3P Reviews

3P Reviews: Bojack Horseman, Season Four

Bojack Horseman Season 4

Series Breakdown Rating:

Characters: 8 
Aesthetics and Style: 6
Humor: 8
Overall Plot: 6
Subplots: 9
Sum: 37/50

 

Spoilers: Yes

Audience Assumptions: No familiarity

 

Season Four – *****

 

Part One: SUCK IT, HOUSE!

Hey, would you look at that. It’s Ace Awareness Week!

Okay, so a bit of background: I’ve known I was asexual and aromantic since I was about eleven, but I didn’t know there was a word for it until college. My experience has mainly been one of awkwardness and isolation, not because the people I encounter intentionally ostracize me for it (on the whole, the people I’ve come out to are usually pleasant), but because sexual attraction is the presumed norm in my society. I was never given the option to be uninterested in sex or romance, something made painfully obvious from Disney movies to sex ed class. The adults around me growing up were surprisingly welcoming to homosexual relationships, to the point where I figured for a long time that I must be gay or bisexual, since I clearly wasn’t straight. What other options were there?

Asexuality and its associated orientations occupy a wide range of people who experience little or no interest in sex and sex-associated behaviors, such as romance. The ace spectrum is part of the broader LGBTQIA+ spectrum (yeah, that “A” on the end doesn’t stand for “ally,” because why on earth would it…?), and is thought to make up about one percent of the global population. While aces don’t often face as much persecution as LGB or trans members of the LGBT+ community, some aces do experience violence because of their orientation. More frequently, asexuality and its affinities are cast aside as nonexistent, that aces “just haven’t found the right person yet.”

I wanted to open this review with a bit about my experience because I’ve always felt weird talking about asexuality. There’s always that risk of those I come out to being cruel, of course, but coming out as anything these days, especially where I live, isn’t the same as it was in the 1980s. My bigger concern, imagined or not, is that those I come out to won’t know what asexuality is, and more than that, won’t care. It feels like coming out as an honorary pineapple or something. Sure, Hat, that’s nice. Now go along and play. No one gives a damn.

I’m not saying that anyone should give a damn about me being an ace, either. Even I don’t think about it most of the time. But it’s a pity when the world at large doesn’t bother to consider how uniform and stale their views are when they dismiss unconventional perspectives.

Try this one on for size: How many television series can you name with openly asexual or aromantic characters? Is the answer more than two? Because that’s how many I’ve encountered. That, and no major films, books, games, or other narrative media. Just two. I realize there are more stories with ace characters in them, especially among indie productions, but when it comes to visibility, popular series carry more weight. Queer characters in major franchises are seen and adored by more people simply because of sheer volume, and many of those who see them are likely to not be queer themselves. People who are underrepresented are far more likely to seek out the smaller productions with more diverse casts and characters, and while that’s important for both consumers and producers, it takes a lot longer to enact sweeping sociological reform when you’re mostly preaching to the choir.

I’d love to see more ace characters in literally anything (if you know of any, I have a comment box below), but for now, I’m stuck with just two representations of ace characters in series I’ve come across.

First is that fucking House episode.

Perhaps the prominent mainstream appearance of asexual characters prior to Bojack Horseman was in an episode of the eighth season of House. In this episode, a man comes in to see the titular doctor and he and his wife reveal that they’re both asexual. House’s sex-addled brain can’t comprehend this information, and despite insistence from his coworkers that asexuality is very much a thing, House spends the duration of the episode trying to prove that the patient is lying about his orientation. Classy. Anyway, the end of the episode reveals that House was completely right: not only is the patient only asexual because of a hormonal imbalance from an underdeveloped pituitary gland, but as it turns out, his wife was straight-up lying about being asexual!

So yeah, that’s pretty shit representation on nearly every level. I was honestly excited at the start of the episode, too, because I’d never seen ace characters portrayed anywhere before. It’s astounded the show managed to hit just about every wrong mark. Like, I’m not sure I could come up with something so inept if I tried.

