For three seasons, Bojack Horseman has shown us the trials of a man who just happens to be a stallion—a sadsack depressive living out his middle-aged ennui in Hollywood. In the animated Bojack universe, humans and animals blissfully co-exist on equal emotional and verbal planes while still flaunting all the wild quirks of their species: The dragonflies fly, the cats have claws, the clams live in the sea (and take “shellfies” on their phones). One can imagine the elevator pitch: What if Los Angeles was literally a zoo? “This is a beastly business,” someone in that same room might have joked, not knowing that they were signing up one of the most unsparing and rigorous satires about the entertainment industry since Sunset Boulevard.
Bojack’s creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s vision of Hollywood (which he shares with brilliant cartoonist Lisa Hanawalt) is not just bleak; it’s monstrous, a place where the snakes and wolves aren’t just metaphorical. Hollywoo (the “Hollywood” sign loses its D in a season one caper) is a town in which there is a clear food chain and everyone is trying to claw their way to the top, or to reach some semblance of happiness, whichever comes first. Most characters confuse the two pursuits. That is why they are stuck bouncing around inside a candy-colored, 2-D funhouse of existential despair. The writer Eve Babitz once said that “When people are not happy, they fight against L.A. and say it’s a ‘wasteland.’” The very unhappy creatures on Bojack Horseman act exactly this way. Archeologists have found mammoths sunk into in the LaBrea tarpits, but on Bojack, the elephants walk around alive, trudging through sorrow.
No character is more troubled than Bojack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett) himself, who enters the series as a cynical, alcoholic has-been, who once starred in a hyper-successful family sitcom called Horsin’ Around (think Full House meets Equus). He has a modernist bachelor pad in the hills but can’t get much work, despite the maneuverings of his wily feline agent, a pink tabby named Princess Carolyn (voiced by the great Amy Sedaris). So he decides to write his memoirs. His ghostwriter Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie) is a human woman. Her boyfriend, a blithe Labrador Retriever actor named Mr. Peanutbutter, amassed his fortune from appearing on a Horsin’ Around copycat program called Mr. Peanutbutter’s House. Bojack has a freeloading permanent houseguest named Todd (Aaron Paul), another human in the mix.
These five characters form the main constellation of the show, as they each grapple with The Big Questions: Bojack wants meaning, Todd wants acceptance, Princess Carolyn wants be a woman who has it all, Diane wants creative fulfilment, and Mr. Peanutbutter, ever the ditzy optimist, just wants belly rubs. Each season follows the gang through a general story arc that sees Bojack trying to reclaim some of his lost glory: season one focuses on the writing and publication of his book, season two follows Bojack as he makes his dream project, a biopic of Secretariat, and season three deals with the aftermath of that film, including an Oscar campaign and a tragic accident that hurtles Bojack into a vortex of mourning.
The show has always taken risks: Nowhere else on TV can you see a pop star who is also a whale rapping about having an abortion, or an extended drug binge scene that involves a trip so intense that the characters flatten into rough line drawings. But it truly ascended to another level in season three with an episode called “Fish out of Water,” set at a submerged film festival in the ocean. The episode is completely silent—a thirty-minute Buster Keaton film starring a cartoon horse. Once underwater, Bojack’s head is encased in a glass bubble and he is unable to speak as he floats around a bustling marine metropolis, haunted by his own thoughts of grandeur and self-loathing. When a lost baby seahorse winds up in his care after a series of mishaps, Bojack discovers an innate paternal instinct as he tries to navigate the child through rainbow tangles of kelp. The episode is a lush, beautiful wave of compassion, as close to high art as anything Netflix put out in 2016.
At its best, Bojack Horseman is an empathy machine, a sentimental vessel that uses animation and animals to say what humans cannot. After trying to sabotage a wedding in season one, Bojack laments: “You know, sometimes I think I was born with a leak, and any goodness I started with just slowly spilled out of me and now its all gone. And I’ll never get it back in me. It’s too late. Life is a series of closing doors, isn’t it?” If this line appeared on any other show, it might come across as maudlin; but because it is spoken by a mustang in a schlubby sweater after a barrage of intricate punchlines, it hits the gut with a surprising sting. Watching Bojack can feel like getting sucker-punched at a particularly light-spirited party; but then again, that’s often what it feels like to try to stay buoyant in Hollywood.
