Heading into Season 4 of Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman,” it’s understandable to be a little unsure about the show’s direction.
Unlike past installments of the animated series created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, there was no obvious arc to hook the action. Season 1 revolved around former ’90s sitcom star BoJack (voiced by Will Arnett) collaborating with writer Diane (Alison Brie) on his memoir; Season 2 focused on the production of BoJack’s dream project “Secretariat”; Season 3 followed BoJack’s subsequent journey through the Hollywoo (not Hollywood) awards season.
When it came to the fourth season, the end of Season 3 put into motion a few key future storylines – but left BoJack himself totally adrift. It’s a choice that fit perfectly with the show’s at times bleak and existential outlook on life, but one that meant Season 4 would begin as a relatively unknown quantity.
However, by the end of the season, we know these characters, and this show, far better than ever before. “BoJack’s” signature tropes — the background visual jokes, the animal puns, the brutal moments of sadness — remain reliably consistent, but the show turns the focus largely inward, ensuring that some of the more outlandish plots support and highlight the more emotional storylines.
We see episodes devoted to Mr. Peanutbutter’s (Paul F. Tompkins) political career, Todd’s (Aaron Paul) reliably wacky business ideas, and Princess Carolyn’s (Amy Sedaris) Hollywoo scheming. But “BoJack Horseman” never forgets what the real meat of those stories is: Peanutbutter’s marriage to Diane, Todd’s search for identity, Princess Carolyn’s desire to “have it all.”
Without getting into spoilers, it’s worth noting that the harsh turns that friendships and relationships took during the course of Season 3 aren’t easily forgiven, speaking to the way in which “BoJack” has never flinched from bleak emotional honesty in contrast to its more fantastical elements.
Acting-wise, beyond the series regulars many reliable favorites return (again, no spoilers), while new members of the voice cast include Aparna Nancherla, Andre Braugher, Matthew Broderick, RuPaul Charles, Sharon Horgan, Felicity Huffman, Vincent D’Onofrio and Zack Braff. The latter three are just a few of the people playing themselves in a fashion similar to other celebrities who have appeared on the show in the past — unafraid to poke ruthless fun at themselves.
Meanwhile, the show remains as interested as ever in satirizing celebrity culture, with an added political edge. Though the production schedule of “BoJack” means that writing on the season had already begun prior to the 2016 presidential election — thus the current political climate is not heavily felt within the framework of the series — the writers still engage with important topics on an evergreen level. There’s nothing quite as prescient as Season 2’s Cosby episode, but on more than one occasion, the show does aim to say something important within the framework of comedy.
More importantly, the season proves the depth of the character development that’s been established in earlier seasons, making the past feel present in a number of episodes that delve into more than one character’s family history. “BoJack” has always stood out in the binge-viewing world for its commitment to balancing the concept of the season as a whole with individually cohesive episodes, ensuring that installments rarely blend together, even as a larger narrative is told.
For those who might be expecting a jaw-dropping breakout episode on the level of Season 3’s largely silent experiment “Fish Out of Water,” know that rather than aim for one big moment of artistry, Season 4 instead plays semi-consistently across several episodes with animation styles and points-of-view, shifting through time periods on a level beyond flashback. More than once, the past, present, and future find ways to collide, informing each other even as they reveal buried secrets and tragic truths.
No one’s ever really OK on “BoJack Horseman.” The people who say they are are lying, and the people who know they’re not are constantly grappling with that knowledge. But Season 4 features less lying, more people trying to push through to a better state of being, and discovering that maybe sometimes, when you least expect it, there’s real hope of finding that happier place — maybe even finding it in other people.