BoJack Horseman returned for its fourth season on Friday. I offered a few overall thoughts on the season already, and now I want to get very specific — with spoilers for the entire season — as I break it all down episode by episode, coming up just as soon as I give you the number of a sandwich shop in Temecula…
EPISODE ONE: “SEE MR. PEANUTBUTTER RUN”
It’s become something of a trope for streaming shows to open seasons with an episode featuring just the main character, then catch up with the ensemble later. BoJack season four does the opposite, bringing the ensemble — Mr. Peanutbutter and Princess Carolyn in particular — to the forefront while BoJack is absent in ways that won’t be explained til episode two. It works because Mr. Peanutbutter is such an inherently silly and charming character, and because the supporting characters have become so well-defined and important that they don’t always need BoJack around, even if it means the closing credits have to be accompanied by a knockoff song about Mr. Peanutbutter, in the same way that Mr. Peanutbutter’s House was originally referred to (when Vincent D’Onfrio was the breakdancing lead) Untitled Horsin’ Around Knockoff.
I will say that I was initially queasy about the campaign for governor turning into a season-long Trump riff, but that element of it only appears on occasion, like Peanutbutter’s speech here about being a candidate for regular schmoes who went to Northwestern, and the arc in general is so dominated by absurdity — like this episode’s Schoolhouse Rock parody about the amendment to allow for the ski race, or the brief ski school movie riff — not to mention the delightful presence of Andre Braugher as Mr. Peanutbutter’s dignified rival Woodchuck Couldchuck Berkowitz, whose complete befuddlement and dismay at each turn of the campaign is the perfect deadpan counterpoint to Peanutbutter’s giddy embrace of same.
This is a really big and mostly sad season for Princess Carolyn as well, and it’s kicked off nicely here with the first of many runs of the year of Amy Sedaris reading ridiculous titles quickly (“a transgender Teddy Roosevelt Planes, Trains, and Automobiles remake: Planes, Trans, A Man, A Canal, Panama?”), and with Ralph still being so sweet with her (“Would you, could you, with a mouse?”) even as she suffers a miscarriage.
Also, Matt Seitz and I are doing a series of interviews with David Chase about The Sopranos for a 20th anniversary book, and when we spoke a few days ago, I asked him about whether he had seen the show before they asked him to play himself as the Mr. Peanutbutter’s House creator. He still hasn’t seen it, but has heard it’s very good. I decided not to tell him about the Tony/Melfi joke from last season, in the hopes he may one day decide to watch and discover it on his own.
EPISODE TWO: “THE OLD SUGARMAN PLACE”
We shift from no-BoJack to only-BoJack — or, rather, to only BoJack family, as much of the episode is flashbacks to the unhappy childhood of BoJack’s mother Beatrice, to the dysfunctional marriage of his maternal grandparents (voiced by Matthew Broderick and Jane Krakowski), how the death of Beatrice’s brother Crackerjack tore the family apart and led a lobotomized Mrs. Sugarman to tell young Beatrice, “Promise you’ll never love anyone as much as I loved Crackerjack,” and to all the other ways that events long before BoJack was born helped create the conditions for his own profound unhappiness. It’s a very effective little tragedy, particularly when past and present start to meld together so that Beatrice and BoJack’s new friend Eddie are dueting, and still has plenty of room for jokes, like Paul Giamatti playing BoJack in the new season of FX’s American Dead Girl.
EPISODE THREE: “HOORAY! TODD EPISODE!”
At times, this plays like “The Zeppo” episode of Buffy mixed with some Good Will Hunting, as we find out all the things Todd does — and all the people he helps without quite understanding what he’s doing — when he’s not around BoJack, but there’s still plenty of good material about BoJack, who returns from his travels just in time to meet the alleged daughter he never knew he had, Hollyhock Manheim-Mannheim-Guerrero-Robinson-Zilberschlag-Hsung-Fonzerelli-McQuack(*).
(*) Better season 4 name: Hollyhock’s full moniker, Woodchuck’s, or Princess Carolyn’s client Courtney Portnoy, whose name isn’t that absurd in and of itself, but inspires one great Sedaris tongue-twister after another, like, “Portnoy finds joy in hoi polloi boy toy”?
