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Bojack Horseman season 4 is the best season of one of television’s most surprising achievements

We’re gonna do things a little differently. I tried and struggled to write a full season review and everything sounded kind of hollow. So I’m gonna do deep down what I want to do and write a review of two episodes. This is going to be Episode 2 and Episode 11 of this season, the ones that most heavily feature the storyline revolving around Beatrice (Wendie Malick), Bojack’s mother, and her slide into dementia. 

Let me just go ahead and endorse every other aspect of this show. This season is wickedly funny, emotionally brilliant, and one of the best pieces of animation running on television right now. But for now, we’re going to focus on the most striking part of it.

When are you doomed?

Perhaps more precisely, when can you never go back? When have the circumstances of your birth and decisions made that you never had a hand in kept you from ever being what you want to be?

It’s easy to say that we never are. That we are the masters of our own fates and there’s no point where the sins of the father are insurmountable. But how often is that true? Deep down, there’s some imprint on us that we’ll never really understand and that we can only hope won’t fuck us up too deeply.

And now we bring in the funny talking animal cartoon about Horse Bob Saget.

I don’t mean to be flippant to Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s creation, but there’s a part of me that will never not be amused that a show that started so ridiculously has become so deeply wounding and identifiable. Five episodes of animal puns before it took a quick dive into one celebrity horse and his desperate desire to be a good person and quit making the same mistakes.

All while still making the same animal puns and wacky schemes and generally being willing to indulge in parody just as often.

That’s not what we’re gonna end up focusing on here. We’re going to specifically focus on season 4’s richest dramatic vein on the two episodes that center around it. That would be the story of Beatrice (Wendy Malick), Bojack’s (Will Arnett) mother, and the history she can barely remember.

Beatrice has always been something of a background character, the sort of figure there to give a very basic explanation. “Oh, that’s why he is the way he is.” Her denial of affection there to basically make it clear that Bojack is just seeking some kind of love or connection in anyway. A stock that normally wouldn’t be filled out.

Bojack’s secret weapon this season is understanding that people aren’t just their stock. To understand the nuance lying at the core of despair, you have to get into the roots. In other words, for Bojack Horseman, it’s not simply enough to understand that Beatrice denied affection. It’s understanding why she decided to deny it, why she never felt it herself.

We get the first inklings in episode 2. Bojack escapes from LA to the family home in Michigan that he used to spend summers in. The house, falling apart, seems to have a memory that lets us peek into the past.

Beatrice comes from the Sugarman family, wealthy owners of a sugarcube company headed by Joseph Sugarman (Matthew Broderick). Honey (Jane Krakowski), her mother, keeps a tight ship as her brother Crackerjack (Lin Manuel-Miranda) is about to go off to war. It’s as idyllic a 40s life as you could imagine. Sure Joseph is a little backwards, but who wasn’t?

And then Crackerjack is killed in war. Honey loses her oldest son and loses her grip. We see flashes. As Bojack breaks down reliving his personal tragedy, Honey is living hers. Any attempt to make it better, any attempt to rewrite what happened. Honey goes wild in public and crashes a car. Joseph has her lobotomized, as one would do at the time. The fiery, sassy woman is gone, replaced with a zombie.

It’s almost worse than losing your parent. At least when they die, they’re gone. For a parent to be there, but to be a shell? It’s like being reminded every day that they’re not there.

There’s some really brilliant animation work here connecting the timelines. The show blurs the lines between them, allowing for something that almost appears to be interaction, connecting that past to the present and helping the understanding of how these things reverberate.

The next time we see young Beatrice, in episode 11, it’s through the dementia-riddled recollections of her older self. Disconnected from reality, she seems to try desperately to recall her life, most of the faces blurred, some forcibly removed from her thoughts. The narrative is there, but the associations are more powerful, pulling her through her life.

She’s a young girl, sick with scarlet fever. She’s a young woman, finally debuting at her ball when a roguish young horse sweeps her off her feet and gives her a son. She’s moved to San Francisco, barely able to take care of her child. She’s older now, her husband finally quitting his dream and giving her what she wants, some semblance of stability. No love, all of her dreams out the window for mistakes made and pain inflicted on people who can’t understand it. Betrayal by her husband and the hope that someone else won’t do what she did. A flashback to her father taking everything and holding the spectre of her mother over her.

