Since 2014, when Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s BoJack Horseman debuted as Netflix’s newest animated-original series, it has been an artistic anomaly. The show does not shy away from the heavy issues in life, portraying them through its washed-up protagonist, a ’90s sitcom-star BoJack Horseman voiced by Will Arnett. The difference between this animated series and others that delve into the topics of depression, alcohol dependency, and a slew of other real-life struggles, is that BoJack is an anthropomorphic horse navigating Hollywoo, the show’s vividly-colorful take on America’s entertainment capital where humans and animals live and love together.
Since its premiere, BoJack Horseman has taken a unique take on visual storytelling. Not only has the show’s bright style and imaginative character creation allowed for a one-of-a-kind narrative, but the show takes it even further with its artistic direction.
Take for example, season three’s episode “Fish Out of Water.” In this tightly-packed, 25-minute episode, BoJack traverses through the deep-sea, unable to communicate as he rushes to return a baby seahorse to its family. Along with stunning animation, the show’s interruption from its witty, pun-packed dialogue encompasses BoJack’s overwhelming dilemma as a character; he is lost, alone, and unable to convey his feelings, which is only heightened by this quiet deep-seascape. On IMBD, the episode touts an impressive 9.2/10 score, with other critics calling it nothing short of a “masterpiece.”
Season 4 Takes Things to New Heights
The team behind BoJack Horseman’s fourth season takes all of the show’s artistic strengths and brings them to new heights. While the season sprinkles its whacky shenanigans with political commentary, this season’s focus revolves around family issues, particularly the inheritance of trauma from one generation to the next. To cope with an intergenerational narrative arch, the show’s creators adopt artistic storytelling elements unlike anything modern television and animation has given viewers before.
The season’s second episode titled “The Old Sugarman Place,” takes the narrative back to the story of BoJack’s grandparents to give the audience an insight as to where his familial trauma began, thus passing it along to our anti-hero. However, the episode structure is strengthened by a dual-narrative setup. BoJack, still reeling from the death of his made-for-television daughter Sarah Lynn, retreats to his grandparents’ lake home to find it dilapidated. As he sets to restore the house with the help of a neighbor, the scenes split into flashbacks of his mother Beatrice’s childhood in the home. Artificial light is used to highlight the past, while the grim future remains in-scene.
Songs around the piano are soon swapped with BoJack’s family mourning the loss of their son, CrackerJack, which began the downward spiral of his grandmother, Mrs. Sugarman’s mental health. As BoJack explores this lakeside town, the narrative stitches in pieces of Mrs. Sugarman’s breakdown and its effect on BoJack’s mother. Mrs. Sugarman copes with alcohol and crashes her car with BoJack’s then-childhood mother inside. This prompts her husband to have her lobotomized, leaving his mother with a mother of her own with only “half a mind.”
BoJack’s alcohol dependence during trying times and his mother’s neglect are no longer single-character traits, but the next succession in a line of trauma that continues on and on. The show takes an unconventional approach to show this, which overwhelmingly succeeds, because the audience is able to watch family trauma play out side by side in order to show the cause and effect of familial trauma through this stylistic choice.
Artistically, BoJack’s inner-monologues are paired with a crude, line-art drawings to match how he feels about himself. This artistic break from the clean animation of the show works to play for the audience the effects BoJack’s trauma has on his psyche.
And season four only continues to incorporate innovate storytelling methods to tie together their running theme of inherited suffering. Episode six titled, “Stupid Piece of Sh*t” features a narration consisting of BoJack’s stream of consciousness where he thinks of himself exactly as the episode’s title would suggest. Artistically, BoJack’s inner-monologues are paired with a crude, line-art drawings to match how he feels about himself. This artistic break from the clean animation of the show works to play for the audience the effects BoJack’s trauma has on his psyche.
Bringing Intergenerational Trauma to Life
However, while the episode’s focus is on BoJack, it is interconnected with the next-in-line of the Sugarman/Horseman generation; his daughter Hollyhock (or so he believed). The animation surrounding BoJack’s thoughts becomes painted with red as his panic and self-hatred reaches its peak. He thinks, “You’re ruining [Hollyhock]. You know that right? No matter what, your poison is already in her.” This episode approaches mental illness in a different light by contrasting art styles from clean to violent to express inner turmoil, and all the while, continues with the theme of intergenerational trauma.
Season four’s artistic feats continue even when the narrative switches gear away from the Horseman dynasty and over to the agent-turned-manager cat Princess Carolyn. Episode nine “Ruthie” opens with Princess Carolyn’s great-great-great-granddaughter doing a class report on how Carolyn overcame a terrible day. The world of Hollywoo evolves into a hyper-technological oasis, which is worlds apart from the usual style of the celebrity-packed setting. Ruthie narrates Princess Carolyn’s day to her class and robotic teacher which includes, but is not limited to, a huge career failure, the discovery that her priceless family heirloom was nothing more than costume jewelry, and a miscarriage of perhaps her last chance at conceiving a baby, yet assures everyone that Princess Carolyn will overcome in the end.
…in one of the most poignant twists that season four has to offer, Princess Carolyn reveals that Ruthie’s futuristic report is nothing more than a coping mechanism she uses during hopeless days.
However, in one of the most poignant twists that season four has to offer, Princess Carolyn reveals that Ruthie’s futuristic report is nothing more than a coping mechanism she uses during hopeless days. She reveals to BoJack that she often imagines her great-great-great-granddaughter telling tales of her accomplishments to make the present more bearable to which BoJack replies, “But it’s…fake.” The future narrative-turned daydream is the show’s unique method of tackling not only intergenerational trauma, but the potential end of a generation in its entirety. By allowing the audience to see Princess Carolyn’s fantasy legacy in a stylized future, we can experience her pain to an even greater degree.
But perhaps the shows most daring undertaking lies in the penultimate episode of season four titled, “Times’s Arrow.” The narrative once again returns to BoJack’s mother Beatrice where the episode’s artistic focus lies within the aging horse’s mind, laden with dementia. Intertwined between Beatrice’s experience as an educated woman in the sexist ’60s to her falling out with BoJack’s father after his infidelity, the animation reflects how dementia eats away at bits and pieces of a person’s memory.
When she encounters people from her past, oftentimes their faces are crossed out to mirror how her mind has lost them. Stylistic details shift in and out of focus as her mind attempts to recall them. Objects and people will appear with sudden bursts of clarity. As a whole, the episode should be commended for its stylistic take on what it is like living with a declining memory.
Even in the present, Beatrice envisions herself in her youth, shutting out any true reminder of her age. When she encounters people from her past, oftentimes their faces are crossed out to mirror how her mind has lost them. Stylistic details shift in and out of focus as her mind attempts to recall them. Objects and people will appear with sudden bursts of clarity. As a whole, the episode should be commended for its stylistic take on what it is like living with a declining memory. While we gain insight into the life of BoJack’s mother and how her experience affected him, we are too reminded of the season’s running theme that time comes for everyone, and that each of the characters are part of a historical line that is so much larger than themselves.
The show’s fourth season ties art and narrative to do what animation does best, depict life through a lens that reality never can.
BoJack Horseman is a frontrunner of modern animation with its fearlessness in storytelling, art, and how it steps up to deal with life’s most painful issues even in the format of a cartoon horse as a protagonist. The show’s fourth season ties art and narrative to do what animation does best, depict life through a lens that reality never can. We are allowed into the character’s heads, into the past, and into the future through unique stylistic choices that complicate, yet add enough detail to the story for a cohesive narrative flow. BoJack Horseman proves itself to be one of Netflix’s most artistically innovative shows yet.
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