[warning – mild spoilers for BoJack Horseman Season 5 and major spoilers for BoJack Horseman Seasons 1-4, because why are you reading this if you have not seen BoJack Horseman Seasons 1-4? Go do something better with your life, like picking up crochet or watching BoJack Horseman Seasons 1-4]
Part 1 – Back in the 90s, I was in a very famous TV show
1. There’s no easy way to say it, so I’ll just do it plainly and at the beginning. Season 5 of BoJack Horseman is easily the weakest season since Season 1. Part of this is due to the law of diminishing returns, as what was once exciting and new starts to become increasingly formulaic. BoJack, by this point, is a middle-aged show (about a middle aged horse-man), and middle-aged shows cannot help but lose their freshness, no matter how high the quality of the episodes. Part of this is also due to BoJack‘s impeccable track record, with Seasons 2-4 standing as one of the finest achievements in the medium of television. Perhaps the biggest reason, however, for BoJack Season 5’s comparative deficiency in comparison to what came before is the simple fact that it is exceedingly difficult to write a story about a self-destructive antihero once that self-destructive antihero has reached a state of self-awareness about what s/he is. This is a common pattern that has recurred in numerous TV shows, including some of my favourites of all time*. I mean, what happens when the narcissistic asshole realises he is a narcissistic asshole? Get better? Well, then we have no conflict, and therefore no show. Stay the same? Then we lose any hope that things can get better, and with it the desire to keep watching. Get worse? This runs the risk of thoroughly alienating your audience. It is almost by design, then, that BoJack Season 5 adopts a halting, hesitant approach to the title character’s growth. There is a reason why the line ‘you say you want to get better, but you don’t know how’ is repeated over and over again in the Season 5 trailer. Not only is this the thesis statement for the season, but the repetition itself is indicative of where BoJack and BoJack are – keenly aware of the rot in the soul of our protagonist, but still stuck in the same awful patterns that have persisted and continue to persist.
2. LET ME MAKE THIS 100% CLEAR. A ‘weak’ season of BoJack Horseman is still a goddamn gift (horse). At its peak, BoJack Horseman is nothing short of a transcendent experience, a twenty-six minute object lesson in how stellar voice acting, superb animation, and some of the best television writing of all time can wring belly laughs and heaving sobs, and in the moment you will not be able to tell which is which. There are moments and episodes in Season 5 that reach these heights, and the fact that I am saying this is a ‘down’ year only serves to illustrate how ridiculously high Raphael Bob-Waksberg and his team have set the bar. If nothing in this season comes close to the existential despair of Beatrice imagining eating ice-cream on the porch in her squalid old-age home, or the bonkers insanity of ‘Hollywoo Stars And Celebrities: What Do They Know?: Do They Know Things?: Let’s Find Out!’ or the everything in Will Arnett’s voice when he says “Sarah Lynn?”, it is because nothing on television (or Netflix / other websites that provide streaming content that also may or may not tell you what time it is right now) comes remotely close to the heights and depths that BoJack can hit.
Is BoJack Horseman Season 5 as good as Seasons 2-4? Nope. Is BoJack Horseman Season 5 still better than like, 95% of popular entertainment? Well, obviously.
3. I alluded to this earlier, but in many ways, Bojack is the apotheosis of two television genres – the critically acclaimed antihero prestige drama and the satirical adult animated comedy. This does not mean that BoJack is the best show of either genre, just that it takes the tropes of both genres to their absolute limit. To some extent, it still boggles the mind how it took up until 2014 to combine these two beloved genres. In many ways, BoJack‘s success, both critical and commercial, stemmed from how it excellently it navigated the narrow strait between them. However, while the first half of the first season tipped too far into adult animated satire, Season 5 has the opposite problem, where the antihero prestige drama portion of the show threatens to overpower everything.
Part of that is deliberate, considering that BoJack himself is starring in a parody of an antihero prestige drama titled Philbert, complete with sexy female co-star, a showrunner convinced he is the second coming and plotlines that reveal their themes a little too obviously (sample line about Philbert – “the darkness is a metaphor for darkness”). The lines between Philbert and BoJack, and between Philbert and BoJack get blurry, as the meta-commentary on TV shows that deal with difficult men piles up to the point where it almost feels like a little too much.