The show draws these connections to weave the tapestry. She’s the withholding mother, yes. But she withholds because the decisions that were made for her took everything from her. The love of her mother taken by some far away war. Her father is a product of the times which made everything he did acceptable. Her dreams taken by some one night fling. Even her marriage’s sanctity taken by another. She may have done unforgivable things, but did she ever really have a chance to feel the love she needed? Did Bojack? Was that family doomed from the moment Crackerjack went off to war?

The brilliance of Bojack Horseman lies in a lot of things. But chiefly, it lies in a storyline like this, that understand why people do the things they do, why the decisions they make stick and reverberate through lives and generations. That try as we might, the traumas of our parents will be ours and will be our childrens, even if we never understand why. People are bad, but people are broken just as often.

That’s why the final moment of episode 11 is so important. Beatrice gets a moment of lucidity, realizing that Bojack is with her. She asks where she is and rather than getting the tell-off he wanted, Bojack simply offers her one final comforting delusion.

She’s back home. With all her family. In the house she was in before everything went wrong. And everything is okay. Bojack hates her, but he can’t give her that pain, because in the end she was just as doomed as he is.

 

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The Best TV Shows, Episodes, and Performances of 2016

Before we get this show on the road, let me do the standard preface that comes with any set of rankings. I’m one man and I can’t see everything. I have more blind spots here than I probably should, but oh well. This is all down to my tastes and nothing is “missing.” Cool, we good?

Let’s go. This was a more splintered year in TV than most, but there were still plenty of great gems that were worth hyper-focusing on. This was also a year of progress, where the best shows started to move away from the Golden Age prestige drama format and branch out in their protagonists, their genres, and in the way they dealt with their complex issues.

Best TV Shows:

8) Documentary Now!, Season 2

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One of the signatures of the Wiig/Hader/Armisen SNL era was a tendency to do sketches that largely seemed oriented towards what made the performers laugh, in the hopes that the audience would go along. While often a shaky foundation, this approach would yield results that spoke to the passion and commitment that these performers had for their material.

Documentary Now! is that on the whole, applying the passion that Fred Armisen and Bill Hader (along with executive producer Seth Meyers) has for performance and for these documentary stories. It’s an insanely impressively committed series in how closely it replicates and builds on the jokes through performance and its own wry wit, often turning the original documentary into making a new point through the episode. Like episode “Juan Loves Rice and Chicken” that takes the passion for cooking from the original Jiro Dreams of Sushi and adds its own thoughts on legacy and family. It’s one of the most impressive and dedicated bits of comedy play on television, well worth it for people who know the originals and those who don’t.

7) Westworld, Season 1

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I will confess how often I got annoyed by the conversation surrounding the first season of Westworld, HBO’s successful attempt to find a show to slot into the impending Game of Thrones void. It often seemed like we attempted to make this either a puzzle box to be solved or a grand treatise of god and man, to the exemption of the other.

As I powered through the season, it became clear that the show was best experienced as both. It’s a constantly shifting mystery that’s tons of fun to take in and piece through and pull out clues. It’s also a remarkably powerful piece of thematic meditation on what it means to be human and how we relate to our minds and to the ideas of God. It’s also a wicked fun piece of television, stacked to the rafters with great actors, awesome music cues, and plenty of tense thrills all the way to the final moment of its first season.

6) Bojack Horseman, Season 3

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No show has ever ramped up quite like Bojack Horseman. It started out as a half-baked Hollywood satire loaded with animal puns and quickly turned into a full-baked Hollywood satire loaded with animal puns and also some of the most realistic portrayals of self-loathing and depression and the difficulties of professional and personal relationships when you’re depressed and self-loathing.

Season 3 continued that weird mix of riotous hilarity and all-too-real drama with some of Bojack Horseman’s best material so far. It smartly expanded its world, fleshing out the phenomenal supporting cast and their backstories and inner lives, all while maintaining the focus on its surprisingly compelling lead and the emotional trauma he continues to go through.

5) Fleabag, Season 1

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One of the most remarkable trends of recent years is the auteurist television show, a single voice crafting an enormously personal story told for however many seasons they get. Fleabag is one such show, marked by how raw and real the situations Phoebe Waller-Bridge puts herself (as lead character Fleabag) into and how many dark laughs she’s still able to wring out of it.

