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Interview: Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg Reflects On Season 4 Of 'BoJack Horseman'
The fourth season of BoJack Horseman, the most depressing show about an anthropomorphic horse in television history, was released on Netflix on Friday. Hopefully you've had a chance to bingewatch most or all of the season by now—but in case you haven't, exit this page and come back when you have, because...
LOTS OF SPOILERS FOR SEASON 4 AHEAD. SERIOUSLY, DON'T SCROLL DOWN UNLESS YOU WANT THE SEASON SPOILED FOR YOU.
This season, BoJack's relationship with his mother Beatrice, as well as her tragic life, was explored in depth, while BoJack developed a relationship with the daughter-he-never-wanted (who turned out to really be his sister). While BoJack may not have spent a lot of time with the other four main characters this season, things didn't get any easier for them: Princess Carolyn started hitting the booze pretty hard after she and Ralph broke up following a miscarriage; Mr. Peanutbutter and Diane seem like they may be done as well after one too many grand gestures; and Todd finally figured out a way to turn clown dentists into a legal business. Along the way, we visited Felicity Huffman's Booty Academy, watched Zach Braff get turned on by power plays, and concluded that honey dew really is the Jared Leto of fruit.
A few weeks before it hit Netflix, we got the chance to talk to creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg about the entire season, including the development of the Beatrice storyline, the relatively happy ending for BoJack, the responsibility of storytellers, and the origin of clown dentists.
It's been rainy and miserable where I am, which worked out well for me because I just watched the entire season over the last 24 hours. Oh wow, that's quite a rollercoaster.
Normally I like to dole them out slowly, only watch one or two at a time and savor it, so this was a very different experience. This was the pure heroin version of BoJack I think. But really, really good. Shot straight to the veins! And thank you, I'm glad to hear that! It's a little weird to be doing these interviews before the show comes out. I can't gauge the response of people, but I can't even kind of talk about it and be like, "Well we were very proud of this episode." Because then I find out that oh, everyone hated that episode. You're getting the pure dumb Raphael this interview, I'm somewhat naïve to how this season will be received.
Outside of the audience reaction, how did you feel exiting this season compared to previous years? I don't know. I never know and I think I've become more and more comfortable not knowing. I think in the past, I finish a season and I go, "Is this good or bad? I don't know, it's probably terrible." Now I think, "Is this good or bad? I don't know, it's probably good." I think I round up now.
I have a million nitpicks with every season and I think, "Oh someone's going to grab on to that and really tear us apart." And usually my concerns are not founded. Or the things people don't like are things I totally couldn't see coming. Or some of the times, someone will have a complaint and I'll go, "That's a good point!" And then I'll be like, "No, this person doesn't get it at all." And sometimes you'll discover things they love that I didn't even notice, like something one of the writers slipped in or one of the background designers or one of the directors or storyboard artists put in and it got past me. Like, I didn't even make that connection!
So it's always delightful to hear what people are saying about the show. Even when I think they're being unfair and not kind. But I'm feeling bullish, so I'll say I'm proud of this season. I'll put that on the record before [all the reviews/reactions]. And I think we went to some interesting places and it was fun for me to make and that's really why I'm doing this.
Season three felt like the culmination of a lot of character arcs, with a lot of people, especially BoJack, heading in new directions and interacting with new characters this year. While there were still a lot of storylines that tore your heart out—dealing with depression, gun control, self-loathing, miscarriages and more—the season as a whole seemed... less devastating overall than the previous year. Well, if we're talking spoilers, here's the first big spoiler of the interview, which is that this season ends—the very last thing you see—is a happy note, it's BoJack smiling. So this is an unambiguous happy ending for BoJack, although it is complicated by other things that are not so happy, and certainly not all of our characters get happy endings this season.
But I think that has a lot to do with that feeling that you have. Season two also ended in a somewhat positive fashion. And season three had a real downer ending—at the end, he was seen feeling lost and isolated, and I think kind of where you leave your audience really colors how they feel about the whole season.
