I am disappointed when it fails to follow through on it.
Still, I don’t know if I’ve seen a season of television as mature, acute and nuanced in its portrayal of mental illness as BoJack Horseman’s fourth. What began as a punny black comedy about the trappings of fame has evolved into something so much more profound and heartwrenching, all without losing its dry wit. It’s a testament to its creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg and the diverse writing team that BoJack Horseman can remain as fresh and innovative as it is this far into its run, and I can only hope that the recently-announced Season 5 manages to wring this much raw humanity out of walking, talking animals.