From the moment she first looks into the camera and speaks to us, Fleabag feels masterfully in control of itself (even as it depicts characters who aren’t), gliding through a wealth of difficult tonal situations and cringe moments with the utmost grace. Fleabag is a hard watch, but seeing what Waller-Bridge gets out of a broken character and a few bad situations makes it all worth it.

4) Game of Thrones, Season 6

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The biggest show on TV (if we’re being real here) had a lot to deal with going into its 6th season. It would be the first without George R.R. Martin’s source material to back it up and it was coming off a 5th season full of questions and controversy that worked against the show, rather than for it.

Fortunately, the challenge was one that gave Game of Thrones a serious kick in the ass, letting them turn in what is, for my money, their best season yet. Almost every storyline, even the most famously slack of the show, was firing on all cylinders and seemed focused and ready to reach their end. This was a show that didn’t just feel like it was wandering while they figured some stuff out, but actually felt full of purpose and excitement to show you what it had in store.

Combine that with some of the best direction and action the show has ever seen and you’ve got an epic the like of which TV has never really had a chance to see before.

3) Atlanta, Season 1

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Another auterist show, from the apparently infinitely talented Donald Glover, that manages to pull off the greatest trick of all.

It’s a show that is crafted by one person that’s almost never about him.

Instead, Atlanta is the story of a city and the lives of those in it. Sure, Glover is great as Earn, but the show is equally and perhaps even more powerful as it moves to episodes about his friends, his family, and the city surrounding. Atlanta is a hazy dream, capturing the feeling of a city that’s too often just dressed up to be somewhere else. Sure, I live a divorced experience from what the characters of this show have, but I recognize their place, their environment, who they are. It’s a smartly-written and impeccably directed show that creates a small universe that you want to explore every nook and cranny of. It’s specific, real, and lived-in, as clever as it is affecting.

2) American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson

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Did anyone expect the return of OJ Simpson this year? The man and his story vaulted back into relevance, and its not hard to see why. Intersecting and difficult issues of race, class, fame, and power all collided in the Trial of the Century and on the precipice of our reexamination of all of them, there was OJ to remind us part of the journey that took us where we were.

From the American Horror Story team, I honestly didn’t expect what I ended up getting out of this show, though maybe it’s because Ryan Murphy took a backseat on this one to showrunners Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who crafted a thriller that kept you on the seat even when you knew the ending. They opened up one of the most covered stories of the last century to examine everything inside it. It was a show smart about race and fame and how the two of them combined. It also featured some of the most jaw-dropping TV performances of the year, from actors you would absolutely expect it from (Courtney B. Vance and Sarah Paulson) and from actors who came here to surprise (Sterling K. Brown and David Schwimmer). As a procedural, this was an absolute delight and a nail-biter, but what makes it a classic is that this is perhaps one of the smartest looks at how we got to The Way We Live Now.

1) Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Seasons 1 and 2

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There is no show that found a quicker way into my heart than Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. A show that is at all times aware of what it is and what it’s doing and uses that awareness to constantly subvert itself. One of the smartest shows about mental illness and its effect on others. A daring show that’s a full-blown musical starring perhaps one of the most difficult and toxic protagonists since Breaking Bad. A labor of love that feels like it doesn’t that as an excuse to not keep its plotting and pacing tight. It’s a show that sings (no pun intended) in almost every moment and every character interaction. One of the quietly best casts on TV anchors some of the quietly best writing on TV. Brilliant, hilarious, heartbreaking all often in the same episode, there’s just not much better right now than Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. 

BoJack Horseman season 3 is Looney Tunes and Mad Men all at once

DISCLAIMER: THIS IS WRITTEN AFTER 8 EPISODES OF SEASON 3. I DON’T EXPECT MY OPINION MUCH TO CHANGE.

Yeah, no, I was pretty much as shocked as you are, those you who haven’t been on this train for two seasons now. The first season has a slow start, but by the time the strains of Tegan and Sara’s “Closer” were closing it out, I was hooked.

Bojack Horseman has quietly (minus for those of you among the media literati set, many of whom have been championing this show’s virtues since halfway through its first season) become Netflix’s critical darling.

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