BoJack Horseman’s fourth season confirms its status as one of Netflix’s boldest original shows and continues the strange evolution that started with Episode 1. It announced itself as an offbeat comedy with a similar rude irreverence and talking animals to Family Guy. It appeared, at first glance, to be disposable. Then, by the end of Season 1, it had emerged into a scathingly funny satire of Hollywoo, with a gleefully surreal vein of humour running throughout. At this point it was still very much about BoJack himself.
In Season 2, it became more of an ensemble drama, giving more space to its colourful cast of characters and exploring their inner lives. Mr. Peanutbutter transformed from an annoying outsider to a charming optimist and almost the only likeable character in the show (go back to Season 1 and it turns out that’s who he was all along). Season 3 took the darkness and psychological complexity of the first two seasons and dragged it even further into the miry depths of people’s brokenness. It emerged that the people around BoJack were also broken – especially Princess Carolyn and Diane. The show became even more explicitly about depression, while the jokes seemed to thin out a bit in favour of richer character drama. It ended with the ex-starlet Sarah Lynn dying of an overdose and it was BoJack’s fault.
Now that Season 4 has arrived, the show barely fits the genre of comedy any more. Sure, it’s still very funny. This is a show that revels in daft wordplay; a running joke about the actress Courtney Portnoy and the assonance in that name is particularly delicious. It takes the “Rural Juror” joke format from 30 Rock to insane new levels of silliness. (A sample: “Portnoy finds joy in hoi polloi toy boy!”) There is an overreliance on a certain type of joke, where people explicitly spell out the subtext of what they’re saying, but, on the whole, the writing is still sharp, bracingly progressive and each episode has at least one killer gag.
The show’s comic success comes from its affectionate lampooning of the 21st century. This isn’t some lazy dig at millennials like The Great Indoors, because it is written by people who understand the world they are mocking. So, Diane works for a women’s writing website called Croosh, where they have yoga mats for “hot take cool downs”. One serious misstep the show takes is turning PB into a Trump-like populist, standing for nothing but succeeding, thanks to shallow popularity. It turns one of the show’s kinder characters into someone almost as cruel as everyone else, only as oblivious as ever. Still, there are deep cut jokes, referencing things that only 10 per cent of its audience will get, as well as set-ups with no pay off that leave the viewer to do the work. For every lame poster pun (Glockerspaniel!), there’s an intelligent gag about the modern world.
Yet making you laugh has become the show’s secondary aim, as the character dynamics are pushed to the fore. BoJack Horseman is less a comedy, more a drama with jokes. Now, the majority of episodes end on a downer, as the increasingly upsetting cast of characters wrestle with their inadequacy. As the show takes even bolder steps with its character development and raises the emotional stakes with every episode, it drags the viewer into its strange, animal-populated world. It doesn’t matter that you’re laughing less, because you’ve come to care so much about these terrible misfits.
In spite of the show’s name, this is no longer just about BoJack Horseman. The first episode makes this clear as it delves into Mr. Peanutbutter’s backstory and focusses on Diane’s need for BoJack. The title character is nowhere to be seen. Even Todd, who still has a different goofy adventure every episode, is now exploring his asexuality and asserting control in his relationship with BoJack. Where once they were inseparable, now the principal interactions have changed – and this is because, in a revolutionary move for a sitcom, the actions in the world of Bojack Horseman have consequences on the central relationships. Todd and BoJack can’t just make up; BoJack has burnt that bridge.
When the show does focus on the washed-up TV star, it goes deeper into his psyche than we’ve ever seen before. As hinted at the end of Season 3, BoJack now has a daughter to deal with, while trying to confront the ghosts of his past. We’ve already seen the very worst that BoJack can be, but he has sunk into a state of all-consuming self-pity. Now he has family, though, we begin to see some of his better qualities emerge, however hidden they are.
One of the most startling episodes in the new season is accompanied by BoJack’s inner monologue, as he spends some time with his elderly mother. It’s a harrowing episode, because BoJack’s self-hatred is relentless and every event is punctuated by a stream of consciousness jam-packed with loathing. The effect is extraordinary, creating an emotionally exhausting empathy as you get an insight into his upsetting headspace. At a point where the show has pushed your sympathy for the destructive narcissist as far as it can go, it breaks your heart for him in 25 minutes. Not many shows can claim that.
All episodes of BoJack Horseman Season 4 are available to watch on Netflix UK from Friday 8th September.