Review: Season 5 of ‘BoJack Horseman’ Gets Darker, More Ambitious and More Unsettling
Five seasons in and Netflix’s first ever original animated comedy BoJack Horseman has become one of television’s most unexpectedly reliable series. What had started out as an unwieldy but interesting Hollywood satire populated by anthropomorphic animals quickly evolved into one of the medium’s bleakest and most perceptive social critiques as well as arguably the most painfully accurate depiction of depression ever seen in an animated comedy. With every new season, I greatly anticipate the chance to binge-watch something that’s guaranteed to emotionally devastate me. The latest season is no different in that regard but it may be a new turning point in how drama has become the overwhelming tone over comedy.
After the parental crisis of season four, BoJack is back to work. This time, he’s the lead in Philbert, a blatant True Detective pastiche that’s dark, confusing, sexist and riddled with prestige T.V. clichés. Its showrunner (voiced with quiet ego by Rami Malek) is an egotistical hack, BoJack is having a no-strings-attached affair with his co-star, Princess Carolyn is producing but seldom visits the set, and for once in his life, things seem to be going reasonably well. BoJack has cut back on his drinking and his dissatisfaction is aimed at his work and not himself for once. Of course, things can never be that simple, and they’re not so for anyone else in his life: Mr. Peanutbutter and Diane have gotten divorced, with the former moving onto a much younger woman (voiced by Hong Chau with Valley Girl glee) and the latter adrift with no direction in her life; Princess Carolyn is trying to adopt a child; Todd is navigating love as an asexual man who still wants romantic attachments; and Hollywoo is as contradictory as ever.
BoJack Horseman has always experimented with form but season five signals a new ambition with its willingness to screw around with its own formula. One episode recasts its ensemble thanks to a blabbermouth therapist, another is essentially a 25 minute long monologue by BoJack, and one episode tells the story of a Halloween party across four time periods. Each concept is executed with immense confidence. This is a writer’s room firing on all cylinders, with the minute details of each character taken into consideration. We’ve seen so much of BoJack’s life through flashbacks and it’s created a rich canvas of a truly fucked up horse-man.
Where the show is at its best, and maybe better than anything else on T.V. right now, is in its perceptiveness over sadness. There are many different ways to be sad and different reasons to be sad. The series has such variety in this field, and the narrative has evolved more into an ensemble piece with each passing season, offering another way to show the selection of sadness on display. BoJack is a self-destructive depressive narcissist who has had a bad life from day one but still believes that to be a justifiable reason to ignore his privilege. Diane has no understanding of her identity post-break-up and wants to find something to connect to. Mr. Peanutbutter’s perpetual case of arrested development and blind happiness is being chipped away by reality. Todd remains happier than most but still feels insecure at how he is perceived by the world, both as an asexual and as an aimless dork whose biggest ambition is to eat string cheese on someone else’s couch.
Diane gets more to do this season, with the second episode dedicated to her spontaneous trip to Vietnam. Structured as a listicle she’s writing for work on reasons to visit another country, Diane tries to find a connection to her roots as a Vietnamese American, but discovers no place for her on either side. She’s clearly a tourists to the locals while white Americans just see her race and start to condescendingly talk to her in loud slow ways for directions. In many ways, she’s just like BoJack, but with a stronger sense of self-preservation.
Mr. Peanutbutter has been a harder character to understand over the show’s run. He’s a literal golden retriever of a man, one of endless pep and wilful blindness to the feelings or patience of those around him. The show has smartly decided to commit to the reality that this character is basically the worst and does so by focusing in on something the narrative has hinted at for many seasons but never fully explored: Why does Mr. Peanutbutter only date women in their 20s? With a new girlfriend on his arm, a pug named Pickles, he finally has a girlfriend who is as energetic and flighty as he is, but it is soon revealed in the Halloween party episode that this cycle is nothing new. The character’s giddy ignorance is often written off as the traits of cheap comic relief but this season digs more into the darkness of that kind of life. If further seasons decide to delve further into his arrested development and the way he chews out young women once they realize he doesn’t plan to grow up, he could end up as big a bastard as BoJack.
