Netflix’s animated series BoJack Horseman has earned the distinct reputation for being one of the most depressing shows on television. For three seasons, the titular character—a washed up actor trying to rediscover his purpose, voiced by Will Arnett—constantly sabotaged his own efforts at redemption out of pride and self-hatred, destroying his relationships in the process. One would expect the series’ fourth season to up the ante even more, pushing BoJack to new depths while raising the stakes and expanding the show’s fictional version of Los Angeles. It certainly would’ve been possible, with critical acclaim and an ever-growing fanbase giving the series license to go big.
So, naturally, the smart move is to dial it down. In fact, this is the most intimate BoJack Horseman season yet, focusing primarily on the main characters’ interpersonal connections. Intellectual blogger Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie) experiences a strain in her marriage when her husband Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins) inexplicably decides to run for governor of California. BoJack’s best friend Todd Chavez (Aaron Paul) embraces his newfound independence. Workaholic manager Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) contemplates starting a family. And BoJack himself is forced to deal with his estranged mother and a young horse claiming to be his daughter.
A lesser animated show on its fourth season would have doubled down on colorful visuals and crazy scenarios, but BoJack Horseman always uses its characters’ emotional arcs as the baseline for everything else. Given where BoJack and the gang found themselves at the end of the previous season, it simply wouldn’t have made sense to be anything but introspective this time around. And it’s precisely because the series resists any instinct to be grander than necessary that the resulting tragedies and heartbreaks are so affecting on a personal level.
This isn’t to say that the show doesn’t take full advantage of the animated medium. On the contrary, season four uses animation’s lack of boundaries to more creatively illustrate specific points of view. We get an entire episode narrated from the future by one of Princess Carolyn’s distant descendants. We get another episode wherein BoJack’s anxiety manifests as relentless, self-deprecating voiceover (arguably Arnett’s best work of the entire series). These perspectives just wouldn’t have come across as convincingly in live action.
But season four’s emotional center—the source of the 12 episodes’ most painful moments—is the character Beatrice (Wendie Malick), BoJack’s mother. Previously known to audiences as nothing but cruel and emotionally abusive, here she is revealed to be a victim of her own personal demons. Again, through the power of animation, BoJack Horseman is able to overlap Beatrice’s and BoJack’s stories, silently revealing patterns and cycles of suffering passed down from one generation to the next. And in the penultimate episode, we enter almost exclusively into Beatrice’s point of view, from which the horror of dementia is unflinchingly laid bare.
Don’t be mistaken, though: even with all this sadness, BoJack Horseman remains a very funny show. Clever wordplay, visual gags, and no-holds-barred satire of politics and the entertainment industry serve as a fitting counterpoint to the character drama, though the humor occasionally enters even darker territory. One episode addresses mass shootings in relation to show business and effectively reminds us how absurd this land of movie stars is, even in the real world, where we can’t blame any anthropomorphic animals for our grief.
However, this series knows better than to be provocative for the sake of provocation. The absurdity of this alternate universe Los Angeles is narratively useful as well: it is against this backdrop that the characters’ humanity comes through more starkly. At the end of the day, these people are just trying not to lose their balance in a world moving too quickly.
By the fourth season finale, everyone finds themselves in unforeseen circumstances yet again. It’s nothing novel: some grapple with their relationships, others contemplate their sexuality, still others ponder their real place and function in the world. But where BoJack Horseman’s fourth season really subverts expectations is in its decision to offer that which has been so elusive for its titular character all this time: happiness. Not in a grand display, or a defiant declaration of any kind—rather, this show is content with a phone call, a song, and a smile before cutting to black. It’s the faintest glimmer of hope—one that might not even amount to anything next season—but the fact that it was there for even just a second makes all the difference.
BoJack Horseman is streaming on Netflix.