In its very first episodes, BoJack Horseman was not the show it has now become. Reviewers in 2014 were fairly underwhelmed by what appeared to be an insider look at Hollywood life jazzed up with the inclusion of anthropomorphic animals, giving the series middling reviews based on the limited number of episodes they’d been given at the time.
Everything changed when fans sat down to watch the whole series. It turned out that rather than an equine Entourage, BoJack Horseman was a more complex prospect altogether, delving into the tortured inner life of its bitter, damaged lead (Will Arnett’s titular former sitcom star) and the horrors he inflicted on those close to him.
“Tell me, please, Diane, tell me that I’m good…” BoJack pleaded – and the show became something else entirely.
It was a great turnaround that granted the series revised rave reviews nearly across the board, a bait-and-switch (whether it was explicitly planned or not) that catapaulted the Netflix comedy to the forefront of popular culture discussion.
In a way, the series has struggled to top that ever since. Don’t get me wrong, season two was amazing television – BoJack trying and failing to become a better person as interest in his long-buried acting career began to pick up again was a great arc – but by the time it came to season three’s release, it felt like the series was just retreading old ground.
How many times can BoJack have an epiphany about his terrible behaviour before it becomes old hat? And how many shocking, terrible actions can he commit before we stop feeling repelled? By the time we got to season three’s own “gut-punch” moment, when long-suffering lodger Todd (Aaron Paul) finally snaps at BoJack, it didn’t hit home as similar scenes had in seasons past. It just felt like these were emotional journeys which we’d already travelled and memorised.
Despite incredible one-off episodes (like the near-silent underwater story last year), and genuinely heart-wrenching scenes (I’m looking at you, Sarah-Lynn) I couldn’t help but feel this was the beginning of the decay that would eventually make the series lose its edge and interest. Sure, it would still be a great show (and one of the funniest things around – I don’t want to suggest it’s all doom and gloom) – but it was hard to know what could drive BoJack Horseman forward indefinitely.
Keep making BoJack tragically irredeemable, and you face diminishing returns. Give him a happy ending, and you risk losing what made the show great in the first place.
But then I watched the new season, and was surprised. Somehow, these 12 new episodes have largely swerved the problem altogether by giving us something different: a series without a real central arc, focussing instead on smaller tragedies, setpieces and victories based around BoJack’s friends and family.
If BoJack’s predicament was like the Star Trek’s unwinnable Kobayashi Maru test, this was the Captain Kirk solution – changing the rules of the game to make it a different, winnable challenge.
BoJack hasn’t been healed OR fully damned, but we instead got the chance to delve deeper into the psyche of his former agent and girlfriend Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) in one wrong-footing episode, or see the hidden trauma that inspired BoJack’s own cruel mother to pass on her misery to her offspring, Philip Larkin-style in another.
Other episodes delve into the relationship between Diane (Alison Brie) and Mr Peanutbutter (Paul F Tompkins) and Todd’s destructive habit of helping others at his own expense; overall it was these smaller, telling developments that propelled season four this year. The series didn’t have to choose between tragedy or triumph – it just told a different kind of story.
Really, the closest thing BoJack Horseman has to a main arc this year is when BoJack tries to build a relationship with someone who may or may not be his biological daughter, but even this doesn’t go quite in the directions you expect (whether that be in terms of typical dramatic development or typical BoJack-style catastrophe – but to say much more would be a giveaway).
Overall, then, this is a BoJack Horseman that defies expectations from the off, and ends in a way that feels genuinely different from the seasons that have come before. For the first time in a while I’m intrigued to see what comes next for Netflix’s best original series – especially now that it seems it won’t be left flogging a dead horse.
Well, one that’s dead inside, anyway.
BoJack Horseman’s fourth season is available to stream on Netflix now