Princess Carolyn and Todd don’t get as much to do this season, and the latter often feels like he’s from a different show. Rather, he’s from the period when the show was more knowingly goofy, and the writers haven’t quite figured out what to do with him. His asexual journey is well done but his subplot as a CEO who later invents a sex bot doesn’t strike the right tone until the very end, but in fairness it ends with one hell of a joke.
Even with the show spreading its attention evenly across its core five characters, the meat of the emotional arcs goes to the titular BoJack. For the most part, BoJack is a remarkably self-aware depressive, all too candid about how he fears fixing the broken parts of himself only to find out he still isn’t happy. He has more to live for than ever - career success, closeness with his newfound half-sister Hollyhock, friends who love him and a burgeoning romance - and it kills him to know those luxuries still aren’t enough. Now, he’s making the next step into Peak T.V. with an ‘edgy’ cop drama that mostly seems to exist to fulfil the worst tropes of the medium. The eponymous Philbert is every bad boy detective you’ve seen in a TNT series, constantly drinking and snarking and objectifying women while fetishizing his dead wife. This season’s arc offers one of the more satisfying take-downs of the lie of ‘prestige T.V.’ recycling sexist tropes as artistic genius, but it’s in others’ interpretation of the show where the message is the most devastating. For BoJack, Philbert is a reaffirmation of sorts: He’s an arsehole but so is everyone else, which means it’s okay to be that way, right?
It is a shame that the Emmys have such a narrow interest in animation and its contained voice-over work because the role of BoJack remains Will Arnett’s magnum opus. His ability to inflect his voice with simultaneous ego and self-hatred is astounding. For one episode, he is given the floor to talk and it’s a whirlwind of range, the kind of performance the Emmys throw awards at when it’s live-action. Arnett has the canny ability, through sheer voice alone, to make BoJack both pathetic and all too easy to sympathize with. As always, the rest of the cast are excellent, and the array of guest stars remains ridiculously impressive. A special shout out to Stephanie Beatriz of Brooklyn Nine-Nine for her turn as Gina, BoJack’s icy co-star who eventually becomes his love-interest. Gina is a 30-something actress whose heart has hardened to the realities of being a working actress whose big break never came. You can hear the resignation in her voice, an endless feature of her life that starts to wear away when BoJack gets close to her. When it goes off the rails - as it always does - Beatriz finds the bitterness underneath the pain and that coldness returns to achingly good effect.
As always, the Hollywood satire of the show is as sharp as a scalpel. Fans will remember the Hank Hippopopalous episode, a devastating take on the industry’s willingness to turn a blind eye to abusers. Season five goes further with a direct attack of Hollywoo[d]’s apology machine for bad men. An obvious Mel Gibson stand-in (who bears a stronger resemblance to Sean Penn) is getting his fourth or fifth chance at redemption with a role on Philbert but BoJack ends up being the accidental opposition to his presence. Not only do we get one of the more prescient understandings of how the industry recycles its excuses and PR for such apologies but we get the crushing reality that call-outs of such things are more likely to be listened to when men say them. BoJack is declared a feminist icon for doing the bare minimum while memories of Diane being silenced for trying to do the same ring loudly in our memories.
This ties into the show’s climax and what may be a new depth of darkness for a show positively steeped in it. BoJack suffers an injury through not fault of his own that results in a painkiller addiction. He’s smart enough to know he shouldn’t be taking so many pills but such logic isn’t how addiction works, and soon the lines between his real-life and the world of Philbert begin to blur (including a spot-on homage to All That Jazz). Eventually, he does something truly unforgivable, and not even his inebriated lack of self-control can excuse it. The show has never shied away from making BoJack a mess of an individual but it’s always believed he could one day be a good person. Now, that seems like an impossibility but it’s also the only logical way for him to go. Season six’s dynamic will be irrevocably different because of this, which is immensely ambitious storytelling, even for a show that takes risks every episode.
Season five of BoJack Horseman is not the show’s funniest or its most consistent, but it may be its bravest. It takes a character we root for despite ourselves and sees how far that patience can stretch. The audiences’ empathy is tested and interrogated, something that feels all too necessary in an age where abusers are welcomed back with forgiveness narratives after less than a year of silence. We want BoJack to be okay. Perhaps we need it more than he does.
Header Image Source: Netflix
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