EPISODE FOUR: “COMMENCE FRACKING”
Everybody’s getting some this time out, even if most of it’s unhealthy.
Though sex between the show’s human and animal characters has been a thing since the start of the series, it’s still a little startling how real Mr. Peanutbutter and Diane’s sex scenes in this episode feel, from their struggles early on because of her dislike of the campaign to the angry sex they have at the end of the episode (“Frack me, Mr. Peanutbutter! Frack me!”). The fraying of the marriage fits in with the fundamental differences between husband and wife, here exacerbated not only by the damage the fracking is doing to their house, but to the presence of Peanutbutter’s other ex-wife Katrina (Lake Bell) as his campaign marriager and chief Dian underminer.
Another kind of relationship not going well: BoJack and Hollyhock, as their attempt to track down her mother leads her to discover how disgusting BoJack is (which, in a great sick joke, is exactly what he needs to hear to climax with superfan Marcy). The only twosome doing well in the episode is Princess Carolyn and Ralph, who manage to work around even the return of Officer Meow Meow Fuzzyface to have sex when her Harvey Fierstein-voiced ovulation watch (“Hello, I’m Harvey Fierstein. Let’s put a baby in you.”) tells her to.
EPISODE FIVE: “THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS”
The annual issue-oriented satire, following in the tradition of the abortion and celebrity sexual predatory stories. I had a pretty viscerally negative reaction to this one, not because of anything the script was doing, but because even well-constructed comedy about our failure as a nation to prevent these mass shootings still made me sick to my stomach. But I did laugh at the end when Princess Carolyn suggested that America hates women more than it loves guns.
EPISODE SIX: “STUPID PIECE OF SH*T”
This is a really dark episode, even by BoJack standards, for the way it takes us inside his head to hear the self-lacerating internal monologue of the title that keeps him feeling miserable all the time. It’s a multi-generational thing, too, as we find out Hollyhock has similar one, while Beatrice’s dementia leads to the cruel moment where BoJack turns her into a sobbing wreck by throwing her baby doll over the balcony (to land at Felicity Huffman’s house).
Fortunately, there’s comedy in the subplots, particularly in Princess Carolyn and Rutabaga plotting to foil Meryl Streep’s retirement so the party won’t overshadow Todd and Courtney’s quickie wedding. (In the BoJack universe, if Rutabaga hides a contract under a box, and Meryl Street gets trapped under the box, she’s legally obligated to do it. Princess Carolyn: “I know what a packaging deal is!”)
EPISODE SEVEN: “UNDERGROUND”
Character Actress Margo Martindale didn’t return this year, and her plot function was improbably but hilariously assumed by Jessica Biel, who returns in this episode and proves an even better sport than last year — outshining Zach Braff in his own self-mocking cameo, even before she lights him on fire and eats him — by swiftly going insane when Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter’s house falls into a sinkhole.
The week-plus underground ordeal winds up being useful in other ways, as it finally brings Diane and BoJack together for the first time all season(*), and it forces Mr. Peanutbutter to admit that he doesn’t want to be governor, even after (or perhaps because of) all that Woodchuck suffers in his attempt to rescue these idiots.
(*) I remain impressed that the show has largely abandoned the threat of Diane cheating on Mr. Peanutbutter with BoJack. They still have feelings for one another, but it would be too cheap and easy for that to be the thing that blows up the marriage, and it’s also more interesting to see the two of them navigating a genuine friendship, even if BoJack still has other feelings for her (and vice versa).
EPISODE EIGHT: “THE JUDGE”
The revelation that FHBA Los Angeles is short for “Felicity Huffman’s Booty Academy” is one of the season’s great jokes (as for that matter, is Sir Mix-A-Lot insisting that what he’s best known for is his inability to lie, rather than the thing he’s not able to lie about), and BoJack and Hollyhock’s time on set begins to show Hollyhock’s time in Los Angeles taking a sad turn with the way she’s intimidated by the skinny FHBA contestants.
