BoJack Horseman is the best show ever made about Hollywood.
To me, this superlative is undeniable. The great qualities of BoJack Horseman do not simply lie in its endlessly clever jokes, nor its insightful sardonic edge, nor its jet-black point of view. They do not even lie with the fact that beneath all that cynicism, the show reveals the flicker of an emotional heart just trying to protect itself. No, it is because the show’s creators so completely understand the psychology of their characters. That may sound rather simple, but it’s all that really matters. They understand the reasons why these characters are drawn to the deadly dance of fame, along with each other’s lives, all to form the loose patchwork of relationships and power structures that define not just Hollywood life, but life itself.
The fourth season opens with an episode that’s effectively all about “the void” of BoJack and what he’s left behind (or lack thereof). When we last saw him, he was having another suicidal episode after the death of his surrogate daughter, Sarah Lynn. He almost let himself drive off the highway and then ended up stopping to stare at wild horses. But where is he now? Does he know he has a real daughter? Even by episode’s end, we don’t know the answers to those questions. But some other characters couldn’t care less.
We fittingly start our BoJack-less episode with a Mr. Peanut Butter origin story, who just waltzed his way into sitcom stardom through the rule-breaking bliss of ignorance, the same way he waltzes through life. Despite the obvious, cynical views we can draw from this luck, the simpler truth is that joyful people make us feel joy. But as a consequence, Mr. Peanutbutter now thinks he can just waltz his way into politics like it’s no big deal (sound familiar?). Alas, when his signature count for the California governor’s race comes up short, his ex-wife Katrina tells it to him straight: “Your whole life, everyone throwing you bones because they like you. But everyone has a ceiling to their likability. This is a bone you can’t have, because people just don’t like you enough.”
Of course, that doesn’t really work. Mr. Peanutbutter can barely understand his confused reaction, so all it takes is a few nice, supportive words from Diane to spur his deluded self-confidence once again. But soon, it snowballs into an absurd ski race for the governorship that makes a mockery of the entire democratic process. It doesn’t just aim at the surface-level stuff, either. Within 30 seconds, the episode accurately showcases the absurdity of the modern state tack-on amendment process and even take sideswipes at false equivalency and horse-race journalism, complete with this gem: “Of course, there are reasons why a gubernatorial election shouldn’t be decided by a ski race, but are there also reasons why it should? For the sake of fairness, we brought in two experts, with opposite opinions, who will now have equal time to just say those opinions, because that’s what news is!”
As hilarious and crushing as it all is, I come back to the root psychology of the characters, because that’s the genius of Mr. Peanutbutter’s final dark turn, where he ends up lashing out at his holier-than-thou opponent, Woodchuck Could Chuck Berkowitz (who is actually incredibly patient and kind). For all his inherent joy, Mr. Peanutbutter doesn’t understand the meaning of a bone he cannot have, so now his psyche will contort itself to make good on its own system of reward, all to more tragic results. The fact that it ties in so closely to Donald Trump is unfortunately telling, but I’d argue the comparison goes so far beyond the one-to-one impersonations that you see a lot nowadays. No, it reveals the deeper psychology of this single facet of Trumpness, something so general that it feels specific: Whatever you worship will never be enough.
It is so telling that Diane can only couch her support and optimism when she and Mr. Peanutbutter will never have to actually face the consequences. She, unlike Katrina, can never tell Mr. Peanutbutter there’s a bone he can’t have. Katrina, unlike Diane, cannot back away from an opportunity even if it will tear the world apart. And so their broken system goes on, unchallenged.
Is it any surprise that Diane’s thoughts drift back to the one person who could challenge everything, noting the surprising void that BoJack has left in her life? As much as he was a source of horribleness, BoJack is the one with whom Diane can be totally real and thus actually talk to. She constantly leaves him voice-mails, eventually displacing her emotions and desperation by yelling into the phone, “You told me you needed me in your life! So how do you think that makes me feel?” The truth is that his absence makes her feel lonely. He offers her genuine commiseration. If there is any redeeming notion to BoJack’s entire existence, it might be that.
What would BoJack say about all this tomfoolery? We’ve had three seasons’ worth of content to know the answer: He would make jokes. He would snipe. He would scarcely be able to deal. But that’s not what’s really going on with him. You remember how I said earlier that joyful people make people feel joy? Well, when you’re depressed, joyful people don’t just highlight some mere irony. They are a dagger to the heart. For they possess the one thing our flickering souls most need. And so, like BoJack, you can react in a number of ways: with anger, fear, humor, or, of course, the most desperate longing. Often all of them at once.
You’ll note that these sorts of psychological observations are not the territory of a silly, two-dimensional show. A friend once described BoJack Horseman as “existential horror and animal puns.” Accurate, and yet it is so much more. For all the talk of cynicism, I find it’s actually an achingly sensitive show. It can casually tackle the subject of asexuality with more understanding and kindness than all other shows put together, touching on the duality of not being into labels and understanding how labels can help in the simplest, best articulation of that idea I’ve ever seen — and it does it in 30 seconds of screen time. Again, this is a show that tries to understand Hollywood not as some larger monolith full of systemic mechanisms, but by genuinely understanding the people who populate it.
Best Jokes and Other Notes
• Mr. Peanutbutter: “Where did you say the campaign would begin again?” Katrina: “Ugh, in earnest.”
• Mr. Peanutbutter: “Oh, Tommy Schlamme Schmahmee … Schlamme …”
• Good golly, that three-minute hero’s journey version of ski school was amazing.
• Carolyn: “I’m so smitten with my favorite little … adult cat.”
• I feel very confused about “Till Death Do Us Blart” joke, as it is already the name of one of the best (though purposefully infrequent) podcasts ever, in which the McElroy Brothers and Worst Idea of All Time guys watch Paul Blart Mall Cop 2 every Thanksgiving for the rest of their lives.
• Carolyn: “Blake Lively actually called me Mommy the other day, but I’m sure she does that to other young women all the time.”
• Carolyn: “McG! Are you still looking for a star for your Transgender Teddy Roosevelt Planes Trains and Automobiles reboot, Plans, Trans, A Canal, Panama?”
• The actual mean-joke targets: Northwestern and Jennifer Garner.
• The moment that made me happiest: Vincent D’Onofrio turning in his own oddball delivery and timing as a failed sitcom star.