Every time. Every time the depression horse show gets me.
There’s a point in every season of “BoJack Horseman” where things get real — real in a way you don’t expect from a Hollywood-insider animated comedy full of anthropomorphic animals. In these moments of unexpected poignancy and emotional depth, I’m left drying my eyes and marveling at how a TV show can be this damn good.
Season five of “BoJack,” which premiered on Netflix Sept. 14, is yet another strong, confident installment in a series that is unafraid to push its characters in uncomfortable, sometimes painful, directions as they follow their personal journeys. This is a show without flat characters; no one is the same person they were when the series began.
Such radical and permanent growth was once a violation of the traditional sitcom format, which mandated that any changes characters undergo be undone by the end of the episode or season. However, the rise of prestige TV and proliferation of streaming video platforms has upended this model. We now know audiences are willing to follow complex character arcs across multiple seasons.
“BoJack” creator and showrunner Raphael Bob-Waksberg has taken full advantage of this phenomenon, crafting a show with complex, round characters and densely layered relationships. From within those relationships, Bob-Waksberg mines powerful emotional beats. As silly as these characters are to look at — and as farcical and absurd as some elements of this show are — you can’t help but care about what happens to them.
After a fourth season that left titular character BoJack (Will Arnett) in a relatively good place — he reconnected with his estranged sister Hollyhock (Aparna Nancherla) and landed the lead in a new prestige crime drama — we find him still doing well at the start of season five.
This has always been a show that unflinchingly critiqued the entertainment industry and the toxic politics that churn just beneath the surface. In the wake of #MeToo, it has a lot to say. BoJack’s arc tackles the issues of sexual misconduct and misogyny head on.
BoJack’s new series, “Philbert,” is a gritty, dramatic “True Detective” parody full of all the pitfalls shows like this often fall into — sexual violence, a broken antihero, a convoluted plot. Behind the scenes, showrunner Flip McVicker (Rami Malek) is an emotionally stunted man-child whose self-styled tortured nature has been mistaken for creative genius.
Eventually, Diane (Alison Brie), who’s been serving as a consulting producer on the show, steps in to right the ship by ghostwriting for Flip, giving the show what she believes is a more progressive treatment. The show ends up being a success, but in another turn that takes a page from real life, Diane is dismayed to discover that audiences have interpreted her critique of toxic masculinity the show deals in as a justification of such behavior.
Indeed, the question of how complicit the media and popular culture is in normalizing and excusing misogyny and sexual assault runs throughout the season. It’s incredibly timely, as a number of accused abusers like Louis C.K., Jian Ghomeshi and John Hockenberry have mounted returns to the public eye in recent weeks. The show delves into this sickening forgiveness-tour trend through the character of Vance Waggoner (Bobby Cannavale), a Mel Gibson type whose career has been an endless cycle of transgression and forgiveness.
The show also flips the script on the issue by approaching it through the eyes of the perpetrator, too. At one point, BoJack reckons with his own history of abusive behavior, but rather than feeling sorry for how it has damaged his career, he reveals how much he regrets his actions in hindsight. It’s not meant to let him off the hook or make him sympathetic — BoJack remains a jerk even when he’s trying to be a good guy — instead it demonstrates a capacity for self-reflection and empathy.
Another facet of the issue is explored in BoJack’s costar Gina (Stephanie Beatriz), who decides to gloss over an on-set incident of assault because she knows it will come to define her career and overshadow her future work. Again, it’s a heartbreakingly pragmatic and timely example of why women might be unwilling to report sexual and physical assault. It all amounts to perhaps the most nuanced and mature exploration of the #MeToo movement to date.
The show also explores grief and the complicated nature of family in the sixth episode, “Free Churro.” In it, BoJack delivers an episode-long eulogy to his deceased mother Beatrice (Wendy Malick). It’s a powerful, moving, at times, funny monologue that wavers between eviscerating and poignant, and serves as a fitting close to a fraught relationship that has unfolded across the series.
Another standout episode is the Diane-centric “The Dog Days Are Over,” in which she visits her familial homeland of Vietnam. Voiced by a white actor, the Vietnamese-American character of Diane has always been a complicated one for the show. In a time when representation on TV has been a major topic of discussion, it’s been an awkward issue for the otherwise woke show. While Bob-Waksberg has addressed the matter thoughtfully in the past, this episode seems to be a good-faith attempt to reconcile the uncomfortable identity politics.
Amy Sedaris’ Princess Carolyn, still recovering from her miscarriage last season, finds herself torn between her job as producer for “Philbert” and her effort to adopt a child. The character gets a melancholy arc again this season, but it concludes with a glimmer of hope as she seemingly finally makes a choice between her work and her personal life.
Despite the heavy subject matter, “BoJack” remains massively funny. Sight gags, call backs and inside jokes are ubiquitous. Characters like Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins) and Todd (Aaron Paul) add terrific comic relief, even as both get some solid character beats. Todd’s ability to stumble from one farce to another is a delightful bit of old-school sitcom silliness.
Five seasons in, “BoJack Horseman” continues to surprise and move me. It’s emotionally dense, comedically sharp and beautifully drawn. Where sitcoms of this age tend to slide into repetition and retreading old beats, this show presses forward. “BoJack” has a story to tell, and it’s going to tell it on its own terms.