One of last year’s promotional posters for BoJack Horseman’s third season featured four surnames: Soprano, Draper, Underwood and Horseman. BoJack, more than any other popular TV series currently running, is a TV-lover’s show. Its creator, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, is one of the sharpest creative minds in the business he seems to equally love and criticize (which is, of course, just another form of love), and each episode is full of visual and textual references that only TV-lovers can fully appreciate. In worse circumstances, the allusive nature of BoJack would alienate a portion of its audience, but its cleverness and industry humor are never barriers for anyone not in the know. So, if you aren’t familiar with Tony Soprano from The Sopranos, Don Draper from Mad Men or Frank Underwood from House of Cards, your initial enjoyment of BoJack Horseman isn’t that different from someone who knows those other series like scripture.
What that background context adds, though, is another lens through which to try to see and understand BoJack Horseman, and since Bob-Waksberg invites us to do just that, it’s hard not remembering that promotional poster from last year and considering why and how this fourth season of the show feels different—and not always in an effective way. The world of BoJack Horseman is incredibly rich and full of character and characters that have continued to develop in mostly interesting ways since the series began. But if season four of the show has exposed something in the overall narrative, it’s that BoJack is very much in the style of those Difficult Men-centric series from which it takes inspiration—The Sopranos, Mad Men and House of Cards. It’s a trope that has run its course in the critical consciousness (Mad Men and Breaking Bad were the last critically-acceptable prestige series to rely on Difficult Men at their centers), though it remains relatively popular with the general TV audience, as the success of House of Cards and Ray Donovan show. I’m sure many of the critical supporters would disagree with and dismiss that premise—and would cite this season’s “Ruthie” (Princess Carolyn’s spotlight Episode 9) as a counterpoint—but my guess is that reaction stems from an insecurity in admitting that the trope, when done right, doesn’t make a series any less good or worth our praise.
Even if Don Draper is always at the heart of Mad Men, that series is still an all-time great partly because the characters around him are so impressively three-dimensional. Yet, taking Don Draper out of Mad Men changes the structural identity of a series that would have to scramble to not fall apart in his absence. The same can be said for BoJack Horseman. Unlike The Wire or Deadwood or Game of Thrones (other critical successes and TV Hall of Fame series—ones that don’t need any single character on the screen as much as other series do), BoJack requires BoJack so that its cast of impressively three-dimensional characters can pivot their lives and stories around a focal point. Season four of the series strains to make a case that BoJack Horseman is actually a true ensemble show, and while attempts to prove that give us some entertaining material, the season doesn’t fall back into is most effective grooves until it shrinks back to orbit around BoJack.
The first two episodes of season four are not too dissimilar from the most recent season premiere of You’re the Worst (also in its fourth season and created and run by someone fiercely intelligent when it comes to TV), which is perhaps the series most similar to BoJack Horseman in tone of any on TV right now. Disrupting the narrative by moving characters out of their natural positions makes the beginnings of both seasons work really well. We do want to see an episode of BoJack Horseman try to deal with the total absence of BoJack Horseman. What that leaves is the second-best thing the series does: comedy. Despite any issues I have with how the first seven episodes of season four play out, they are still wildly funny. Somehow, the wordplay and sight gags have been amped up even higher than in past seasons. Occasionally, the alliterative and rhythmic joy that the scriptwriters have in trying to find the most ridiculous exchanges of dialog possible end up feeling masturbatory, which never happened in previous seasons (credit the frequency rather than the content). But, all-in-all, BoJack will still be just as fun this year for viewers who prefer the lighter side of its offerings.
The de-centering of BoJack affects the season’s more dramatic side, however, and that is where I think the show is usually at its best and most necessary. By focusing less on BoJack as the character at the center (and, to be clear, that is less—the first half of the season doesn’t abandon him), characters like Todd and Mr. Peanutbutter get more airtime. These characters, by nature, are more ridiculous and goofy than BoJack, which means most of the A-plots for episodes are more ridiculous and goofy that BoJack-centric episodes later in the season. Three examples worth noting are “Hooray! Todd Episode!”, “Thoughts and Prayers” and “Underground”, all of which show the effects of BoJack’s marginalization in different ways.
“Hooray! Todd Episode!” should work the best of these three, because it has the trappings of a strong BoJack episode; one of the clearest signs of an all-time great BoJack episode is that exhalation at the end of a final scene that has really made you feel something, which is what “Hooray! Todd Episode!” attempts to do with the Good Will Hunting nod of Todd not showing up to play the triangle. But because Todd’s misadventures are so wacky in tone, the episode never feels like it has much substance or purpose beyond giving a Todd his own episode. The introduction of Hollyhock is essentially relegated to the episode’s B-plot, which is weird on a narrative level but also in the sense that it just feels kind of unimportant here.