4. Don’t get me wrong, I love it when things get meta (he said, safe in the knowledge that showing a little self-awareness allows the writer to hide any vulnerability behind a safe objective distance which also brings the benefit of shutting down criticism because you’ve already alluded to it that is of course until the meta-ness of the whole thing threatens to collapse on the weight of its own pretension and spirals out of control in pure self-reflexivity with no point to anchor it down – except that I just illustrated exactly what watching BoJack Season 5 felt like (nailed it!))
By the fifth year of its existence, a show tends to be about itself in some way or another – its history, its relationship with its audience, etc. – and BoJack goes all the way with this in its Season 5 arc. The show’s criticism of Philbert, feels, more often than not, like a criticism of itself. This is not a bad thing per se. Matter of fact, it’s refreshing to see a show grapple so thoroughly as to whether it has excused its protagonist’s bad behaviour or even worse, enabled the bad behaviour of others by indirectly saying that its ok to be a drunken, manipulative, abusive wreck as long as you feel really, really bad about it. The second best episode of the season is essentially a Socratic debate between BoJack and Diane about whether or not the former’s guilt absolves his sins, and it is as compelling and dramatically heavy as you would hope.
The problem though, is that this particular brand of navel-gazing is not new to this show. One of its best episodes is entitled ‘It’s You’, and it comes to the same conclusion in 26 elegant minutes as Season 5 does twelve episodes – BoJack is to blame for his own dysfunction, and no amount of guilt or Freudian excuses can change the fact that the only way to resolve it is to actually try to do better instead of wallowing in melancholia. That’s the problem. As well-executed as the central plotline is, it has been done before and better, and no amount of self-conscious meta referencing can hide that.
Part 1a – Intermezzo
5. Quick guest star rundown.
Stephanie Beatriz – alright, but it still feels really weird to hear Rosa’s voice come out of an animated character. The show and Beatriz try their level best to develop the character, but Gina just left me cold. Felt more like a plot device more so than any of BoJack’s previous paramours.
Rami Malek – killed it as the showrunner who thinks he’s the second coming of Bukowski. Almost as though he might have some first hand experiences with these sorts.
Hong Chau – the character is a little too steeped in ‘lol millennials’ humour, but full credit to Chau for imbuing her with real energy.
Issa Rae and Wanda Sykes – fun!
Laura Linney – a fantastic addition to the list of celebrities willing to skewer themselves on BoJack. And speaking of.
Jessica Biel – un-Jessica-Biel-evable as always.
David Sedaris – MVP of the guest star list, almost certainly. Imbues Princess Carolyn’s Mom with real sadness and depth.
Highly Esteemed and Respected Character Actress Margo Martindale – guys, couldn’t you have given her more than one line?
Part 2 – What is this, a crossover episode?
6. The show that BoJack has always reminded me of, oddly enough, is Mad Men. Both involve rich people in a creative profession behaving badly, getting drunk, and feeling sorry for themselves. Both shows are not afraid to plumb the depths of existential despair. And, more than usual this season, while both shows centre around a sympathetic antihero with dubious morals, their ensembles are given almost equal weight in terms of plotting and characterisation. While the character of BoJack has stagnated, this is one of the finer seasons in terms of deepening the main cast around him.
7. The Peggification** of Diane Nguyen probably started at the ‘Hank After Dark’ episode, and has now reached its peak in Season 5. Episode 2 features Diane going on a sudden holiday to Vietnam, which not only serves as a belated mea culpa for the show’s casting of the very non-Vietnamese Alison Brie*** as Diane, but also provides one of BoJack‘s best dissections of identity and belonging. Beyond that, it’s interesting how Diane is now positioned as the closest thing the show has to a moral centre and a voice of reason, to the point where much of the occurrences of the show are filtered through her point-of-view. As per usual, Brie does sterling work, and even gives Arnett a run for his money in the ‘how much sadness can I imbue in my voice’ stakes. Diane has always been portrayed as a version of BoJack with self-awareness and a moral compass, and her promotion to almost a co-lead is a welcome one, if only because her drive to actively improve the situation is a relief from our more passive protagonist.
