I’ve found myself in a very strange cycle. Every year I learn that a new season of BoJack Horseman is about to drop, and every year I think to myself that there’s no way that this new season will top the previous one, and there’ll be no possible way that it will hit me even deeper than the last season did. And every year I’m proven wrong. This series is kind of a miracle. On it’s face, it doesn’t seem like it was going to become one of my most anticipated shows of each year and one of the most poignant stories I’ve ever seen. No, when I first learned about it I assumed it was going to be some weird sub-Adult Swim animated show that Netflix was taking a chance on because it was still needing original programming. And yet, each year this show has somehow gotten better. What started as a really funny and witty parody of Hollywood culture has slowly but confidently evolved into a beautiful character study about a group of damaged, but incredibly recognizable, people who are struggling to understand what success is. Every one of these characters has been put on quests to figure out what they want from their lives, and what will finally be enough for them. But it’s our protagonist, BoJack Horseman, who has been on the most growth. We’ve seen him try to get success from a tell-all book, from acting in his dream-project, and from getting nominated for an Oscar. But none of it worked. Last year I was kind of baffled at where this show was going to go, what path they’d send BoJack down on his continued quest to find success. And it turns out that answer to that question is to just blow up the whole formula, take the show in a radically new direction, and create one of the most solid, heartbreaking, hilarious, and moving seasons of television that I’ve ever seen.
Up until now the series has primarily been about BoJack Horseman’s never-ending mission to find happiness from success. His whole life he’s believed that he’s missing something, something that is keeping him from being happy, and he should be able to fill that hole with success. But acting in a popular show wasn’t enough, neither was having a successful book, or acting in his dream project, or getting nominated for an Oscar. Yeah, this season could possibly have had BoJack decide that the true answer is to actually win an Oscar, and go through the motions of acting in another film, but I think by the end of Season Three he’d acknowledged the fact that success wasn’t going to lead to happiness. Which put us in a strange place. This series had all been about BoJack’s constant attempts at success. And when this season begins we find our hero BoJack on a very different sort of trajectory. Because now he doesn’t care about success. He’s confirmed to himself that success does not equal happiness. Which means he’s going to have to start from scratch, and find some new easy answer. For a while he finds himself in his mother’s childhood home, just planning on hiding in the past in a vain attempt escape from his reality. But eventually he realizes he can’t just keep hiding, and returns to Los Angeles to try and continue some semblance of his life, when something pretty shocking is dropped in his lap. A girl who claims to be his illegitimate daughter.
This teenage girl, whose named is Hollyhock, was given up for adoption at birth, and has lived a very good life with her adoptive fathers. But now she wants to find who her birth mother is. But because there was no information about her mother, and people have always thought she looked like BoJack, she decides to seek him out. And after a DNA test confirms that she’s a member of the Horseman family, BoJack finds himself surprisingly put in the position of having a daughter. Not that Hollyhock has any interest in him being her dad, she just needs him to figure out who his mother is. Which is easier said than done. The two begins travelling all around Los Angeles, trying to figure out what random woman BoJack must have slept with at the height of his powers. And along the way BoJack and Hollyhock begin to bond, which results in Hollyhock getting interested in her extended family. This then leads BoJack and Hollyhock to begin visiting BoJack’s horrible and distant mother, whom they learn is now suffering from severe dementia, and doesn’t know who either of them are. The two start spending time with BoJack’s mother, Beatrice, for a while, and eventually are put in the position that she is kicked out of the retirement home she lives in and comes to stay with BoJack. And what seemed like a random side-plot in this season ends up becoming one of the most fascinating bits of television that I’ve ever seen. Because we slowly start to learn about Beatrice’s horrible childhood, her hellish marriage to BoJack’s father, and what a fundamentally broken person she is. All while attempting to give us a vision into the world of a dementia-inflicted mind. Which is horrifying. However, it does end with us learning a pretty big bombshell. Hollyhock isn’t BoJack’s daughter. She’s his sister. And, surprisingly, they both find themselves enjoying this new role, and BoJack begins to find some happiness, and some meaning in his life.
