There is more beauty in truth, even if it is a dreadful beauty. —John Steinbeck, East of Eden
When Todd (Aaron Paul) has a problem, he comes to Diane (Alison Brie), and in BoJack Horseman’s fourth season, the problem’s a big one: Through the machinations of high-powered Hollywoo manager (and Pepto-pink cat) Princess Caroline (Amy Sedaris), he’s soon to marry tabloid starlet Courtney Portnoy (Sharon Horgan), a sham meant to save face when her latest action film tanks. I hesitate to gloss it so briefly—hidden in the side pocket of that sentence is the fact that Todd’s asexual, the recurring, tongue-twisting gag that swirls around Portnoy’s career, and a satire of gun politics that makes Veep look like Horsin’ Around—but in the context of the season’s sixth episode, “Stupid Piece of Sh*t,” it’s Diane’s advice that’s most meaningful. “The whole thing is a farce,” she says of weddings, of the modern age, of life itself:
“But it’s a lie based on truth. At the center of the farce, there’s this nugget of something real and pure, and that strange, beautiful something is why you put up with everything else, right? And sometimes it’s hard to remember that pure, shining thing, because it’s been painted over with so many arguments and compromises and disappointments. But you have to believe it’s still down there somewhere, even if you can’t see it. And maybe even the belief in it is more important than the thing itself—but only as long as you still believe it. Does that make sense?”
It does to me: We are talking, after all, about an animated series in which the protagonist is a depressed, alcoholic, washed-up horse/man (Will Arnett), featuring gubernatorial election by ski race, a fracking disaster-cum-celebrity Lord of the Flies situation, and a reality show called Felicity Huffman’s Booty Academy: Los Angeles, that nonetheless considers Citizens United v. FEC, fertility treatments, multigenerational trauma, interracial dating, mass shootings, and the career trajectory of Jessica Biel, a showbiz farce painted over with arguments, compromises, and disappointments, a humane, heartfelt Tootsie Roll encased by a tooth-chipping lollipop of despair. It is creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s bright, off-balance, blisteringly funny, almost unbearably moving analogue to this line from Heather Havrilesky’s “Ask Polly” column, which read to me in July as the thesis statement of the age we’re in: ”[N]ow no one calls anyone else a sell-out, and everyone and everything feels so thoroughly sold out that it hurts.”
As with the other works of art by which we’ll remember the year on television— The Americans, The Leftovers and Twin Peaks, to name three—BoJack examines how its characters react in a moment of crisis. The difference is, against the historical, the metaphysical, the phenomenological, its crisis is omnipresent and all-consuming, magnified by its closeness to our own: by the prurient spectacle of politics, the crushing burden of debt, the intense pain of loneliness in a sea of online “connections”; by shattered norms, sinking homes, shortened memories, shrunken lives; by click farms, franchise films, fashion shows; by the distraction that propels our demand for attention, and by the erroneous belief that it’s the same thing as love.
Because, let’s face it, the world is a stupid piece of sh*t: Politicians dither, or otherwise harm. Corporations profit while the rest scrape by. Oceans rise and storms intensify. Wars rage. Militarism grows. Nazism spreads (again). Culture dulls, when it doesn’t deaden entirely. And this atop the smaller indignities we face, strengthening their influence, their soul-stabbing gnaw: the estranged parent, the mistreated friend, the man you love who doesn’t love you back; the leaky faucet, the flat tire, the sprained ankle, the stubbed toe; the conference calls, listless dates, bad arguments; the fear buried in our marrow that it might amount to less than nothing, and the fear, just as deep, that we’re unworthy of love.