8. As for the rest of the main cast – Princess Carolyn is Princess Carolyn, meaning we get more chipper can-do spirit in the face of mounting odds and heartbreaking turns of events. Her adoption storyline is decent, as is the look back on her past, but it does not illuminate much about the character that we did not already know. Mr Peanutbutter, on the other hand, gets some well-timed development, and his realisation that he is growing old while dating a much younger person adds several interesting new shades to his character. Plus, it gives the writers a chance to sneak in a Matthew McConaughey joke, which is always nice. As for Todd … it’s interesting really, how the more superfluous he becomes to the plot, the more necessary he is to maintaining the tonal balance I talked about in paragraph 3. The ‘Todd zany scheme’ is BoJack‘s most reliable comedic weapon, and it is deployed here to gut-busting effect in the form of a sex robot who keeps failing upwards despite his propensity to harass or proposition everyone within his sight. And yes, that is a subtle allusion to the events going on in the world right now. Congratulations for spotting it.
Part 3 – You are all the things that are wrong with you
[spoilers become less mild in this section, and very obvious in paragraph 10.]
9. The trope of the tear-jerking penultimate episode in a season of Bojack is notorious by now. Once again, BoJack is hardly alone among its prestige drama brethren in structuring a season in this way – drop the hammer on the second-to-last episode, with the final episode being a breather/wrap-up of sorts. BoJack has also saved some of its finest experimentation for these penultimate episodes, be it the drug trips of ‘Downer Ending’ or ‘That’s Too Much, Man!’, the deliberate discontinuity of ‘Time’s Arrow’, or shifting locations and genres entirely in ‘Escape From LA’. Season 5’s second-last episode ‘The Showstopper’ is no different, with credited writer Elijah Aron (with the support of director Aaron Long, production designer Lisa Hanawalt and showrunner Raphael Bob-Waksberg) using every single trick in the BoJack book. Slips in time and space. Drugged out hallucinations. Blurred lines between fantasy and reality. And the pièce de résistance, an honest-to-god, old-school song-and-dance musical section. It’s all very clever, and it’s all very creative. It is an excellent episode of television.
This is also the first time that the BoJack penultimate episode has not emotionally wrecked me.
10. Maybe it is because we have already seen it before, both in terms of form and substance. Maybe it is because BoJack is left largely isolated, whereas previous penultimate episodes have paired him with a foil with whom he shares a fraught history with (Diane, Charlotte, Sarah-Lynn, Beatrice), and Gina is just not at that level. And maybe it is because the shocking ending just feels fundamentally wrong with regard to BoJack as a character. Look, there are a lot of things that are shitty about BoJack, but he has never been portrayed as physically violent. It doesn’t come out of nowhere, as the season does throw in a few moments of foreshadowing, but even that feels like reverse engineering, like the writers wrote the conclusion first, and then retrofitted parts of the narrative in order for BoJack’s actions at the end to make sense. It just never jives with what we know of the character and the way he reacts to adversity, and it is a decision that makes the season fly instead of soar. It may seem like I am putting a lot of stock into one single moment in one single episode, but when the climax of your entire season does not work as well as it is supposed to, it should only be expected that it would cast a pall over everything else.
11. Plus, and I know this is beating a dead horse (pun!), but I just cannot get away from how the episode felt repetitive in relation to the rest of the other penultimate episodes. As I alluded to in paragraph 9, we’ve already seen all of these elements in previous seasons, and executed better at that. BoJack on pills just seems less impressive when we’ve already seen him on heroin. I will, however, give all the credit in the world for that musical section, which not only is technically impressive, but actually moves new thematic ground by pointing out the fact that BoJack (and by extension, BoJack) has monetised his depression and melancholy in a form that is acceptable to the wider public. In that way, ‘The Showstopper’ serves very much as a microcosm of the season as a whole. Still a marvel of artistry and craftsmanship, but starting to run the risk of stagnation in terms of narrative, character and theme.
Part 4 – I see you
12. I do not want to end on the negative. If I have been nitpicky, it is only because of how much I adore this show, and selfishly want it to maintain its high standards as much as possible. Still, it is important to remember that, as I mentioned in paragraph 2, every season of BoJack is an unbelievable gift, and that this show can be so raw and powerful and true at its very finest.
So let’s talk about ‘Free Churro’.
13. A (horse)man’s mother has died. They did not have a good relationship. But he gives the eulogy at the funeral anyway. He gets up to the podium and he talks. And he talks. And he talks some more. The camera cuts, once or twice, to a different angle. And he keeps talking. He talks about his mother, his father, himself. He makes some corny jokes. He talks about a free churro he received from a cashier at Jack In The Box who found out his mother had died. And then he stops talking. The camera cuts to a reverse shot. The end.
