Who’d have thought the voice of the resistance would belong to a talking horse?
As we begin to see the limits of Trump impersonation-based comedy, there’s a growing hunger for fresh political satire. The upcoming season of Netflix’s animated anthropomorphic sitcom, BoJack Horseman, turns out to be an unlikely but essential source for it.
The first three seasons of BoJack, the brainfoal of writer Raphael Bob-Waksberg and artist Lisa Hanawalt, mostly stayed out of government goings-on. Instead, the series, which follows the adventures of a washed-up horse-actor, stuck to its cornerstone themes of depression, failure, and Hollywood. Not anymore. Those familiar stomping grounds still get stampeded in season four, but they share space with a new political bent. While there are tiny nods to actual moments from the past year—Princess Caroline, a cat voiced by Amy Sedaris, wears a pussyhat at one point—overall, the message is timeless. Somehow, BoJack Horseman manages to pull off some of the most subtle, meaningful political satire of the Trump era.
[Warning: mild, general spoilers to follow]
The main story centers on Will Arnett’s title character reconnecting with his newly discovered secret daughter, voiced by Aparna Nancherla. An ongoing B-story, however, is a gubernatorial election that spans much of the season. Here, I would obviously make a “horserace” pun if the election subplot focused on BoJack. But the character running for governor is Mr. Peanutbutter, the Paul F. Tompkins-voiced lovable Labrador, who is endearingly dim.
At the top of the season, Mr. Peanutbutter is attempting to get California Governor Woodchuck Could Chuck Berkowitz–no relation to the author of this post–recalled to spur a special election. This plotline remains inexplicable until we meet Machiavellian campaign manager Katrina, who sees in Mr. Peanutbutter a useful idiot. Through a series of events too fun to spoil here, Mr. PB ends up in that special election with Berkowitz. The challenger quickly positions himself as an outsider, a populist candidate who will appeal to “regular schmoes like me who went to Northwestern,” as opposed to the current governor, who went to Dartmouth.
If it weren’t clear enough that Mr. Peanutbutter is supposed to be the most innocuous possible version of a Trumpian candidate, the lab’s fans start chanting his name in a menacingly zealous “Lock Her Up” cadence.
The show uses this election arc as a means to a number of fascinating, fruitful ends. It pokes fun at how malleable a candidate’s stance might be on important issues—like, say, fracking—in a way that’s as trenchant as just about anything Veep has done. It lays out the behind-the-scenes machinations of a candidacy, at one point using a Schoolhouse Rock-style interlude to explain how shady favors can be slipped into a bill.
Campaign Svengali Katrina even admits, in a way that would not seem out of place in the book, Devil’s Bargain: “[This election] is about hope and freedom, and powerful lobbyists who pay me to elect a governor I can control, so that we can get legislation passed that builds private prisons on what we now call protected wetlands.”
The season doesn’t just take aim at the main players in an election, it also sends up the institutions that help move these chess pieces across the board. The media gets its due as well, for instance. One segment from newsreading whale Tom Jumbo-Grumbo (of MSNBSea, naturally) is introduced thusly: “For the sake of fairness, we’ve brought on two experts with opposite opinions, who will now have equal time to just say those opinions, because that’s what news is.”
It’s a damning critique of the media-fueled false equivalency that helped usher America into its current cataclysmic state.
Elsewhere, the show satirizes the glacial pace of gun control. This subplot is unrelated to the election arc, but the way gun control is demonized here by an association with “a woman’s temperament” feels like a reaction to a popular line of attack against Clinton’s campaign.
The main thing BoJack’s political satire captures is the emptiness of it all; how nothing any candidate says may really matter, and by the time the electorate learns as much, it’s too late. Adapting a politically advantageous, environmentally unsafe position–in this case, on fracking–hits home here and has actual consequences. Mercifully, the show’s creative team packages its messages in a way that isn’t hella depressing.
By the end of the election arc, the show has become a fantasy about moving past the divisiveness in the country. It presents viewers with a zootopian ideal of how the election might have ended, but definitely never would have.
While some newly topical series smack of blood-in-the-water opportunism, BoJack’s political ambitions feel more organic. I got the feeling the writers were affected by the election, and channeled their outrage into a creative statement. Miraclulously, they managed to do so while remaining true to BoJack’s essence, and without ever taking viewers out of the show. It won’t overthrow the government, but it’ll get you through the day.