BoJack Horseman gets away with a lot. As a character, Will Arnett‘s perfectly performed anthropomorphic horse-man is a stand-in for a rich, privileged White man who was once a part of the Hollywood elite and has since fallen on relatively hard times. Much like the contemporary face of the patriarchy he represents, BoJack is rarely forced to face his demons, and even when he is, there’s always an out. As a show, the animated Netflix series hides its disdain with accepted sociocultural norms in plain sight, masked only by the fact that its characters are mostly funny-looking animorphs. It’s this thin veneer that allows BoJack Horseman to tackle some of today’s touchiest, most taboo subjects with an earnestness that live-action shows rarely even acknowledge.
It’s not as if Seasons 1 through 4 of the Emmy-nominated creation of Raphael Bob-Waksberg were candy-coated sitcom stories about a washed-up TV star. It has been, and likely always will be, a show about a spectrum of broken people who are all struggling to overcome their own inadequacies in myriad ways. Once BoJack found its feet in a rough start to Season 1, that first batch of episodes served to show how far the title character had fallen, and laid the groundwork for even greater falls yet to come. Over the years, we’ve seen BoJack burn bridges with just about everyone in his life, attempting to rebuild some of them, being found in a compromising position with an underage teen, having a hand in the unintentional drug-related death of his former sitcom daughter, and learning some truly disturbing Horseman family secrets. So while few if any sitcoms deal with sexual assault, family power dynamics, and the curse of celebrity in any meaningful way, BoJack Horseman not only embraces such themes, it forces its star to confront the ramifications of his behavior years later.
Season 5 is less about the rehabilitation of BoJack and more about the fact that he easily slides back into old habits as soon as he finds a modicum of success; he’s also reluctant to face past transgressions even when they’re put right in front of his face or are paraded out in plain sight for TV viewers and critics of his new sitcom. For most of the season, he refuses to come clean about the sins of his past–both known and unknown to those closest to him, like Diane–until they’re thrust out into the open against his will. It’s only then that BoJack issues a mea culpa for things like his painkiller addiction, going on a drug-induced trip that alters his perception, and nearly strangling a co-star to death. What’s amazing is that, even as BoJack Horseman skewers entertainment media and celebrity culture through thinly veiled approximations of real-world behavior, BoJack the character is blind to his own complicity in it.
In a chat with Vanity Fair, Bob-Waksberg called Season 5 “our most meta season—which is really saying something for this show.” When asked if they had been building toward something like the #MeToo movement or whether it was just coincidental timing, he revealed that “there’s some architecture we’ve been doing in the show for the last four years that kind of dovetails into some of the conversations we’re having now as a society.” Watch the show long enough and you start to question just when and how it shifts from being a comedy (really it’s only Todd’s antics holding this thread now; even his sex robot rising through the ranks of Corporate America rings too true) and moves towards a dark yet earnest drama. And much like Bryan Cranston‘s infamous character Walter White, you start to question how you feel about BoJack himself. As Bob-Waksbeg asked, “How do we view this character in light of how we view this kind of guy now?”
The show’s meta conversations about how much responsibility a fictional program and its creative team have for its audience’s interpretation of the story was pulled directly from BoJack‘s own writers’ room. This multi-faceted discussion is a thorny one, a nuanced examination of culture and its societal mirror that has been reduced to extremes thanks to social media and knee-jerk reactions that go from zero to 100 as fast as a synapse can fire. Hopefully BoJack‘s own meta series “Philbert” and the comments made by its own stars and writers inspire more discussions and civilized conversations in the real world.
Outside of social commentary, of which this review barely scratches the surface, there’s much more incredible character development on display from the supporting cast in this season. Diane, whose racial make-up and voice actor Alison Brie don’t match (something Bob-Waksberg also addressed recently), goes on an around-the-world journey of self-discovery and remains as idealistic as ever, but even the moral anchor of BoJack Horseman is human; her own emotional failings make her just as hypocritical as those she holds the moral high ground over. (She also suffers the slings and arrows of working as a blogger in the 24/7 online media world, something near and not-so-dear to my heart.) Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) continues her soul-crushing attempts to adopt and raise a child while managing production of the show’s problematic meta drama series, “Philbert”; she, at least, gets a happy ending. And the ever-positive Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins, who you can’t help but love) comes to the devastating realization that he needs to grow up if he ever wants to be a part of a truly committed relationship. However, Todd (Aaron Paul) gets to live on Easy Street this season, and his antics are the main reason this show isn’t dragged down by its own ambitious and darkly dramatic nature.
Standouts include the time-tripping Halloween episode “Mr. Peanutbutter’s Boos”, a sort of alt-version of the cast of characters in “INT. SUB”, and “Free Churro”, an Arnett-only episode that proves just how good an actor he really is. Honestly, if you never watch another episode of BoJack Horseman, make it this one; it not only capitalizes on just how likable Arnett can be even when delivering awful sentiments but it also shows off his range and capability for nuance. (As a fun fact, I too once mistakenly crashed a funeral. The directions to my grandfather’s service got mixed up, so I learned from a small gathering of strangers that this funeral was, in fact, for an infant. Maybe that’s a not-so-fun fact, but it’s certainly in keeping with the spirit of BoJack Horseman; at least I didn’t give a 30-minute eulogy before figuring it out.)
It’s easy to recommend jumping into BoJack Horseman this late in the game as long as you’re willing to go back to the beginning and struggle through the first few episodes to the point where the creative team finds their footing. It’s hard to say just where this animated adventure exploring the depths of the human/horseman soul will ultimately end up, but the journey is well worth the effort.