The utter failure of House‘s attempt at ace characters set my expectations pretty low for other series. Some narratives establish characters without stated sexual or romantic partners, but the more common trend (especially in children’s media, which I flat-out don’t understand) is to give a character a half-assed love interest who could be cut from the story entirely and affect diddly-squat. Coded ace characters are uncommon as it is, and when they’re stated to be asexual, it’s in the vain of that fucking House episode.

This is a large part of why Bojack Horseman caught me completely off-guard. To get to actually reviewing the season, Season Four delves much further into the reveal that Todd is asexual. It’s such an antithesis to the House ace episode that I have difficulty expressing how happy it makes me. I love pretty damn near all of it, from Todd being unsure about labels, to him coming to accept those labels and go to an ace get-together, to him learning about the difference between being aromantic and asexual, to him randomly meeting other aces. It’s genuinely beautiful. It gives me a warm fuzzy feeling that the series is willing to go out of its way to do this, and Todd’s pretty much the best character they could have chosen for it.

I can also verify that we asexuals are naturally drawn to nonsensical hijinks in lieu of sexual attraction, so that’s a plus as well. When you aren’t so worried about finding a sexual partner, of course the first thing that comes to mind is to found a dentist clown venture. Why do you think I started this blog? At this very moment, I have a half-finished blanket, a miniature hydroponics garden, a cockroach colony breeding project, an impromptu podcast, a visual novel, and a conlang, on top of more important things like work. As any self-respecting asexual would.

This season doesn’t present Todd’s asexuality as a comedic point, which is probably a wise move, though I likewise enjoy how the fifth season uses it to present utterly unique comedic and dramatic situations. Mostly, Todd being asexual is part of his character growth, with Todd coming to accept himself outside of interference from the other major characters. He gets his own episode early in the season, which is solid through and through, and him coming to realize his asexuality feeds into his development as his own person. Throughout much of the series, Todd has been a side character there to flesh out the world and help Bojack or Mr. Peanutbutter, with his personal interests cast aside as jokes or supplementary to other characters’ arcs, particularly Bojack’s. In this season, Todd pointedly spends little time with Bojack and makes decisions, particularly about his orientation, for himself rather than other characters. Occasionally this separates his character from the goings-on of the others, but the season crafts situations to make Todd’s storyline both engaging and sufficiently integrated with the rest of the characters to keep it relevant. As though I needed more reasons to like this character.

 

Part Two: DENTIST CLOWNS

This is easily the most balanced season of the series, with each character provided a mini arc that profoundly contributes to their broader development. This comes in three main flavors for the major characters (excluding Bojack): Mr. Peanutbutter’s campaign for governor, Princess Carolyn’s quest to get pregnant, and the dentist clowns.

Okay, the dentist clowns first because they’re the funniest things in the entire show. About halfway through the season, Todd and Mr. Peanutbutter reunite for a brainstorming session at their old company. Within about five minutes, they arrive at several important conclusions based on absolutely nothing: 1) kids don’t like the dentist, 2) the best way to remedy this solution is to merge dentists with clowns, 3) kids must like clowns because adults are afraid of them, 4) neither clowns nor dentists require certification of any sort to practice clowning and/or medicine.

This goes about as well as you would imagine. So, after a few attempts to capture the dentist clowns (and clown dentists), now rabid and loose in the woods, Todd comes up with the brilliant idea of using them as part of an exercise regimen.

I struggle to effectively communicate how expertly constructed the dentist-clown sequence is. It is a glorious melange of delicately-layered jokes, each one building on the garnish the previous one. It results in the wittiest, most uniquely complex and utterly hilarious lines in the show, and just thinking about some of them forces me to stifle five minutes of laughter. It makes me weep. This is the sort of humor I’ve known for a while this show could deliver, and it’s an utter delight to see it used so extensively.