And I've noticed that for myself in watching other shows...can I give out spoilers for other shows or are people gonna get mad? [Laughs]
I think it's okay. Game of Thrones just ended, and I always think back on the season finale of Game of Thrones where it ended with a character getting stabbed to death, and you're just on him dying at the end. Which was a change of pace, because most of their seasons in the past have ended with these big moments, like Daenerys surrounded by her followers or Arya in her ship off to a new land, these somewhat hopeful, looking forward things. And [season five] just ends on this murder of one of the main characters, and really does color your thoughts on the whole season.
You say this season feels happier and more hopeful, but it also is full of very sad things. [Laughs] If you've measured out the balance of each season, I don't know if you would say that this season on the whole is more positive, but I think it certainly ends that way. We are ending our season with Arya on the ship, heading out to new lands, which we don't always do.
Do you think that BoJack has made real strides in his personal life at this point? I like to think so. Certainly when we were writing the show, someone would pitch a joke and I'd say, "That feels like a season one BoJack joke. He wouldn't say that anymore." You know, he doesn't treat people quite the same way, he doesn't have quite the same outlook. He has grown, though we were very careful not to have him grow too quickly—in many ways, he is the same BoJack he's always been. I think there were a lot of two steps forwards, one step back—maybe three steps back. There's movement. Maybe growth is the wrong word, because growth kind of suggests a straight line and I think he evolves and he changes in multiple directions, some for good and some for ill.
One of the most devastating storylines this year revolved around the backstory of BoJack's mother, Beatrice. Episode 11 in particular, which focuses on her dementia and tragic life, was a real doozy, much like last season's brutal Sarah Lynn episode "That's Too Much Man!" I helped take care of my grandmother, who had dementia and Alzheimer's, so that hit me very hard. How did you guys decide on developing that particular story? Oh wow. I think one thing I really love doing in the show, and it's kind of been a hallmark from the beginning, is the challenge of can we make our audience care about something that they thought they didn't care about. I think the first season is very much structured that way around BoJack, that you think you don't care about him but by the end of the season you do, and we've kind of slowly, subtly tricked you into caring. And that's something that we've kind of played in different ways and different areas, like this dumb Princess Carolyn and Vincent Adultman relationship—can we get people to care about that? It's not just a dumb joke. When they break up, as silly as that episode is when they break up, it means something and has weight for our characters. So we do play with that in ways big and small.
I remember we did our Christmas special, which is an episode of Horsin' Around, which is really dumb and showy and broad, and in writing that the challenge was: can we get people to care about the characters in Horsin' Around, even as we're saying this is dumb and fake and phony? This relationship between Sabrina and the horse and the conversation they have, even while we're throwing jokes in, can we make this feel like a sincere thing?
And so going into this season, it felt like before this point, Beatrice was in many ways the closest we've come to having an unambiguous villain on the show. We really don't show much of her softness in the past, though we have seen hints of it here and there, like when she calls BoJack in the middle of season two to apologize to him. But even that does more damage, so we thought, can we make her a sympathetic character in some ways, while not softening her to the point where she feels like a different character?
Diving into her past I think was one way to do that, and then kind of enfeebling her a little bit in the present and weakening her was a way to do that as well. I think one of the central tenets of the show is everybody has a story and everybody is the protagonist of their own story, and we see the hints and glimpses and glimmers of it. And when we frame things in terms of "how does this person affect me?" we see that person as presented to us, but in fact you could tell the whole story from that person's point of view and see what they are and where they came from.
That's a long answer [Laughs], but that more or less covers what we were thinking with Beatrice this season, what we wanted to do with her. It's also—I know I just told you a long answer, but I have more answer, it's such a huge part of the season, there's a lot to talk about—I think also exploring BoJack's relationship with her felt really interesting, and I think a big part of the season is BoJack's ability to forgive her and kind of let go of some of his anger towards her. Is he ready to do that, has she earned that? And does he need her to earn it for him to do it? These are all questions we talked about in terms of her and her relationship with BoJack this season.
