‘BoJack Horseman’ Takes Risks to Explore Regret in Inventive, Poignant Season 5

After a tumultuous, watershed year in real-life Hollywood, BoJack Horseman has invited us back to the not-so-fictional world of Hollywoo for the show’s fifth season. Yet even as the comedy nears veteran status in the fast-paced context of streaming – and the absurdity and horror of the entertainment industry threatens to make all parody moot – BoJack manages to remain as smart, funny, and brutally poignant as ever, using inventive narrative devices to explore complex ideas and catapult the show into a stratosphere of greatness all its own.

If the first four seasons of BoJack are about the myriad ways we cope with the deep, dark shit of life, season five is about the work that comes after we survive. How do we move on from our lowest lows without digging the same holes – or falling into someone else’s – all over again? How do we forgive the unforgivable? And who does forgiveness actually benefit?

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Diane and Bojack in ‘BoJack Horseman’ © Netflix

These questions echo, mutate and evolve as the season progresses, and they initially have little to do with BoJack (Will Arnett) himself. Recently divorced from Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), Diane (Alison Brie) flees to Vietnam in “Dog Days Are Over” in a desperate attempt to connect with her roots, only to find herself as lonely and lost as when she was married. Still seeking to become a mother after ending her relationship, Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) pays a visit to a pregnant teen in her almost-forgotten hometown in “The Amelia Earhart Story” and is flooded with memories of her accidental pregnancy and manipulative mother.

And in “BoJack the Feminist”, disgraced actor Vance Waggoner (Bobby Cannavale) starts a forgiveness tour following a number of sexist, offensive outbreaks and – surprise surprise – wins a lifetime-achievement prize at the We Forgive You Awards. Bojack, too, is publicly celebrated for his inadvertent criticism of Waggoner. While it’s all a little on the nose in our current moment, show creator Raphael Bob Waksberg says this last storyline was in the works before the true birth of #MeToo and the public revelations about sexual abuse in the entertainment industry. It’s a tight, biting episode that introduces the double standards of guilt and forgiveness that are ripped open by the season’s end.

Almost like clockwork (and this season is loaded with clock puns), episode six brings us back into the depths of BoJack’s psyche with a 20-minute-long monologue that’s impossible to shake. It’s a bold, even gimmicky move, but it’s the kind of storytelling risk that sets this show apart from the pack, reminiscent of the silent episode in season three and fascinating visual depiction of BoJack’s mother’s dementia in season four.

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‘BoJack Horseman’ © Netflix

Where the show goes next is both familiar and somehow more perilous than ever before. BoJack – already an addict – becomes reliant on painkillers following a serious accident on the set of “Philbert”, his True Detective-esque comeback show. This complicates and threatens his relationships with both his young sister Hollyhock (Aparna Nancherla) and his co-star and girlfriend Gina (Stephanie Beatriz), a serious but previously-unknown actress just finding her voice in Hollywoo. Someday I’ll write a personal essay about how profoundly this depiction of Bojack’s addiction and relationships affected me, but today is not that day. For now, it’s enough to say that the writers of this show understand exactly how easy it is for the world to flip upside-down when pain – both mental and physical – drive your every action.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the show’s constant exploration of dark themes, Bojack still manages to be absurd and unfairly funny in nearly every episode. Todd (Aaron Paul) provides some much-needed levity as the accidental head of ad sales at WhatTimeIsItRightNow.com, where an unrefined sex robot he creates for his former girlfriend Emily (Abbi Jacobson) becomes CEO. This is the kind of thing that needs to be witnessed, not explained.

Visual gags and animal puns are abound in nearly every frame, begging you to pause and catch them all. And the spoken jokes are the kind of jokes you want to repeat out loud on a loop, loaded with specific pop culture references and dizzyingly absurd wordplay, like Diane saying, “I am a rudderless burning large garbage barge.” Also, “Wow, you fixed my depth perception! I’m gonna go watch a Wes Anderson movie and see if I can perceive any depth in it!” The 2019 Emmy is yours, BoJack team. 

Season five’s regular pivoting from psychologically challenging, heavy episodes to ones brimming with nothing but antics can cause a bit of emotional whiplash, and I would argue some of Todd’s storylines could be pared down for a tighter season. Yet as a whole, the season feels more thematically consistent than last, which brought Mr. Peanutbutter to the forefront for an extended Trump metaphor. Mr. Peanutbutter deserves better, and he gets it – Mr. Peanutbutter’s Boos, which explores his relationships with women throughout the same Halloween party over four separate years, is a season highlight.

As BoJack spirals into a new low point in his life, the show maintains an exceptionally delicate balance of audience investment, focusing close on BoJack’s subjectivity and paranoid mindset while taking time to zoom out and show how objectively harmful his actions are to the ones around him. This isn’t to justify or glamorize BoJack’s wrongdoings – that’s a criticism the show is quick to address – but to humanize each and every character, to find the common threads of pain and confusion that run through each of them in an attempt to answer the question, “Where do we go from here?’

Diane quickly reclaims her spot as the head and heart behind BoJack in the season’s final episodes, introducing new conversations about guilt, forgiveness, and healing that the show had yet to fully articulate. But even though it feels a weight has been lifted as BoJack heads to rehab, the work continues – there’s no easy solution, no atonement, no permanent way to be a good person or to stay happy. Some people BoJack hurt can never, and probably should never, forgive him, and it’s likely he’ll fuck up again. The only thing any of us can do is to keep going and do better.

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