Aside from my general fondness for jokes, I want to appreciate how the show has returned to what made the first season so strong — a combination of drama and sharp humor. This mixture is especially crucial to maintain as the stakes get higher. The two seasons before this one seemed to regard their comedic elements as less important, and I think they suffered for it. By upping its comedy, the fourth season can get away with some pretty heavy drama.

Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter continue navigating their fractured marriage, Mr. Peanutbutter running for governor under the guidance of one of his ex-wives and Diane trying to remain supportive through his increasingly bad decisions. I don’t know if I can say that this is one of their better seasons, but it certainly gives them each a lot to chew on. Mr. Peanutbutter is running for office to get attention and clearly has only the vaguest idea of what a governor does, and his wife is finding it difficult to stand his willful ignorance. Diane spends the first part of the season trying to support him, knowing that his chance of winning the election is virtually nonexistent. She’s working on a pop culture blog that’s far from ideal but at least gives her a platform to voice her opinions, which becomes an important outlet when Mr. Peanutbutter’s machinations lead him to start supporting a laundry list of bad ideas.

The election subplot is clearly a mockery of celebrity political candidates, and it works well on that level. However, I’ve also seen people compare Mr. Peanutbutter to the Cheeto, which I don’t think is as clear of a comparison. Even if that was the impetus for this subplot when it was written, I think it’s dangerous, especially given recent events, to equate the Cheeto to a lovable buffoon who’s well-meaning but inept. Mr. Peanutbutter, as we’ve learned over the last few seasons, can be selfish and occasionally even cruel, but what makes his bid for governor so hectic is his complete lack of principle. His opinions are guided according to his advisors and happenstance, and he’s little more than a literal dog when it comes to forming his own opinion. Mr. Peanutbutter is not, for instance, running off the rails spewing hate speech and pardoning Nazis. And he quits when his utter incompetence gets people killed.

But I digress. Mr. Peanutbutter eventually leaves the race and lends his celebrity endorsement to his former rival in order to set things right. Diane, meanwhile, stretched to her limits by the campaign, is looking forward to having her husband back. They spend some romantic time together and Mr. Peanutbutter’s attempts to set things right mend their marriage a bit, but in the end, it’s the little things that prove too much for Diane. She mentions a childhood dream of hers, to have a massive library like Belle did in Beauty and the Beast, and while away for a vacation, Mr. Peanutbutter has their  contractors build one for her. Mr. Peanutbutter of course expects Diane to embrace the gesture, because to him it’s a demonstration of him putting her needs before his own.

However, to Diane, it’s not only an excessive display of his wealth, it’s a corruption of her fantasy. Her idea of romance is much smaller and more abstract than his; him listening to her describe the room she always wanted was all she needed out of that exchange. She wasn’t hinting that she really wanted a “Belle room,” though that’s what an outside observer might pick up. She was relying on Mr. Peanutbutter understanding her particular thought process, but of course he doesn’t. Him actually building the room comes as a complete surprise to her, and not a good one. The actual room is a corruption of her vision, with lifeless faces haphazardly painted on inanimate objects and all of the books in the room fake. Diane prefers the real item, even if it can’t be touched — especially if it can’t be touched — but Mr. Peanutbutter needs a physical facsimile, even if it’s imperfect. This fundamental dichotomy, though insignificant in the grand scheme of their marriage, becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

This season is easily the funniest. You see what I mean now when I say it’s humor and drama seem to bolster each other?

This series has plenty of devastating moments and episodes, but the most impactful this season comes from a somewhat unexpected place. Princess Carolyn continues to be fleshed out as a main player through her developing relationship with Ralph. When she reveals to him that she was briefly pregnant with his offspring in the first episode, he suggests they try to have a baby intentionally. This is something Princess Carolyn has expressed interest in for a long time, and Ralph’s a loving, supportive partner. They spend much of the season smoothing out their personal issues, with Carolyn fretting over her low fertility and Ralph’s family. All of it comes together and seems to be going well, until we reach the Ruthie episode.