“Thoughts and Prayers” is this season’s “Brrap Brrap Pew Pew”: an episode that tackles a hot social subject with that characteristic BoJack satire. It’s sometimes funny, but only superficially (public shootings, not surprisingly, don’t lend themselves particularly well to American comedy right now; and while there’s certainly a way to make it work, it never feels like “Thoughts and Prayers” finds it). Again, with BoJack on the periphery, Beatrice’s dementia story gets shoehorned in in a way that makes it hard for any serious material to play off the comedy that the episode is busy trying to nail.
Finally, “Underground” uses structure to work around the narrative shift in character by creating an almost bottle episode of BoJack (if looking just at the location-based change, this could also be the equivalent of this year’s “Fish Out of Water”, but it never feels like “Underground” is trying to recapture that episode in tone or theme). There’s good material to be mined here, especially dealing with the rocky state of Mr. Peanutbutter and Diane’s relationship, but, once more, the episode throws BoJack to the side, off into a drunken secondary room where he doesn’t really get to reconcile with Diane in the ways that could have made that part of the episode sing. Instead, we get distractions—albeit ones that are genuinely hilarious—in Jessica Biel’s pyromania and Princess Carolyn and Todd’s run-ins with beetles.
All three of these episodes are fine episodes of an animated comedy on Netflix, but they’re absolutely not standout episodes of BoJack Horseman. Fortunately, the season almost immediately shifts back into focus for its final five episodes, and with the exception of “Ruthie”, this is done through the Horseman part of the show and our understanding of why BoJack is the way he is (but I’ll try to make the case for why the effectiveness of “Ruthie” also comes back to that despite being a great episode on its own). The creative highpoint (and emotional lowpoint) of the season is “Time’s Arrow”, and I was a bit embarrassed it took me this long to see that BoJack, like Game of Thrones, has a history with penultimate episodes: season one’s “Downer Ending”, season two’s “Escape from L.A.” and season three’s “That’s Too Much, Man!” have all had permanent impacts on the overall story. “Time’s Arrow” is also a great case study of why it’s okay to admit that BoJack is a Difficult Man kind of TV series, because the episodes don’t need to be about him—it’s just that everything comes back to him in the end. Instead, “Time’s Arrow” is about Beatrice and manages to make a hitherto vicious and nasty character into something more. Getting the proper Horseman background is vital at this point, when the historical wells are mostly drying up for the series (I’m assuming we’ll end up getting a longer arc for Joelle, Olivia from Horsin’ Around, next season), but the information we receive is much less important than how we receive it. By the time we understand that Hollyhock isn’t BoJack’s daughter but his half-sister, that revelation is only poignant coating to BoJack’s conversation with Beatrice, where he passes up his chance to make her feel miserable in favor of indulging her fantasy that life is still okay, somehow.
The entire episode is exhausting and brutal in the way few shows can execute (its writer, Kate Purdy, also wrote “Downer Ending” and season three’s phenomenal “Best Thing That Ever Happened”, in which BoJack and Princess Carolyn destroy BoJack’s restaurant in the space of an argument), and seeing the effects parents can have on their children just within the Horseman and Sugarman families is deeply upsetting. Similarly, “Ruthie” is character-centric, focusing on Princess Carolyn and utilizing a framing device that feels incredibly cheap to begin with before it sweeps us entirely off our feet by the end of the episode (the difference being that “Ruthie” is a knockout punch and “Time’s Arrow” is a twelve-round slugfest). Both episodes, though, are instrumental outside of their individual places, as they set the stage for BoJack’s participation in Philbert. Princess Carolyn needs to be dragged down to that level to make her desperate enough to tolerate even the idea of working with BoJack as a client once more. And BoJack needs to do right by his family—in whatever ways he can—to be in the headspace to move on to the next stage of his life. Despite being a relatively happy finale, the final episode of the season is one that sees both Diane and Princess Carolyn break down (the latter makes an admission that could stand as a BoJack Horseman mantra: “It’s just really hard to need people”), but you take what you can get with these characters—the possibility that BoJack might be able to form a healthy sibling relationship in the future is just enough of a silver lining to get us through to next year.
Of all the series that have been used as points of comparison, Mad Men seems like the most appropriate for BoJack Horseman. The incredible way Matthew Weiner ran that series made it seem like Don Draper was being phased out of the thematic currents of later seasons, but those connections were consistently strong throughout the series’ run, from beginning to end. BoJack Horseman took a shot at branching out even further than Mad Men ever did, distancing its storytelling from its central character. The result, to me, is a first half of a season that is fun but ultimately empty entertainment (which will be enough for many viewers) and a last run of episodes that understands how integral BoJack Horseman is to his series, even if he’s not getting the most lines in each episode. The rest of these characters as we know them exist because of their relationships to BoJack, historical and present. Leaning into that makes the last episodes of this fourth season as strong as any stretch in the show’s history, even if this season as a whole is more imbalanced than the last two. This is still among the best that television has to offer right now—it continues to experiment with form, sharpen its satirical blades and find deeper wells in which to throw down its characters only to have them climb back up more determined than ever. Watch it and then rewatch it. Great television deserves as much.