Welcome to Progress Report, a spin on my standard review format in which I observe TV and internet shows that are still a work in progress. The idea is to review everything the show has made until this point, and what better show to start with than Netflix exclusive Bojack Horseman, who’s fourth season debuted in its entirety on September 8th.
Bojack Horseman is an animated show about a middle-aged talking horse who used to be a big Hollywood star in the family sitcom show “Horsin’ Around”, roughly 18 years ago. Bojack’s world of anthropomorphic animals is treated as totally normal, and is surprisingly also full of humans. The entire show centers around this once famous actor desperately trying to leave some form of legacy behind, and also to re-enter the limelight, starting with writing his memoirs in Season 1. His goals escalate in traditional Hollywood fashion over the next couple seasons, but transform into something completely different by season four. The overall construction of the show mirrors that of a standard adult animated family show, such as The Simpsons, Family Guy or Bob’s Burgers, and in an amusing meta-construct, what “Horsin’ Around” is supposed to represent. However, instead of resetting every episode, events in Bojack Horseman are imprint, often with haunting or damaging repercussions. There’s a hard satire here on the Hollywood lifestyle, and how it creates a natural bitterness and cynicism in people. Bojack represent this with his constant drinking, swearing and fooling around, and inability to find even a modicum of happiness in his life.
This is not your typical animated comedy. Every season it gets a little darker and more hilarious, but also much sadder. Relentless is how I would describe the show.
Bojack Horseman is an excellent show, but it will never apologize for all the mud it’s going to drag you through. Every season follows a pretty similar pattern across its twelve episode run: a somewhat miserable status quo and a few inciting incidents in the first three or so episodes, a five plus episode string of slow inclination with a number of harsh drops scattered throughout, a climax around the eighth to tenth episode mark that immediately sends things into severe freefall until the last episode, in which there’s a half-hearted attempt to recenter the uncontrollable nature of events that got everyone there. The goal isn’t fixing circumstances, rather accepting the state of things or finding some level of closure within, and sometimes you aren’t even given that much. Every episode you are submerged just a little bit deeper in the characters’ struggles and crazy antics until you find yourself drowning in it.
To be fair, the show is still a comedy at heart, even if it’s a dark comedy. The majority of humor is built out of excellently-crafted failure, either in the characters’ inability to realize their goals or their ability to make every situation worse. The Simpsons isn’t the best comparison, it’s closer to The Venture Brothers but with far deeper introspection, or Rick and Morty with less offset via absurdity. Or Eastbound and Down but animated and about recovering a career as an athlete rather than an actor. But even those comparisons fall a bit short since Bojack has that hard continuity those other shows don’t (except for Eastbound). That’s not to say that shows like Rick and Morty aren’t continuous, but rather that events prior don’t hold nearly the same sway on the characters or their world. Those other comedies don’t suffer from a lack of memory; by comparison, Bojack is a show in which its characters might benefit from forgetting, so it absolutely won’t EVER let them. Relentless, again, to both its characters and its audience in forcing consequence to the forefront every single time, and especially when you can’t handle it anymore.
In terms of how strong the show is on a seasonal basis, the first season is definitely overall the weakest. This is a problem that many shows of this kind face (and one that Rick and Morty narrowly dodged), but to its credit Bojack Horseman probably recovers from it the fastest. After you slog through the first four to five episodes, the rest of the show strikes hard and constant. Once season one sets the overall tone, season two maintains it while diving deeper into the characters. Season three is when events start harshly spiraling out of control, taking everyone into some really dark places and even denying closure to many of its characters. With the newly released season four, there’s an attempt to re-center everyone back onto solid ground, and despite some especially tormenting moments, it ends up being probably the most beautiful arrangement season so far. Season three left things in such a shambled state that it almost seems impossible to recover. By comparison, season four is much subtler in its blows, yet I found that most of them ended up striking harder somehow. The narrative loses some raw power and instead gains precision.
There’s also another observation that empowers the show, possibly without intention. It’s the fact that Bojack Horseman is a Netflix show, and releases in full bursts rather than weekly. Yes, there’s a strength to telling complete longform stories with Netflix’s model, but there’s another resonating quality that carries over: loneliness. Watching shows on Netflix, in my experience at least, tends be a lonely activity. There’s an encouragement to binge watch these shows, alone if necessary, every episode back to back with no breaks in the middle. And, no matter how much you watch, it’s never enough to satisfy. The whole platform and process is such an exact reflection of Bojack’s flaws, namely this unfillable void in his life that relentlessly calls for more. While both strive to ease the pain of loneliness, their actions sadly encourage it. In a way, the only one that can put up with Bojack is you. I doubt this particular wielding of Netflix as a medium was purely intentional, but nevertheless, it’s there and ringing true.
I fully endorse everything that Bojack Horseman unapologetically strives to be. The concept is rough, but the execution makes it all worthwhile. I do wish that the show’s more vivacious moments would dial back just a tad since the narrative succeeds far more when it’s grounded, but there’s little else to hate within this majestic stallion of a story. And, while I have painstakingly avoided spoilers for this entire article, I will say this: the last shot of season four is probably one of the most beautiful moments I’ve experienced from a show about a talking horse.
I can’t wait for Season 5.