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A “Surprise!” party on BoJack Horseman is at its best on the sidelines

Screenshot: Netflix
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About halfway through the events of “Surprise!”, as Mr. Peanutbutter and Pickles were having a serious fight about the future of their relationship, I had an unfamiliar reaction: I didn’t care about how this fight turned out. All of the pieces off to the side were great—the unseen party guests going to great lengths to stay unseen, BoJack trying to process why Diane was moving to Chicago, the next place that Ruthie had disappeared to in the house. But as to whether or not Pickles could forgive Mr. Peanutbutter for his infidelity, my reactions were ambivalent at best.

The flatness of the relationship between Mr. Peanutbutter and Pickles—its lack of crunch, if you will—is a large part of why “Surprise!” doesn’t land as well as the other episodes have. While it does resolve the question of when Mr. Peanutbutter would finally reveal his infidelities with Diane, it lacks the sense of closure or the emotional beats that similar fights have delivered throughout the series. And after two solid spotlight episodes, it doesn’t provide the same exposure or energy on the character in question.

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Mr. Peanutbutter and Pickles’s relationship is all the more remarkable given how much investment BoJack Horseman has built on other pairings the main characters developed. BoJack and Wanda, Princess Carolyn and Ralph, Todd and Yolanda, even Diane and Guy as recently as one episode ago—all were relationships that carried their weight and were upsetting when they ended. But here, the show is spending time legitimizing a relationship that it’s spent past episodes (“Mr. Peanutbutter’s Boos” and “Head In The Clouds”) illustrating as not healthy for either of the involved parties. Pickles is just the latest twenty-something to keep Mr. Peanutbutter feeling young, and whatever self-awareness he’s gained as a result of finally feeling like a bad person isn’t something that’s helpful to Pickles.

Even writer Peter A. Knight seems to be aware that there’s not enough history or emotion to this relationship to carry a fight, which is why so much of it trades on the people who aren’t part of the fight. In classic sitcom fashion, they shift from digging at each other to digging at their various friends and family, all of whom are just out of eyesight thanks to Todd’s “brilliant” idea of a surprise wedding. And as the fight progresses, Pickles turns from Mr. Peanutbutter to her PicklePack legion of social media followers, sharing more with them than him. The only moment in the fight that really lands is the final explosion from Pickles, to issue the darkest insult she can: “YOU ARE A BAD DOG!!!”

Screenshot: Netflix
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The real pain that Pickles is feeling comes from the fact that Mr. Peanutbutter cheated on her with Diane, because she recognizes all the history the two share—a history that’s also weighing this plot down with comparisons. Diane was smart enough and emotionally competent enough to diagnose their problems, and she coaxed something more out of Mr. Peanutbutter to make him a richer character in the process. It’s telling that it’s her impression of the thermostat in the smart house that’s what gets him to finally listen and interact, and that he’s the only member of this cast that would work on. But on the other hand, his utter buffoonery means he can say a line like “I can always count on you to cool things off when they get too heated” to the supposedly sentient thermostat and get one of the biggest laughs of the episode.

Without the emotional investment in the relationship, “Surprise!” has to find another way to keep our attention, and thankfully the animation team picks up the pace in response. We haven’t spent much time in Mr. Peanutbutter’s house (no, not that one) before this point, so there’s a good variety to where everyone is darting and dodging and you don’t feel like you’ve seen it all before. It’s a delight to follow the background players as they find the right hiding places, with the gold star to Captain Peanutbutter and his wife appropriating headshot frames for their actual heads. And it’s also refreshing to see it not animal gag-heavy, save a chameleon peeling himself off the door and some masterful Princess Carolyn leaps: just the traditional dodging and shushing you’d expect from anyone caught in these impossible circumstances.

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And while Mr. Peanutbutter and Pickles aren’t the most compelling couple to focus on, “Surprise!” is smart enough to find a few moments that matter more in the long run. The first and most obvious one is Diane’s reunion with BoJack. Allowing those two characters to interact is an easy way to raise the stakes of any episode, as we saw the last time there was a party at Mr. Peanutbutter’s house back in “Underground” and they retreated for their first meeting in a year. Here, it’s an inverse of that situation: last time BoJack admitted he couldn’t see Diane until he felt like he was okay, and now Diane has to tell him that she’s leaving and she has to know that he’s going to be okay before she can do that.

