When BoJack Horseman’s fourth season went to air, a year ago last month, I wrote one of the internet’s few dissenting opinions. My problems with the season, outlined in these pages at the time, were in reality rather minor, and probably only seemed as harsh as they did on the grounds that everyone else seemed to think that the season was a masterpiece. In some ways, it was, for all the reasons that keep BoJack Horseman one of the best and most consistent shows on television. It has one of the greatest voice casts ever assembled for a animated series—its guest actors aren’t slouches, either, from Keith Olbermann as a whale who hosts a show on MSNBSea to Jessica Biel as a deeply unhinged version of herself—and you could hang almost every frame of its world-class animation on your wall. The show is always funny, always sad, always worth its weight in gold.
But I argued that the fourth season was also ‘spinning its wheels’.
[BoJack’s] arc is going to have to start curving somewhere, if not towards wellness (which would seem a betrayal of the show’s commitment to an honest portrayal of mental illness), then at least towards a state of affairs that’s somewhat better than the one we keep returning to. If next season begins as this one did, with another return to the harrowing status quo—leavened though it may be with laughter and absurdity—the show, however much it continues to tear our hearts out, will be in serious trouble.
I’d be surprised if BoJack’s creator, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, actually read that article. I don’t exactly see my Twitter mentions explode when I write about Hollywoo, BoJack’s version of Hollywood—Bojack stole the ‘d’ in season one and the city never bothered to replace it—for Meanjin or anyone else. But sometimes, watching the show’s fifth season, I wondered if he hadn’t. The season is littered with reminders to critics like myself that some stories don’t have neat conclusions. ‘You can’t have happy endings in sitcoms,’ BoJack (Will Arnett) says in a rambling eulogy for his mother. ‘Not really. Because if everyone’s happy, the show would be over, and above all else, the show has to keep going. There’s always more show.’ At the season’s conclusion, BoJack finally agrees to go to rehab, convinced by his former biographer Diane (Alison Brie). He warns her that she, too, might not get the ending she wants.
What if I get sober, and I’m still the same awful person I’ve always been, only more sober?’ he asks.
‘I think that is a very real possibility,’ she says. ‘Rehab is not a cure-all that’s going to suddenly make you not an asshole.’
But getting BoJack to rehab at all does represent a kind of success, not only for Diane, but also for the show, which seems finally to be hinting at what I last year suggested it was studiously avoiding: an endgame.
Of course, it doesn’t get there as smoothly as one might like. There are a number of episodes this season that feel a little like filler. You can almost see these episodes coming. BoJack by now has a number of go-to episode ‘types’ that it trots out once or twice a season. There’s the formally audacious episode: season three’s ‘Fish Out of Water’, which takes place entirely underwater and features next to no dialogue, remains the gold-standard, the best episode the show has done. Season five has a couple of such episodes, and while they’re brilliant set-pieces of animation, they do little to advance the overall story or tell us anything particularly new about the characters. An episode about Mr Peanutbutter’s use of BoJack’s house for his annual Halloween party, though a fine showcase for Paul F. Tompkins, who voices the loveable-but-maybe-unloving labrador-retriever is little more than a stylistic rehash of last year’s ’The Old Sugarman Place’, both episodes playing cleverly with chronology, mashing up past and present in every frame. Even the episode that drew most attention when the first spate of reviews of this season came out—‘Free Churro’—is a better idea on paper than it is a half hour of television. With the exception of its cold open, which flashes back to BoJack’s youth, the episode sees him standing at a lectern and delivering the aforementioned eulogy—half comedy routine, half fuck-you to his dead mother—against a plain beige wall. With the exception of its final five minutes, I thought this episode-long monologue sounded too much like a first draft, and found its final punchline too much like the one that ended ‘Fish Out of Water’ two seasons ago.
I was much more impressed with this year’s annual BoJack-tackles-a-current-issue episode. These have always been among the show’s best: this year’s ‘BoJack the Feminist’ joins ‘Bojack Hates the Troops’ and the abortion-centric ‘Brrap Brrap Pew Pew’ as one of the series’ stand-out episodes. Despite being written long before the Weinstein scandal broke a year ago this month, it seems somehow perfectly of the #MeToo moment. The episode was actually inspired by Hollywood’s rehabilitation of Mel Gibson, who appears here in the form of Vance Waggoner (Bobby Cannavale), a man so consistently appalling in public that he actually receives a lifetime achievement ‘Forgivie’ at Hollywoo’s annual We Forgive You Awards. (It is presented to him by four-time winner Arnold Schwarzenegger.) It is only by chance that the episode should have dropped mere weeks after Louis C.K. made headlines after performing a set at New York’s Comedy Cellar, less than ten months after he became a high-profile target of the #MeToo movement and said—erroneously, as it turned out—that he was going to ‘step back and take a long time to listen’.
