Season 5 of the critically acclaimed BoJack Horseman continues the show’s excellent pedigree. It blends a mix of socio-political commentary, daft surrealist humour, Hollywood satire, and an exploration of self destructive behaviour and mental health. All deftly linked to an overarching plot usually involving the current project of the washed up 90s ex-sitcom actor, BoJack Horseman, voiced with expert bitterness and vulnerability by Will Arnett. He is equally as funny in Arrested Development (read the review here).
Whilst the show is often very funny (if you like animal puns, alliterative gags, or visual background easter eggs then you will have your fill here), for me it is the darker episodes that have elevated the show and latched it onto my brain. Episodes such as “That’s Too Much, Man!” in which a depressed and angry BoJack tempts a previous co-star out of sobriety to go on an episode long bender (with serious consequences); or “Time’s Arrow” where the jumbled memories of BoJack’s cold hearted but Alzheimer’s suffering mother explored family history secrets. Despite all the animal silliness and waspish celebrity commentary, BoJack Horseman is often a serious show about a damaged man (slash, horse).
Season 5 retains the essential formula of a season of BoJack Horseman. We have some of the usual Todd ‘adventures’ episodes (he builds a functioning erotic robot which, considering he is asexual and oblivious to sex, makes for a rather odd robot), and the permanently put upon Princess Carolyn is still trying to become a mother (with emotive results). These are solid dependable episodes that don’t stand out but keep the show’s weird humour and emotive soul going respectively.
Increasingly Diane, the Vietnamese American writer (mostly failed) is becoming the voice of the audience. Previously her strength as a character was that her quiet depression and awkwardness reflected on many a thirty-something’s creeping panic at not having life figured out. But in this season she also takes everything we have learned in the show so far and says the things that you yell in your head for characters to say.
On the one hand she gently tries to help her ex-husband – the permanently positive Mr Peanutbutter – figure out why his fun loving girlfriends and wives all turn so bitter (“Mr Peanutbutter’s Boos”), and on the other she delivers a devastating takedown that pulls apart every single negative and selfish action of BoJack (“The Stopped Show”). In this minutes long and brutal argument – in which the show finally calls out the hypocrisy of criticising the failings of Hollywood behaviour whilst simultaneously making BoJack sympathetic (despite him displaying the exact same behaviour) the deftness of the dialogue is expertly and tightly written with both characters really pulling out each other’s previous seasons’ actions to hold them accountable.
The weaker episodes are ones that focus on Todd or Mr Peanutbutter. Both tend to be one note characters and without a good counterpoint to bounce off of (such as Diane or BoJack) can flap around with little to offer despite some great gags (see “Planned Obsolescence” where the ‘sexy farce’ trope is smartly flipped around and really puts the “uuuummm? in yum”). Similarly there is usually an episode that tries something new with the animation but all we get this time around is a standard ‘making a TV show’ plot but with BoJack as a zebra and Princess Carolyn as a “Tangled Fog of Pulsating Yearning in the Shape of a Woman” – which isn’t a patch on the silent movie-esque playfulness of season 3’s “Fish Out Of Water”.
But on the flip side the strong episodes are very strong indeed, such as BoJack’s episode long monologue eulogy after the death of his mother (“Free Churro”) in which his uninterrupted state of consciousness rant covers a mentally tortured childhood though to his selfish adult impulses. On the political commentary side “BoJack The Feminist” wryly and respectfully tackles Hollywood’s tendency to forgive abusive or sexually violent men (a ‘Forgivees’ Award Ceremony dictates when said star is ‘allowed’ to make a comeback) whilst also satirising men who co-opt things like the #MeToo movement and #TimesUp to make themselves look good. And BoJack’s arc, whilst slow burning at first, lands very very hard come the series conclusion.
Once we get to penultimate episode “The Showstopper”, BoJack’s over reliance on painkillers has culminated to him being in such a weak and drugged state of mind that he can’t tell the difference between his gritty cop show and real life. The directorial style jumps with expert flourish from reality to fiction and back again in a baffling display of sleight of hand that is a joy to watch, right up until a genuinely heart-in-mouth shock ending. Other shows have done a similar set up before (notably Star Trek and Buffy The Vampire Slayer) but something about the animated medium makes this doubly effective here.
Season 5 is a continued and reliable triumph but as much as I love the show I do wonder where season 6 can possibly go next. Tellingly the best moments in Season 5 come from BoJack’s descent into drug fuelled paranoia, but how sustainable is that? The show’s anchor is always BoJack’s emotional journey and battles with depression. This has impressively been built upon with each series but although plaudits must be given for how realistic the unending nature of depression is, the nature of a sitcom requires something of a character re-set so that a baseline can be established. BoJack Horseman has done such a good job of charting the painfully destructive and occasionally redemptive actions of its titular star that this has to remain engaging for the core of the show to work without hitting a narrative peak that lessens what has come before it. Hooves crossed that it can.
Words by Michael Record