The episode is framed as a school report being given by Princess Carolyn’s great-somethingth granddaughter about a terrible day in Princess Carolyn’s life. Recently pregnant with “Philbert,” Princess Carolyn goes through the exhausting journey of learning that Judah declined a business deal behind her back, her prized gold necklace is a knock-off, and on top of that, she’s miscarried again. She tries to keep her miscarriage a secret from Ralph, and when he confronts her about it, she reveals that it’s happened four times before. Princess Carolyn can’t accept that she’s infertile and continues to insist on having a baby herself, but she’s just setting herself up for more heartache. Ralph suggests adoption, and she refuses, breaking up with him on the spot.

The framing device, which is delightful and occasionally hilarious, is there to keep the audience’s spirits up because we know she eventually does get a baby somehow, otherwise Ruthie wouldn’t exist. Right? Describing it that way, though, aligns the heartbreaking punchline like bowling pins: Princess Carolyn says the same thing, and then the episode just ends. Ruthie was nothing more than wishful thinking. The story doesn’t have a happy ending because this isn’t that sort of show.

 

Part Three: At Least the Protagonist Isn’t Pervy in This One? As Much, Anyway?

You’ve probably noticed by this point that I’ve neglected to mention Bojack. I got fed up with him in the last season, and while that hadn’t changed much by the start of this one, I will say the series has a much better grasp of what it wants from him now. Bojack is missing for the entire first episode, having locked himself away in a cabin after his breakdown at the end of Season Three. He feels guilty about leading to Sarah Lyn’s overdose and doesn’t know what to do with himself, so he goes to his mother’s old summer house and lives in its dilapidated ruins for a year. Upon returning to L.A., he finds that he has a teenage daughter, and the rest of his subplot for the season concerns helping this girl, Hollyhock, try to find her biological mother.

This season is a major improvement over the previous two in terms of Bojack’s contribution. First and foremost, he’s shuffled off to the sidelines and given the same weight as any of the major characters, rather than playing the lead. The audience is also given a break from him, both in terms of the first episode, and the two flashback episodes.

Most of the flashbacks up until this point have centered around Bojack’s childhood, but in this season, they’re about his mother. Admittedly, I’d much prefer the series devote time to Todd, Diane, Mr. Peanutbutter, or Princess Carolyn, but since they all shine this season anyway, I’m willing to give it a pass. Bojack’s mother has been a very two-dimensional character up until this point, but at Hollyhock’s request to meet her grandmother, Bojack’s mother becomes a new recurring character in the series. She has dementia and is on her last legs, so Hollyhock insists she come to live at Bojack’s house, to which the protagonist begrudgingly agrees. Through the flashbacks, we realize that Bjoack’s mother had a difficult life as well, with her father misogynistic and her mother lobotomized for depression. In a later episode, we see his mother falling for Bojack’s father and getting knocked up, deciding to stay with Bojack’s father out of a whimsical sense of youthful freedom. This idyllic life soon goes south, leaving both his parents bitter and young Bojack an outlet for them to air their grievances. While these portions of the story can be compelling and I quite like Bojack’s mother as a complex character, I still think the series is caught up in the idea of trauma being an excuse for a person’s bad behavior. Intergenerational trauma is absolutely a thing, and it can have a profound impact on many people within a family, but there’s still a distinction between the pain someone experiences and the pain they inflict on others. I think it’s folly to say that because the former is outside of a person’s control, the latter is too.

However, it’s only really the flashback episodes that touch on this idea. The rest of Bojack’s arc in the season focuses on human fallibility and the tragedy of circumstance exacerbated by that fallibility. Hollyhock comes into the picture looking for Bojack not as a father figure (she already has eight dads), but to tell him who her mother is. Even she admits that this is a bit of a fool’s errand, as she’s not sure what she wants a mother figure for and kind of feels like it’s a betrayal to her own fathers to seek one. Bojack agrees to help her look out of an attempt to be a better person, but he likewise is caught off-guard by the situation. He’s not the center of attention this time — in fact, he’s barely a necessary artifact in Hollyhock’s quest. Mainly, he seems intent on helping her out of boredom. He doesn’t have a job and he’s basically severed his relationships with his friends; Todd talks to him once in the entire season, Princess Carolyn avoids him altogether, he actively tries to stay hidden from Diane for as long as he can, and he’s never really been close to Mr. Peanutbutter.