Of course, Cannavale last played a character brought down by a #MeToo-like scandal in Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, not long before Ansari himself was brought undone by similar accusations. That all this now reads as meta-commentary—despite the fact that the lead time involved in animation means it couldn’t possibly have been intended as such—is pretty impressive, not to mention telling. It says something pretty damning about Hollywood that such issues should turn out to be evergreen.
If the timing of BoJack’s fifth season to coincide with #MeToo is uncanny, it is also worth pointing out the way that the show complicates one’s view of the movement. In one of the season’s most striking scenes, BoJack is due to appear on a talk show with Gina Cazador (Stephanie Beatriz), his co-star on the incomprehensible police procedural Philbert. Footage has emerged of BoJack, high on painkillers, choking the actress during a scene. When the director, Flip McVicker (Rami Malek), calls cut, BoJack keeps on strangling. He and Cazador have agreed to the interview in order to do damage control, but BoJack has other ideas. He wants to tell the truth, he says. He wants to throw himself under the bus. Cazador is having none of it.
‘[M]y career, after so many failed attempts, is finally starting to take off,’ she tells him. ‘I am getting offers, and fan-mail, and magazine columns about what a good actor I am. People know me because of my acting and all that goes away if I’m just the girl who got choked by BoJack Horseman. […] I don’t want you to be the most notable thing that ever happened to me. I don’t want you to be the question I get asked in interviews for the rest of my life.’
The show also complicates the issue by interrogating the idea of forgiveness. For her part, Diane seems willing to forgive BoJack, or at least to help him out. The question of personal forgiveness, as opposed to public rehabilitation and acceptance, has already been posed a number of times over the past year. A long-term friend of Louis C.K., Sarah Silverman, has condemned the comedian’s actions while standing by him as a friend. Former Community writer Megan Ganz, who was all but hounded off the show after she rejected creator Dan Harmon’s sexual advances, forgave him very publicly in January after he delivered what she described as a ‘a masterclass in How to Apologize’ on his Harmontown podcast. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to. ‘I think it is important for us as people to forgive the people in our lives, and find ways to allow them to redeem themselves, and for us to be able to forgive ourselves and find ways to be better,’ Bob-Waksberg said in a recent interview with Vulture. ‘[But] I don’t think that necessarily scales to forgiveness on a public level. Questions about BoJack, and how Diane feels about BoJack, don’t necessarily apply to how I should feel about Louis C.K. or Mel Gibson.’
This is what BoJack has always done best: presenting complicated issues using a menagerie of anthropomorphic animals and animalistic humans. What it has not always done so well is suggest how these issues might change people in the long-term, for better, worse, or both. As I wrote last year, and again more recently in a piece for the Economist about television’s recent spate of anti-romantic rom-coms, the nature of serial television is such that the impulse is always to maintain the status quo in the interest of rolling the story out, of getting another season. It’s exactly the point that BoJack himself makes in his eulogy for his mother.
But acknowledging the limitations of the television form is not the same as trying to transcend them. By the middle of BoJack‘s latest season, my Twitter finger was getting itchy, and indeed I did at one point go online and express my concerns that the show was once again getting distracted from its overarching narrative. But something changes in the season’s last four episodes: the tone shifts and the chickens start coming home to roost. (One almost feels that the show missed an opportunity for one of its brilliant visual puns here when it didn’t actually have chickens rocking up at BoJack’s house.) At long last, the horse’s most reprehensible and heinous act—cracking onto the teenage daughter of an old friend—comes to light, not for the first time since it happened in season two, but certainly in the most meaningful way. Having learned the truth, Diane steps up to the plate. BoJack, too, decides it might be time to ‘step back’. This counts as narrative progress.
Who knows where the show will go from here? Will we see BoJack in rehab, or will the show’s next season begin once he has emerged, still an asshole, as he himself fears he might, the show ready to spin out ten more episodes, and ten more after than, and so on? A year ago, I would have bet on the latter. I’d be very reluctant to do so today.
It’s certainly true that rehab isn’t an end in and of itself: it would be pat and lazy to suggest that BoJack is ever going to be ‘okay’. Judd Apatow’s Love, which itself struggled with these issues over its relatively short three-season run, acknowledged something similar in its surprisingly tight final season, which aired earlier this year. It left its protagonists, and its viewers, hanging, at least a little, at the series’ conclusion: things were okay, but only conditionally, only this part of their stories having ended. This is how I now see BoJack winding down: with a little change, a little growth, and an acknowledgement that none of this means that anything is going to be okay. But we’re definitely in the end game now: the series will not be resetting itself again. That horse, at least, and to the show’s benefit, finally appears to have bolted.