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BoJack Horseman - Season 4 - Advance Preview

A TV show can often be its own worst enemy. As soon as one finds itself and really clicks into gear, it gets noticed. That notice creates pressure that only piles on as the show's quality stays at the same level, and that pressure can often lead to a show capitulating entirely. In essence, the better a show gets, and the longer it stays that good, the further it has to fall. That's a pessimistic reading of art, admittedly. But it's something I couldn't get out of my mind in the run-up to this fourth season of Netflix's animated comedy BoJack Horseman.

The show's second and third seasons were so flat-out sublime that it was difficult to imagine it getting better, and very easy to imagine it slipping back to the quality of its early days. And if you add the ludicrously quiet marketing for this season, consisting of one image a month and a half ago with the release date on it and nothing more until the trailer that dropped just last week, there was a sense here that season four could have been the one where BoJack's hot streak, which had surely gone on far too long, collapsed.

Or perhaps that's just me.

Instead, just like its fellow absurdist existential adult dramady cartoon (it's a specific type) Rick & Morty, season four of BoJack defies those fears of a decline in quality and then some. It's a season of television that proves, if it hadn't already been proven several times over, that BoJack Horseman is a show worth trusting. It's also a difficult season to talk about, feeling both comfortingly familiar in its inimitable style of humour, and also startlingly different in its focus and the way in which it handles its large ensemble of characters who spent three seasons constantly bumping up against one another.

The principal theme, insofar as twelve densely packed episodes that veer from politically important ski races to brutal confessions of inner turmoil, often in the same scene, can be packed up into one neat description, is the notion of fixing what's broken, and whether such a thing is actually possible. It's what ultimately fuels each character in their own journeys this season as they strive to paper over the cracks in their lives and find some semblance of happiness in the perpetually insane environment of Hollywoo.

Mr Peanutbutter's campaign for governor allows him to work on what he does best, which is pleasing everyone regardless of whether his methods make sense, Diane's job at a feminist blog allows her to tackle the real issues that matter to her, Princess Carolyn gets a shot at a happy and functional life with her boyfriend, Todd explores the 'a' word and begins to find genuine and fulfilling friendships with those who respect him, and BoJack's journey is... probably embargoed. The show is still called BoJack Horseman, after all, so everyone's favourite nihilist horse (in a category of, presumably, one) is still important this season. And what happens with him is worth me stopping talking about him in this review now, and worth you finding out for yourself as it plays out.

While this season lacks an out-and-out experimental episode in the vein of Fish Out of Water, and perhaps inevitably can't quite equal it, season four is more than just a box-ticking exercise for the classic BoJack formula. It embraces its ensemble a little more, with certain episodes playing out from the specific point of view of certain supporting characters, and it's uniquely fixated on the idea of time, playing around with linearity in a way the show has never done before (one episode hops back and forth between a pivotal two weeks in the lives of the characters). There's even an attempt to delve into different kinds of animation style, however brief, that develop and improve upon BoJack's masterful grasp of visual storytelling. It's comforting, in its own way, to slip back into this show, to spot a hilarious new visual gag hidden in the background of a news broadcast or to see it poke further fun at the absurdities of the entertainment industry, but season four, thankfully, continues to push the envelop far beyond what's familiar, or comfortable.

One of the most common features of the discourse surrounding this show is how depressing and bleak it is - it's BoJack's insights into his depression and nihilistic worldview that seem to be the most pervasive aspect of the show on social media. That conditioned me, this time around, to watch the season a different way - to wait for those moments of piercing honesty as the 'point' of the episodes, with all of the comedic antics before counting as a pleasant distraction and a way to cover up the bleak emotional truth. Therefore, it's interesting to note how season four doesn't always work that way. I'd be lying if I said this season was a fun and light ride - some of the events that unfold are really, truly dark and depressing, as you'd expect - but it's just a little bit more hopeful. Maybe it's just coming after season three's controlled descent into despair, or maybe it's objectively so, but season four feels like a more humanistic version of BoJack Horseman, one that really cares about its characters and wants to see them pull through. It's not quite, then, the binge-watch of utter despair you might expect. And as the real world seems to get progressively darker, it's comforting to see a show this downbeat in outlook let a little bit of light into its storytelling.

After all this praise, it's worth qualifying it a touch. Season four is a terrific season of TV, but it's perhaps not as singularly inventive and continuously surprising as the third season, which seems like the possible high watermark for this show. There are a couple of plot elements, however minor, that do feel a little repetitive of past seasons, and, occasionally, the show struggles to balance its disparate tones in a way that feels completely cohesive, especially in patches of the earlier episodes that tilt more towards outright farce than grounded drama. And the show's attempts at political commentary, however sharply written, are sometimes a victim of circumstance - this season was written before the 2016 election and is clearly written for a slightly saner world. In this one, there's no comment on political absurdity that the real world hasn't already chewed up and spat out, even if Mr Peanutbutter's campaign is a relentlessly funny storyline that becomes surprisingly personal towards the end. These are all very minor blemishes, but it's worth noting that season four is fallible, and it doesn't hit the target 100% of the time. Close enough, though.

This might not be BoJack's strongest season yet, but it's absolutely worthy of the two and a half great seasons that preceded it. Season four that deepens the characters and broadens out the show's world in ways I never expected, experimenting in structure and form to occasionally poignant, and sometimes outright heart-wrenching effect, and it hits that very specific moving target that few shows could ever hit once, let alone virtually every episode - it's sad and funny at once, despairing and joyful, thrilling and terrifying. It is, as you'd hope, an emotional marathon, which is exactly what this show should always, and will always, aim to be, hopefully far beyond this season.

Overall Grade: A-

+ Strong character development
+ Still as funny as it gets
+ Narratively experimental
+ Erica!

- Occasional tonal problems

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