This is ‘Free Churro’, a pantheon episode of BoJack Horseman.
14. Because I am a knuckle-dragging pleb at heart (who disguises that fact with polysyllabic words), I love obvious mirror images. Like, I’m that guy who tells you how clever it is that Return of The Jedi ends with Luke reaching his gloved hand to Vader because, and get this, The Empire Strikes Back ended with Vader reaching out his gloved hand to Luke! All this is just to say that ‘Free Churro’ is a clear mirror image of ‘Fish Out Of Water’ from Season 3. BoJack cannot speak in one, BoJack does nothing but speak in the other. Both episodes rely on the removal of an important element (dialogue and visuals) to heighten the impact of the other. And both episodes end on a punchline that essentially renders the character’s emotional journey pointless. And, like ‘Fish Out Of Water’, ‘Free Churro’ is as existentially devastating as any work of art I have ever experienced, dealing not just with the death of a parent but worse – the death of the fantasy that one day, you could reach a true reconciliation with said parent. You know how when you encounter the truly sublime, you feel like you are expanding on the inside? Like your heart and your mind and your consciousness have to grow ten times bigger to incorporate the experience you have just been through? ‘Free Churro’ gave me all that, and then some.
15. It is also a standout showcase for the voice of BoJack. ‘Free Churro’ is the pinnacle of Will Arnett’s distinguished career. The entire experiment falls apart without the pathos and emotion in Arnett’s voice, and the range that he exhibits is incredible, going from pain to anger to acceptance, sometimes in the span of mere seconds. This is the sort of performance that should win a Voice Acting Emmy but eventually lose to Seth MacFarlane, because, in the words of BoJack himself, “you never get a happy ending”. Arnett is not alone though, because Bob-Waksberg’s script (the only one credited to him the whole season) is spectacular. I could take write half a page just on the way Bob-Waksberg use of metaphors in ‘Free Churro’, except I won’t because the length of this piece is getting way out of hand.
16. So that’s BoJack Season 5. Was it good? Undoubtedly. Was it as good as it could have been? Nope. In many ways, this feels like a turning point for the series, which ends on a note of acknowledgement that its protagonist can no longer hide behind his excuses and must either put in the work to get better or fall to his worst excesses. I am reminded of Susan Sarandon’s monologue at the end of the ‘Pickle Rick’ episode of Rick and Morty, where she gently chides yet another in the long list of male antiheroes who fetishise their melancholy and dysfunction because they believe it makes them special.
“The thing about repairing, maintaining, and cleaning is it’s not an adventure. There’s no way to do it so wrong you might die. It’s just work. And the bottom line is, some people are okay going to work, and some people well, some people would rather die.”
BoJack Horseman has consistently been on the fence as to whether its protagonist will (or can) ever put in the work to get better, and sometimes even seems ambivalent on the concept as to whether there even is a ‘better’ at all. But beyond the humour and the experimentation and the existentialism, BoJack has always been one of the most empathetic and open-hearted shows on television, and has always balanced its darkest moments with shards of grace and mercy. I do not know what destination Raphael Bob-Waksberg and his team will reach, and whether the rest of the journey will be as fulfilling as what came before.
Maybe BoJack goes to work. Or maybe he dies. Who knows? Whatever the case, I will be watching, because this show has earned my faith every step of the way. Down year or not, there is still nothing else like BoJack Horseman on TV. It is a beautiful, terrible treasure, like a free churro after your mother’s death. Everything sucks, but in a single moment, ephemeral as it may be, there is the fleeting taste of sweetness.
*Key examples: The Sopranos Season 6, Mad Men Season 6, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Season 3. Interestingly, Breaking Bad never had this moment of self-realisation until literally the final third of the final episode, which explains (i) its sheer consistency of quality and (ii) why I never loved it as much as I loved the first two shows I mentioned.
**A term I made up where a younger female deuteragonist with a weird relationship with the older male antihero protagonist slowly becomes the nexus of audience sympathy and identification over time.
***How about Alison Brie’s résumé though? A recurring role in one of the best TV shows of all time (Mad Men), main cast on another two (Community and BoJack) and the lead in a show that, at the very least, ranks as one of the top five things Netflix has ever put out (GLOW). Plus, her first TV role was on Hannah Montana, and I am totally not ashamed to admit that I (a.) watched that episode and (b.) remembered her in it because even then, it was clear this actor was of a different calibre.