Talking further about this idea that "everybody has a story," Princess Carolyn has a nice summation of a lot of themes of the season at the start of the finale, where she says stories "comfort us, they inspire us, but life isn't just stories, life is life...there's so little time and what are we doing with it?" Stories that help us understand ourselves and other people... That certainly is the thing that BoJack the show has always been interested in. I think the biggest example of it is Horsin' Around. We treat it as a very goofy, silly thing, but we also showed it has this power. We see at the end of season three, Diane tells BoJack that she used to watch the show and it meant a lot to her. As silly and goofy and dumb as we all know it is, it was really important too.
And that is something that I am constantly grappling with myself: in what way are our stories important? And in what ways are they dumb? And in what ways are they helpful, and in what ways are they harmful? What is our responsibility as storytellers? I think certainly, in the last year or so, there's been a lot of handwringing, hopefully by everybody, about what am I doing, what am I contributing, what am I doing for society?
I think it's very natural to ask the question of the stories we tell: are they good for society or are they bad? That's a very reductive way of looking at it. I think it does behoove us to begin thinking more seriously about what messages we are putting out into the world, and how are those being internalized by people. Certainly we have our big gun episode this season, which is kind of about that as well. I think every time there's a big shooting, which is fairly frequently, the conversation goes, "well, that's a shame that that happened, we need to do something about gun legislation and that's a problem that Washington needs to take care of," but I think the conversation is not happening here in Los Angeles, in the film and television industry, of what stories and what narratives are we propagating and how are we contributing to this? Are we contributing to it? I think that's up for debate.
But I think of this idea that exists out in the world: the only guy who can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. I don't know if that comes from real life, I think that comes from stories, from the stories we're telling and putting out there, and I wonder if we are taking enough responsibility for that. And I think TV and film does have this incredible power to change things, and I think when we change things for the better we like to take credit, right? Like Will and Grace and Ellen, and how we've made certain lifestyles or situations more acceptable or more normalized. I think that's wonderful, but I think where we influence things for the worse, we tend to say, "Well, come on, you can't really become violent by watching TV or playing video games, that's not how it works." Why does it work one way but not the other way? I don't know if we've taken a look at ourselves that maybe we need to be taking.
To extend this thought about how stories influence us in a silly direction, the thing I'd be really terrified of is this show inspiring clown dentists to start popping up everywhere. [Laughs] We're being irresponsible in that way by legitimizing and normalizing the idea of a clown dentist.
That was my favorite comedic plotline of the season. I had to pause watching because I would be laughing so hard. Especially at the Rube Goldberg scenario in the forest at the end of the season. Where did the idea of clown dentists come from? It's actually an idea that I've had for a very long time, specifically the way Todd kind of gets into it. It's like this naïve way of thinking, "This will make kids more comfortable...if dentists dressed up like clowns." That has always been very funny to me and I don't know why it was buried in the back of my brain somewhere. This season I was like, "Oh that, we should maybe use that on BoJack, that's a funny idea." To have this conversation they have like, aren't kids scared of clowns? And no, I think adults are scared of clowns? Therefore kids must love clowns, why else would there be clowns? It's very funny to me.
We weren't quite sure how we were going to work it in or when. I'm glad we didn't work it in earlier because as soon as we did it, we just had so much fun coming up with other stories and other directions it could take and what is the escalation of this. Oh yeah, what if the clown dentists are released into the woods near the old abandoned insane asylum by the school? And oh yeah, what if they got rabies and started acting like zombies? Making this idea more and more horrifying as the season progressed was very fun.
I was so happy that it was more than just one episode, that it got woven all through the second half of the season. Yeah, it's kind of a nice little kick in the pants in the second half. It's not mentioned at all in the first half and it starts to weave it's way in and takes over Todd's whole reason for being by the end of the season.