Season four is in many ways the most poignant yet, though it lacks the theatrical gimmicks of the underwater episode. It feels, more than anything, like a season that loyal watchers of the show have earned, after sticking with Bojack through his many rollercoaster rides of mania and melancholy. Most importantly, it shuttles Bojack aside—he is missing in action for the entire first episode—and moves its spotlight onto the women in his life. For once he is allowed to listen and learn rather than to bray through his own turmoil.
Early in the season, Bojack meets a teenage filly named Hollyhock (the comedian Aparna Nancherla, whose voice contains just the right gloss of sardonic angst). She claims to be his daughter from a dalliance in the 90s. She comes to live with him, just as his judgmental mother, Beatrice Horseman (a droll Wendie Malick), is kicked out of her nursing home for bad behavior. At the same time, Princess Carolyn is struggling to get pregnant with her boyfriend, a wealthy mouse named Ralph Stilton (he is the scion of a WASP-y family, who alienates Princess Carolyn at a dinner party by doing a ritual in which they depict cats as the devil). Diane, stuck in a click-bait blogging job for a website called Girl Croosh, must stand by as Mr. Peanutbutter decides to run for Governor of California. He is totally unqualified but that doesn’t stop him from believing that his sheer likeability as a fuzzy-faced celebrity will win the day. (This season was written before the election, but there are tinges of the current political situation all over it).
Both women feel adrift throughout the season: Carolyn cannot reconcile her need to have a family with her professional prowess, and Diane continues to see her dreams steamrolled by Mr. Peanutbutter’s ambition. At one point, Mr. Peanutbutter begins a fracking project in their front yard as an act of political theater, despite the fact that Diane has published a passionate anti-fracking manifesto online. They litigate their failing marriage through the national news, and both are exhausted and estranged by the time the season ends.
What is brilliant about ceding this season of Bojack to the females of the species is that it allows for episodes that tap into emotional wells that have not yet run dry. We may be tired of Bojack’s old schtick of messing up his life and going on a destructive bender, but there are more stories to mine in the menagerie, and the show has discovered inventive, and often heartbreaking new ways to tell them. One episode that left me near tears was devoted to Princess Carolyn’s great-great-granddaughter, giving a presentation inside a space-shuttle classroom on the resilience of her ancestor, who made it through a truly terrible day. Back in the present, we learn that Princess Carolyn has miscarried a pregnancy for the second time. As she tries to tell Ralph the news over dinner, she is triggered by the waiter, who greets a gaggle of starlets who enter the restaurant as “Ah, Miss Carrie Underwood, Miss Carey Mulligan, Miss Carey, Mariah, right this way!” Everywhere she goes reminds her of her pain, and she ends up weeping alone in her car under the moonlight. Very few shows have ever broached the subject of lost pregnancy, let alone through the lens of a hot pink cat who is going through hell. Carolyn’s grief is tangible; for a moment I forgot that I was watching a cartoon and was overwhelmed by a desire to reach through the screen and pet her hand.
Another episode that almost reaches the heights of “Fish Out of Water” gives us Beatrice’s backstory, but only in the garbled, out of order flashbacks that might come from the brain of an older woman with dementia. Some of her memories are scribbled over, or crossed out, or tinted with a garish hue. She is a well of secrets, many of which she cannot express in the present to Bojack or Hollyhock, but which explain her cruelty and isolation. Again, there are not many shows that tackle the terror of the aging mind, or which can dive inside the murky depths of lost memories the way that Bojack can, and does. What is most impressive about Bojack Horseman, in the end, is that it knows what is possible with animation—both hyper-specific visual jokes and the ability to depict scenes and situations that no realism ever could—and it doesn’t shy away from pushing the form to its limits in order to elicit a human response. It is a brave show, a show that dares to make cats into feminists and horses into addicts, a show that probes the edges of the celebrity ego, a show that allows its characters to look into the vacuum inside themselves and grasp for answers. In Bojack, Los Angeles really is a zoo, but its characters are the ones who set up the mental cages.
By the end of season four, there is a glimmer of hope for Bojack, a hint that he might have found his way out of the wasteland. The show has led its horse to happier waters. We have to wait to see if he takes a drink.