I’m always happy to see the return of Jake Johnson as Mr. Peanutbutter’s anxious accountant, here rightly casting suspicion on PB and Todd’s new plan to create a business combining pediatric dentistry and clowns. (“Kids must love clowns, because otherwise, why would there be clowns?”) And even with Peanutbutter dropping out of the campaign, that story arc remained wonderfully absurd, with Jessica Biel taking his place, while poor Woodchuck had to suffer through various ridiculous hand transplants (gorilla feet, lobster claws).
Meanwhile, we get the first major sign of trouble in the largely idyllic Princess Carolyn/Ralph relationship when she visits his anti-cat family (headed by Martin Short) at Stilton Manor.
EPISODE NINE: “RUTHIE”
This one’s a gut punch, because you assume the framing device with Princess Carolyn’s great-great-great-granddaughter (voiced by Kristen Bell) is real, and thus things will ultimately turn out okay for Carolyn in the present. Instead, Ruthie is revealed to be someone Carolyn imagines when she’s having a bad day, and this one very much qualifies, as she loses loses Courtney as a client (“Who knew Portnoy had so many complaints?”), finds out her “heirloom” watch was bought at JC Penny in 1963, fires the worshipful Judah when she finds out he didn’t tell her about the sale offer, has another miscarriage, and chases away Ralph out of fear he won’t want to be with her when things get tougher. Great writing, and some of Sedaris’ best work of the series.
EPISODE TEN: “LOVIN THAT CALI LIFESTYLE!!”
The campaign continues, now with the tables turned thanks to Woodchuck getting a better hand transplant, and Biel (who has a perfume called “Bielist,” whose name is pronounced “B-list”) losing the election after trashing avocados during an interview with Diane. All’s well that ends well, Bielieve it or not.
Natalie Morales makes a good new addition to the larger cast as Yolanda from the Better Business Bureau (who is an axolotl, an amphibian that is either the most adorable or disturbing animal in creation), who is rightly investigating Todd’s new business, even as Todd is using the clown-dentists and dentist-clowns to pull off a caper to put Princess Carolyn in front of Lenny Turtletaub to pitch him the Philbert script. This leads to a great Peak TV joke about him wanting to sell it to WhatTimeIsItRightNow.com, which is “looking to make a play in the gritty prestige streaming world,” but only if BoJack will star.
BoJack, of course, has more pressing business to worry about when Hollyhock collapses from all the amphetamines Beatrice has been slipping in her drinks. This is yet another dark turn for the story — both for the threat to Hollyhock’s health and BoJack’s impulsive decision to dump his mother in the seediest nursing home he can find — while still leaving room for whimsy as we meet Hollyhock’s eight ridiculous dads.
EPISODE ELEVEN: “TIME’S ARROW”
Another big and sad Beatrice flashback episode, as we watch the rise and fall of her relationship with BoJack’s father Butterscotch, and in time learn that Hollyhock isn’t BoJack’s daughter at all, but the half-sister Butterscotch fathered in an affair with Henrietta the maid. Once again, we see past and present blurring together, as Beatrice’s dementia leaves her unable to differentiate the two, which can be awful much of the time, but in other ways is a kindness, like a chastened BoJack telling her the nursing home is really the Sugarman family lake house.
EPISODE TWELVE: “WHAT TIME IS IT RIGHT NOW”
The season concludes on a series of quiet but hopeful notes: Todd discovers that Yolanda is asexual too, and interested in a relationship; Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter’s Hawaiian getaway goes badly, but they’re able to be more open about their respective fears about the marriage; BoJack does the right thing for Princess Carolyn (agreeing to play Philbert, encouraging her to look into adoption) and for Hollyhock (tracking down Henrietta for her), and is rewarded with a sentiment that chokes me up just typing it: Hollyhock doesn’t need a dad, since she already has eight of them, “But I’ve never had a brother.”
Lovely stuff all around, and bonus obscure comedy points for having People v. O.J. co-star Rob Morrow play Barry Scheck again in the archival Horsin’ Around clip.
What did everybody else think?