For so much of the season, BoJack is mostly interacting with Hollyhock, Beatrice and a little with Diane. One of the toughest things for me as a viewer was the lack of BoJack and Todd time, besides the third episode. Was this separation necessary for Todd to evolve? Do you see them coming back more together, having more reason to interact next season? I think so. I think we wanted to be respectful of how we ended last season, which was BoJack falls out with almost all of his friends. So it sounds phony to be like, "Oh he's back and everyone is friends again!" And so we really wanted to be careful about when does he first see Todd, when did he first reach out to Princess Carolyn, when did he first see Diane? And give those relationships the space they needed and allow them to thaw and allow time to pass and have some of the test conversations. If we jumped too quickly back into, "Oh, the old gang is back up to their old high jinks!" it would feel phony.
I think part of the idea of this season was can we spread these characters out a little bit and give them more of their own stories that are not so interwoven with each other. We just felt like now's the time to do that, but I don't know if it's necessarily saying they will always be separate from each other. There are ways that we planned ahead a little bit and thought, "Oh we can bring this character back here, and these characters can go out together this way." I definitely didn't want to have a full season where none of the characters talk to each other, so I was glad to have the opportunity to find them where we could.
In terms of the major relationships, there aren't many healthy ones on the show at this point. Things were tough for Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter with the fracking and the gubernatorial race, as well for Princess Carolyn and Ralph with her miscarriages. I've seen some people refer to the show as "cynical" about relationships, and I was wondering how you felt about that criticism? It's funny because I've definitely seen the show described as very cynical, but I don't feel cynical, and I don't think my writers feel cynical necessarily. [Laughs] We try to be honest, and obviously we want to get good drama in and create good stories. If everyone was getting along most of the time, there wouldn't be much to look at.
I think that relationships are hard, and I think you don't really know when you're in them if this is the right one or not, or if this is what I want to be doing, and we're all kind of taking stabs in the dark. I guess I want the show to reflect that and not feel too comfortable in this dichotomy that I think is set up in a lot of fiction of, "Oh, this couple is a good couple and they're going to be happy always. And this couple is a bad couple and we're rooting for them to fall apart and eventually they will."
It's more complicated than that, and in real life, there are days where you feel like, "This is good, I'm set for life," and there are days where you feel, "What am I doing? Who is this person that I'm sharing a bed with?" And I think if you are lucky, the good days outnumber the bad and that's probably when you feel like, "Okay this is something good." But the bad days never go away completely, at least in my experience. So I guess I wanted to make characters in relationships that I felt reflected that.
You've spoken in the past about BoJack dealing with the "burdens of being comfortable," but also that in the time since Trump came into power, you're now "less interested in exploring the small hypocrisies of rich liberals" and more interested in talking about real problems, like gun violence. Are you interested in tackling anything specifically Trump-related next season, or did you get that out with Mr. Peanutbutter's storyline this season? No, not directly. I think we're more interested in talking about the big moves and the big things that are happening without being too one-to-one about it. We did a big election story this year, and one of the things we tried to avoid was having a Trump analog and a Clinton analog, we wanted it to be its own story. And there are certainly seeds from the real world that will reverberate in different ways, but I think if you marry yourself too closely to specific current events, then it immediately feels dated and that's what we tried to avoid.
There are more elegant ways to talk about the current situation that doesn't feel like, "Look at this dumb president, he's dumb right?" Or "Look at these awful things he did." I think the evils of our society are maybe a little more nuanced and complicated than that. And there are other people who are commenting on the dumb things Trump is doing day-to-day who are doing great jobs and are really handling that. I don't know if we want to get in that zone. I think there are things that we do well and that we're better equipped for, which are more of the longitudinal storytelling, and talking about these themes or ideas that don't feel super ripped from the headlines necessarily. Because by the time this airs, who knows what the news is gonna be, who knows what people will be talking about.
Lastly, do you have an ending in mind for this show? How long do you think you want to continue it? Oh, I think we're out of time! I can't answer that question. Sorry! [Laughs] Thank you so much though, this was so fun!