At the start of BoJack Horseman’s fifth season, Bojack (Will Arnett) finds himself the star of the online show Philbert. BoJack plays a detective on this dark and brooding series that’s reminiscent of True Detective. His character is one of those grizzled, raincoat-wearing chain smokers with a murky past and even murkier agenda, and Philbert just so happens to be shot on a set modeled after BoJack’s house. Life imitating and informing and inspiring art—and vice versa—is one of the prominent themes of this new season of Bojack Horseman, and Philbert, pitched in what was seemingly a prolonged joke last season but which has become the backbone of this season’s narrative, often reflects, and replicates, BoJack’s life in discomforting ways.
The Philbert gig is one that Bojack didn’t initially want but now gives him purpose. It’s a period of potential change for the bibulous, bitter, aging television star, who once aspired to be a real actor but now is mostly resigned to the familiar remedies of booze, blow, and sex to alleviate the ache of feeling worthless. As ever, the question of whether BoJack is redeemable—if he’s a good horse, and if doing bad things makes him bad—pervades the Netflix series, as discomfitingly present as a splinter you can’t exhume.
BoJack Horseman’s fourth season ended with a glimmer of hope, and one can’t help but wonder how, rather than if, BoJack will fuck up. His imprudent decisions have ruined careers and lives, sometimes ended them entirely. “How do you make something right when you’ve made it so wrong you can never go back?” he asks, through the elucidating haze of inebriation, halfway through the new season. And the answer seems to eternally elude BoJack.
More than any other of modern television’s prestige offerings, BoJack Horseman is at once edifying and infantile. It tosses out literary witticisms with ease and dots its assiduously composed backgrounds with visual and linguistic larks that will have you reaching for the pause button. And yet, for all its trenchant banter and adroit wordplay, it’s the Netflix series’s painful earnestness that makes it brilliant—the way it uses fantasy to address reality and its many barbarities, the unescapable consequences of selfishness, the collateral damage of self-destruction, the corrosive effects of mental illness. It’s a serious show, but not self-serious.
At one point, when his female co-star and sometime lover, Gina (Stephanie Beatriz), claims that Philbert is steeped in the “male gaze” (because it’s rife with “gratuitous” nudity and “nipple ice”), BoJack, whether out of genuine empathy or just his usual insatiable desire for recognition and adoration, relays her qualms to the show’s creator, Flip McVicker (Rami Malek). To assuage BoJack’s concerns, the would-be TV auteur, a sallow-faced, cardigan-clad hack who uses darkness “as a metaphor for darkness” and brings to mind the I-am-a-genius pontificating of Nic Pizzolatto, demands that BoJack now reveal himself, fully erect, on a swivel chair, on TV, to give the females something to gaze at, rather than just expunging Philbert’s sexist aspects.
Are Bojack Horseman’s writers poking fun at the male gaze, the hyperbolic reactions to the male gaze, or both? The series has always been deft at depicting timely topics while skewering sanctimonious, “dick-swinging” reactions without being too condescending or pious. Later, a problematic actor, Vance Waggoner (Bobby Cannavale), an amalgamation of abuses and transgressions inspired by the various thespian reprobates society has forgiven (namely Mel Gibson), joins Philbert, and immediately begins an exonerating comeback. Through a dairy-involved misunderstanding, BoJack accidentally becomes a male feminist icon, which sets off a competition between duplicitous men vying for the approval of the woke media by spouting slogans like “The future is female” and “Don’t choke women.”
This season, maybe the show’s darkest, features an epiphanic turn from Alison Brie, who brings to the recently divorced Diane, still writing “content” for a website aimed at millennial women, a profound pathos, by turns sorrowful and seething. Diane is still reeling from her separation from Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), who moves on to his next partner with a swiftness that salts Diane’s wound. Like BoJack, she finds herself in a transitive phase, adjusting to a life of solitude, residing in a squalid little studio apartment with a lone, filthy futon as the room’s centerpiece, enfolded by towers of unpacked cardboard boxes while a poster encased in broken glass covers a hole in the wall, like a bandage hiding a gaping wound. Her early season sojourn to Vietnam, an attempt to get in touch with her ethnic roots, only leaves her feeling more ostracized—though her tribulations make for a convenient listicle. A confrontation between BoJack and Diane late in the season, a long-gestating caustic, honest dissemination of past transgressions, is the most emotionally volatile moment of the series so far—a scene of tremendous fragility and fury, beautiful in its willingness to let the characters be ugly.
But this season of BoJack Horseman isn’t all ennui and agony. It’s also slathered with sex jokes and groan-inducing euphemisms, unrepentantly childish and deftly delivered. Todd Chavez (Aaron Paul) is still struggling to understand his asexuality, and in his confusion builds a sex robot—a calamitous farrago of dildos and springs and a purple gunk-spraying fire hose, which recites a miscellany of lascivious phrases and becomes, inexplicably, but perhaps inevitably, the head of a major corporation, as well as the impetus for a joke about workplace sexual harassment.
The on-set and on-screen tribulations eventually force BoJack to confront his own past, which comes hurtling back no matter how hard he tries to escape it. BoJack Horseman is a show of repetition and echoing, unfettered, unyielding obsession, beholden to its own past, tethered to it. One of its main appeals is the great empathy with which it treats its self-destructive protagonist, but empathy and vulnerability, as Diane points out, can make viewers think their own shitty behavior is permissible. Redemption, remission, amelioration—are these possible, and how does one earn them? Can viewers of, say, BoJack Horseman persuade themselves into believing that their actions are forgivable because of the show’s depiction of unscrupulous behavior and subsequent dispensation? The series has always been self-aware, but this season it becomes self-vivisecting and self-effacing. It questions its own influence and the consequences of its success, much in the way BoJack the character must.
The show’s animation has become increasingly complex and detailed with each new season; for instance, the thrumming streets of Hanoi, with their luminescent lights and incessant streams of bicyclists and passersby in eclectic, colorful attire, are rendered with gorgeous attention to detail and movement. But this season’s most experimental episode is also, in a sense, its simplest. It recalls a one-man one-act (think Beckett’s A Piece of Monologue), as BoJack, slowly capitulating to an escalating opioid addiction, delivers a rambling, digressive eulogy for his mother, Beatrice, for whom BoJack had little love. His mother is, as well as the ostensible subject of his rant, also his silent partner in conversation, an unanswering object who slowly slips into the periphery of the vitriolic, self-pitying monologue as BoJack careens from vignette to vignette, giving examples of his mother’s ineptitude and his father’s cruelty and his own accomplishments.
Throughout the monologue, Bojack addresses Beatrice’s casket and an unseen audience that doesn’t respond and an unseen organ player who offers inappropriate accompaniment, to BoJack’s chagrin. There are only a few “camera setups,” mostly medium shots and one master. The funeral soliloquy, and the season overall, is perhaps the apogee of Arnett’s career, by turns sad, somber, irreverent, irrelevant, furious, an irascible but vulnerable portrayal of self-loathing and addiction. It’s as if BoJack has slit himself open and shamelessly allowed everyone to see the rot inside of him. During one circuitous, calloused digression, he muses, “You can’t have happy endings in sitcoms because if everyone is happy, the show is over.”