Screenshot: Netflix
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It’s the impetus for a few beautiful moments that speak to how strong the connection between the two of them is. BoJack doesn’t once ask any questions about the bombshell that she slept with Mr. Peanutbutter despite being right next to her when the truth comes—all he has to do is see the look on her face and know that there’s nothing that needs to be said. And when she tries to finagle some excuse that him being okay is a condition of her leaving, he sees it for what it is right away: “That’s not a friendship, that’s a hostage situation.” She helped him do what he needed to do in last season’s finale, and this is his chance to pay it forward.

The other rewarding interaction we get is the final offer from Princess Carolyn to hire Todd as Ruthie’s nanny, the position now open again because of Todd’s harsh judgment to past nanny Carlotta. (Her sins include bad airplane noises during feeding time and a storytelling voice “like Cameron Diaz ‘did a voice’ for the Shrek movies.”). It’s a choice that feels obvious from the outset of the episode—Todd tastes baby drool for details, for God’s sake—and it’s also a natural outgrowth of what we know about Todd. Todd’s always happy to help people without complaint and never ask for anything in return. Why shouldn’t he do that for someone needs the most and is entirely incapable of ulterior motives? And his being willing to do it for Princess Carolyn also illustrates the odd yet undeniable truth that they’ve built one of the sturdiest friendships on the series.

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Looping back to the central problem of “Surprise!,” the resolution between Mr. Peanutbutter and Pickles doesn’t carry the weight of anything that’s happened in the background. They come to a decision befitting the heightened sitcom nature of the affair—an intentional cuckolding that clears the deck and allows them to get married free of guilt—and that neatly jumps over the still unspoken truth that Mr. Peanutbutter only proposed so he didn’t have to tell her about the affair. Now he’s told her, and the proposal is still on the table, which makes it hard to feel like anyone learned anything from this. Except of course, all their friends and family who are about to have very interesting conversations with the two.


Stray observations:

  • Achievement in Voice Acting: Any issues with Pickles’s relationship with Mr. Peanutbutter aside, Julia Chan does a great job taking the role over from Hong Chau. Her airheaded energy in her PicklePack broadcasts pairs nicely with the genuine anger in her voice when Mr. Peanutbutter dares to ask her to leave them out of this. And as the argument carries on from room to room, you can hear the weight in her voice as she tries to talk herself into forgiving him.
  • Party attendees include Captain Peanutbutter and his wife, Pickles’s parents, J.D. Salinger, Oxnard the accountant, Virgil van Cleef, Pinky Penguin, and Truman Capote. And Greg, the guy Mr. Peanutbutter met at a gas station once and is pretty sure sucks. Poor Greg.
  • Eduardo the fainting goat/sober companion is a one-note joke, but I do love the ways we get to the inevitable living up to the name. And I will be taking design pointers from that Thunder Room.
  • The walk-in closet contains Mr. Peanutbutter’s cloud pajamas, his Tweedfeed suit from last Halloween, and his sparkly suit from his tenure as host of Hollywoo Stars: What Do They Know?: Do They Know Things?: Let’s Find Out! (A suit I’ll never tire of reminding everyone Paul F. Tompkins actually owns.)
  • “Weird” Al Yankovic makes a welcome return as Captain Peanutbutter, still carrying a bunch of dark thoughts from his brush with death: “And then there’s the lumbering fear my spleen could retwist itself...” BoJack: “How are we back in a conversation?!”
  • “I thought Buzzy and I were built to last, like Brangelina, Gwyneth and Coldplay Guy, or America and its current love affair with Rebel Wilson.”
  • “It was the worst mistake of my life, and I once played Twister with Bryan Singer! At Kevin Spacey’s party. For Andy Dick’s early parole.”
  • “So I gotta ask, why Chicago? Is it the rampant gun violence? Or do you just like seeing improv actors who weren’t good enough for LA?”
  • “What’s with all this mid-century furniture so close to the ground? No one had to hide in the Fifties?”
  • “Don’t get me wrong, I love the challenge of trying to square two impossible positions!”
  • “...Odd.”
  • Today in Hollywoo signs:
Screenshot: Netflix
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About the author

Les Chappell

Les Chappell is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. He drinks good whiskey and owns too many hats.