In fact, Hollyhock and Bojack’s mother are far more central characters in this season, arguably on par with Bojack himself. Hollyhock is a friendly, often witty character whose optimism and occasional naivete serve to nicely balance the cynicism the rest of the characters have. Bojack’s mother is at first glance little more than a setpiece, meant to spur Bojack’s cruelty and serve as a talking point, but she gets plenty of surprisingly funny moments of her own. She’s not quite the same character as the person we see in the flashbacks because of her illness; she remembers bits of her life and retains her personality, but because of substantial gaps in her memory, she expresses that personality in a fundamentally different way. Bojack is confused to learn that she actually always liked his show, and that she has mothering instincts because he never got to see that side of her.

Of course, this series won’t leave on a cheerful ending. Hollyhock spends more time with Bojack’s mother once she figures out how unreliable Bojack is, and she gets drugged with amphetamines for it. This is a somewhat blameless act, as while it’s certainly in-character for Bojack’s mother, it comes from the addled mind of an old, ill woman. She’s confused as much as anyone else, and Bojack blames himself for being negligent and allowing this to happen — as perhaps he should. Hollyhock’s fathers come to take her home, banning Bojack from seeing or speaking to her again, and he’s right back where he started. However, fueled by a rare glimmer of selflessness, Bojack tries to continue their original quest and finds out that Hollyhock’s mother was a former maid of theirs and that she’s not his daughter, but his sister.

I can’t quite put my finger on why Bojack doesn’t bother me as much in this season as the previous ones, aside from his diminished role. His actions in Season Two are still inexcusable and I wouldn’t say he’s redeemed or anything, but I think this season demonstrates that he might be redeemable, at least to some extent. Bojack making a concerted effort to become a better person, reconciling at least a little with his past, and doing things for others — not because he’ll get anything out of it, but because it’s the right thing to do — put him on the right path. The season doesn’t indulge in Bojack’s worse attributes or put him on a bender or really even frame his actions as self-beneficial in much of any way. Hollyhock is the character his arc is framed around, and we see things from her point of view at least as much as Bojack’s. When Bojack’s an asshole, we don’t feel sorry for him, we feel sorry for Hollyhock, and the show lets us feel sorry for her. Even the episode that reveals Bojack’s inner thoughts frequently dips into how his actions hurt Hollyhock and his mother. At the end of the episode, we realize that the self-deprecating insults Bojack’s mind constantly spouts at him are something Hollyhock experiences too.

The season ends on a mixed note, pretty bittersweet compared to the others. In some ways, this is the most upbeat ending the series has had, especially for Bojack. Hollyhock tells him she doesn’t need him as a father, but might like him as a brother. Princess Carolyn gets a new project (a show ironically titled “Philbert”) off the ground, and Todd finds an asexual girlfriend once he finds a productive use for his dentist clowns. However, all of these positive outcomes come with baggage. The core problems of all of these characters have yet to be resolved. Bojack still let Hollyhock get poisoned and left his mother to rot in a low-rent nursing home. Princess Carolyn obsesses over her show the same way she did over getting pregnant, and she’s still no closer to getting a real baby. Todd’s doing pretty well, but he’s running a business whose safety can be described as dubious at best. And of course, Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter just sort of end the series with a complete collapse of their marriage.

The season itself is full of pathos, which makes it one of the more soothing to watch. It’s enjoyable and cathartic, but it’s very much a middle chapter. The season sets the characters on interesting trajectories and really steps up the game for what series can do, but I don’t think it stands on its own, at least not fully. Whether the series continues the trend established here is anyone’s guess, but the quality of this season is a good sign.

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