I confess I’m in the midst of a tough time in my life, more broken-hearted and beaten down than I’d’ve expected—I’ll let you guess which aforementioned indignities I typed here verbatim—and as with the characters of BoJack Horseman, I tend to paper over this notion that it’s all been for naught with humor and hard liquor and the maybe fruitless quest to hold your attention. In the picked-over scab that is 2017, tender to the touch and so fast to start bleeding, the blade of these feelings seems keener than ever, and in this, I suspect, I’m not nearly alone. Our sensitivities are subject to forces beyond our control, and the forces at large in this moment of crisis appear designed to numb the ones we need and inflame the ones we’d do well to dispense with. It’s an age of narcissism, but a time for empathy; an age of ignorance, but a time for wisdom; an age of stagnation, but a time to act. It is, in short, an age in which everything is coming apart, and a time for art that sews our fragments together.
That BoJack manages to pinpoint the character of the zeitgeist and map a few of the ways through it is, for me, at the heart of its profound genius, always slipping, almost imperceptibly, from silver-tongued satire to pathos and back. As BoJack forges a relationship with the daughter he didn’t know he had (Aparna Nancherla) and cares for the mother he’s long wished to forget about (Wendie Malick), Season Four doesn’t forgive his cruelties—or anyone else’s—so much as suggest that cruelties are now our dominant form of currency, the payola that secures the White House for the wicked and Wall Street for the damned, the surest path to fame and fortune for the tiny few and destitution for the many. In BoJack, the backdrop to the characters’ familiar foibles—their unthinking insults, their unspoken apologies, their selfish choices, self-doubt, self-flagellation—is the even more familiar crassness of lobbyists, donors and campaign managers, of studio heads, ambitious agents, stars on the make; of cable news anchors, dimwitted columnists, “Ryan Seacrest types”; of a social order so inured to insincerity, whataboutism, political profiteering, environmental collapse that being kicked in the stomach starts to feel like a gift.
Without attempting to replicate the culture at which it aims its quiver of comic arrows, BoJack reflects said culture with piercing exactitude: The moral exhaustion of a nation that mourns the victims of 9/11, then murders and maims other countries’ civilians in the name of self-defense; the economic sadism of a nation in which the inheritance of wealth masquerades as a qualification for office; the racial delusion of a nation that reveres its white traitors and erases its black heroes; the social chaos of a nation that calls itself a representative democracy, but in which the vast majority of citizens don’t vote; the cultural jaundice of a nation force-fed facsimiles and knock-offs and slanderous lies at the expense of the genuine artifact, in which mawkishness substitutes for emotion and violence for realism and opinion for journalism and broad, bottomless emptiness for comfort and sustenance. BoJack Horseman is not the defining TV series of our time because it’s the most watched (The Big Bang Theory) or the most discussed (Game of Thrones) or even necessarily the best (Mad Men forever), but because it comes closest to capturing that time’s awful truth—not least of which, as its flashbacks suggest, that “our time” begins not with Trump but much, much earlier, in the Reagan years or the post-WWII arrangements of power, when the die of the current disaster was initially cast. It is unafraid to note that our personal failings must play out against the curtain of cruelties for which historians will remember the churning, gray, oil-slicked currents of this moment of crisis, and thus that the knives we plunge into those in our orbit are keener now than ever before.
And yet—and this is where I locate the dreadful beauty in its awful truth, the pure, shining thing under its farcical surface—BoJack Horseman never relinquishes the belief that Diane describes, the belief that our stupid, piece of sh*t present has not yet snuffed out the germ of goodness contained within. Todd declines the transactional marriage. Princess Caroline embarks on a romance despite heartaches past. Diane expresses her appreciation for Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), and he attempts—in his own, oafish way—to drop out of politics. BoJack, hobbled by his self-hating stream of consciousness, nonetheless struggles to hold his daughter close, and do his mother a kindness, even if it means facing an unhappy Felicity Huffman. Always somewhere in the series’ barbed antics is that strange, beautiful something by which we endure everything else, and in the stone cold masterpiece that is BoJack Horseman’s fourth season—as in our own daily struggle to swim against this shitty tide—that may be, will have to be, enough.
Perhaps I misspoke when I called BoJack Horseman the defining series of our time, because upon reflection it’s more than that. It’s a handbook for surviving it.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.