But it’s not all about BoJack. He’s obviously the most important part of the show, but one of the gifts of this show is that every single one of the side-characters, no matter how jokey and goofy they may appear on the surface, have become fully realized characters, and capable of eliciting serious emotions. We see the couch-surfing Todd continue to struggle with his newly discovered sexuality, while also trying to get an illegitimate clown dentistry gig up and running. We see Mr. Peanutbutter try to get involved in politics, while challenging the incumbent governor of California to a ski-race for the candidacy, which ends up spiraling into a crazy run-off election. We see Diane deal with Mr. Peanutbutter’s new life that’s been thrust upon her while trying to make a name for herself that isn’t just the wife of a lovable celebrity. But the side-story that was probably most shocking came from BoJack’s long-suffering friend and manager Princess Carolyn. Because over the course of this show we’ve seen Carolyn grapple with the fact that she’s put her career ahead of any personal or familial happiness she might have had, until finally starting a real relationship with a man named Ralph. And, while their relationship starts to develop in this season we learn that Princess Carolyn becomes pregnant ,and then shortly after has a miscarriage. Which isn’t her first, and most likely won’t be her last. It’s a pretty harrowing storyline that almost completely makes you forget that we’re watching anthropomorphized cat and mouse having the heaviest conversation of their lives.
BoJack Horseman is quite honestly unlike any show I’ve ever seen before. On the surface it seems like a highly accessible show where a bunch of famous voice actors portray some goofy animal-people with plenty of jokes about 90’s sitcoms. And yet, this show has become one of the most poignant dramas that’s on the air right now. I can’t think of any other show that feels so confident in its discussions of miscarriages, marital complication, and unhappiness. Yeah, it can seem like a bit of a bummer when you see it from this angle, but at the same time that I’m seeing one of the most bleak and heartbreaking interpretations of dementia that I’ve ever seen, I’m also seeing people running through a forest while trying to escape some rabid clown-dentists. Which is pretty great. The writing and acting in this show is incredible, giving us character that can move from silly cartoon antics to deep and impactful drama, while never making it feel ridiculous. This is a show where you can laugh hysterically and cry in the same episode, which is a serious feat. Because this season really examined some beautiful insights.
There’s a moment in this season where Hollyhock is talking with BoJack, complaining about the fact that as a teenage girl she’s constantly upset about everything. She tells him about having a feeling that everything you do is stupid, and asks him when that voice will go away. She begs him to tell her that when she gets older, she’ll be okay. And this season helped show us that, no, we won’t be okay. And that’s just part of life. No one is going to be happy all the time, and the point of life is finding ways to make things better, to make them okay, as often as possible. Everyone is going to have dark moments in their life. And the key to surviving them is to know that things will get better. They’ll get worse again in the future, but you can’t focus on those times. BoJack realizes in this season that gaining success and adoration isn’t going to make him okay. He’s devastated at first, and spends the whole season trying to figure out why he’s not okay. He’s blamed his parents for years, figuring that they did something to mess him up. But we gradually learn that while Beatrice may have messed him up, she had to deal with a mother getting a lobotomy, a brother dying in the war, and unfulfilling marriage, and a bitter and hate-filled life. So Beatrice wasn’t okay either. However, by the end of the season, BoJack seems to realize that there are ways to be okay. He can’t live in the past, forever thinking about the darkest moments of his life, like his mother is doomed to do. No, instead he needs to focus on the future, and find things that make his life worth living. Like being a brother to Hollyhock. His life isn’t going to be perfect, and it’s going to be full of heartbreak and sadness, like every life, but by spending less time trying to be okay, and just being okay, it’ll work out.
BoJack Horseman was created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg and released by Netflix, 2017.
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