This has been the fourth summer in a row where I’ve watched a cartoon about a horse that for roughly six hours sends me on a rollercoaster of emotions. Each season I brace for melancholic impact and by the end I’m glad I took the journey.
Set in a world where anthropomorphic animals and humans live side by side, “BoJack Horseman” focuses on the titular horse in the present day trying to survive as a washed-up actor made famous by a 90s sitcom. He juggles complicated relationships with his memoir ghostwriter Diane Nguyen, agent Princess Carolyn—a pink Persian cat—and unemployed friend Todd Chavez. Having the usual existential crises and conflict expected in a dramady, it also tackles interracial relationships, dementia, and other heart-wrenching topics.
To be honest, I wasn't a big fan of it when it first came out. It started off extremely slow, even for a Netflix show that takes binging for granted. Why am I watching a comedy that doesn't make me laugh? I wondered. This is Will Arnett of “Arrested Development” and “Lego Batman” fame, I should be rolling on the floor! There were humorous moments that made me smile, sure, but nothing like a classic comedy filled with one-liners.
Most of the laughs come from the numerous sight gags and puns. Mr. Peanut Butter, BoJack’s Labrador frenemy, sleeps in a human sized dog bed while his license plate says “GoodBoy” and he has a lawn fountain in the shape of a fire hydrant. Newscaster Keith Olberman plays a whale on MSNBSea. California’s state seal seen on official podiums and documentation features an actual seal. The shipping company FedEx is named FedOx and fashion designer Marc Jacobs is a shark named Sharc Jacobs.
Because the show is set in Hollywood there’s also a fair amount of pop culture references. My favorite in the fourth season is when Princess Carolyn gives Todd a pep talk. “Sometimes life is like the second season ‘Friday Night Lights’,” she says, “You got to push through and hope there’s better stuff ahead." And these 12 episodes have proved that.
Before this season, Aaron Paul's Todd has been a pretty flat character. He only provides laughs due to his stupidity, but not the same kind of cluelessness as Jess in “Breaking Bad.” Yet, after realizing dating super models and friends simply isn’t working, Todd comes out as asexual. "It feels nice to finally say it out loud," he states as a weight lifts.
Like “Master of None”’s Emmy-winning coming out episode earlier in the year, the episode handles a delicate subject beautifully. In scenes that educate the character and viewer, Todd goes to an asexual club. There he learns more about himself while also learning that asexual doesn't mean aromantic—some asexual people have relationships and get married.
After losing a friend to drugs and exiling himself from Hollywood in season three, we first see BoJack driving in his car two episodes in as America’s “Horse With No Name,” which is extremely apt. He's existentially lost and tries to live without his fame, moving into his grandfather’s old summer cottage to disappear. While doing so, flashbacks of his grandmother intertwine with BoJack’s present interactions with his neighbor, a widower. The equally depressed neighbor almost kills BoJack when trying to commit suicide and in the past we simultaneously see BoJack’s grandmother go hysteric and getting a lobotomy. The sorrowful scenes are simply par for the course for “BoJack Horseman.”
A few episodes later the audience gets a first-person view into Bojack’s depressed life. For the first time Lisa Hanawalt’s animation style changes into a manic, paranoid scribble as he repeats "stupid piece of sh*t" to himself over and over. A bar distracts him from a task and "one drink" turns into an all-day binge. "Everywhere you go you destroy people," he says to himself.
As he deals with his own demons, a newly introduced family member named Hollyhock struggles with her own. “That voice that tells you you’re dumb, stupid and worthless, it goes away eventually, right?" asks the teenager. BoJack, not having the strength to open up, lies to her.
With each episode I’ll never know if I’ll hurt my sides from laughing or hurt from being emotionally punched in the gut. It takes courage for a show to not shy away from real, life-affecting topics. “Bojack Horseman” could wrap up the plotlines neatly and comfort us but it instead doesn’t pull any punches, showing us that time’s arrow marches on.