‘BoJack Horseman’ season 5 is about “getting better” — even while it’s one of the best shows on TV
To say that BoJack Horseman has gotten “darker” feels almost like a joke. The series has always been more dark than light — even while remaining impressively funny — mostly due to its ongoing commitment to honest, raw and thoughtful storytelling. It’s the show’s most masterful feat: making laughs dissolve into tears, or vice versa. Season five, which premieres on Friday, is no exception as it plunges viewers into the depths of BoJack’s addiction, depicts how hard it is to get “better” and even questions why we watch television shows about awful men.
It’s tough to discuss the show without details, so there are a few light spoilers ahead. The main throughline of the season revolves around Philbert, the new cop drama BoJack (Will Arnett) is starring in. Created by Flip McVicker (a perfect Rami Malek), the series is an amalgamation of plenty of “gritty” dramas about complex men and dead women. (True Detective is an easy target, but it’s still the first that comes to mind.) It’s also, as BoJack notes on several occasions, eerily reminiscent of his own life — and the similarities pile on as the season goes on and as BoJack falls deeper into abusing pills.
Through Philbert, BoJack Horseman provides running meta-commentary that forces viewers to confront their own relationship with these types of shows about troubled men — BoJack included. Diane (Alison Brie), brought in to the writing staff to be the token female voice to ensure critics can’t call Philbert sexist, wonders if the main character will result in “dumb assholes” rationalizing “their own awful behavior.” At what point does a show cross over from entertainment to an excuse or a get-out-of-jail-free card? At what point should we stop watching and enabling these types of programs?
From the beginning, BoJack Horseman has been a smart and satirical look at Hollywoo(d), reflecting the troubled industry’s problems and absurdly heightening them for comedic effect. Season five continues that trend, especially in light of the #MeToo era and the too-quick ways Hollywood forgives and forgets. An early episode introduces a male actor — a mixture of a number of celebrity men — and the laundry list of shitty things he’s done. His nonapologies and excuses are too familiar (“I was an innocent child at 38”) and his so-called retirement is short-lived. Further commenting on the current climate, BoJack Horseman is also quick to call out its own: Suffice to say, the events of season two’s “Escape From LA” aren’t exactly forgotten.
Much of this season is a reckoning of sorts for BoJack. Sure, he starts off trying to get better — last season ended on the most optimistic note of the series thus far — with a steady job, a possible new relationship that isn’t based entirely on sex and a true attempt to ration his daily alcohol take. He’s staying in touch with his half-sister Holly (Aparna Nancherla) and on good terms with Diane, Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) and Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins). Things are looking up — until, of course, they aren’t. It’s what we’ve come to expect, this cycle of BoJack half-heartedly attempting to better himself, of taking one step forward before tumbling a whole mile backward.
BoJack Horseman displays brutal honesty when it comes to the idea of getting “better,” a word that’s been replaying over and over in my mind since the unforgettable season three moment when Todd finally, and succinctly, confronts BoJack: “You can’t keep doing shitty things and then feel bad about yourself like that makes it ok. You need to be better!”
Much of the series consists of BoJack wanting to be better — or at least wanting to be seen as a better person — without putting in the necessary work. He asks for forgiveness, for reassurance, for anyone to blindly give him a pat on the back so he can cling to the false notion that he’s fine, he’s cured, he’s loved. And certainly a lot of BoJack’s issues can be attributed to his fucked-up childhood or his bizarre career or his chronic depression — but there’s also a lot of it that’s just BoJack himself.
It’s why an ongoing storyline this season involves BoJack’s serious drug addiction. BoJack doesn’t like who he is, and he can’t at all seem to change these self-sabotaging (and outwardly harmful) aspects of his personality, so the next best thing is to dull them, to commit to living his life in a fog fueled by painkillers. This isn’t a solution and the series is deadset on portraying addiction without the fun party montages.
Rather, it fixates on BoJack’s desperation and rapidly deteriorating state. Episodes depict how BoJack can’t separate fact from fiction, the lengths he goes to procure more pills, the ways it harms all of his interpersonal relationships — before culminating in a scene that’s truly hard to watch, and the worst thing we’ve seen BoJack do, which is... saying a lot.
The season isn’t all about BoJack, of course: Todd (Aaron Paul) gets some lively and funny storylines that dive into his asexuality while keeping up the usual sitcom-y hijinks that he always finds himself in; Diane gets a lovely showcase (and a new haircut!) in an early episode, digging into both her background and her state of mind after a major life event; and Princess Carolyn continues on her quest to be a mother (and we learn more about her past as well).
Everyone’s stories are told truthfully and unflinchingly, with humanity that isn’t found in most live-action dramas let alone an animated comedy starring animals. The episodes are still hilarious, pun-filled and inventive (especially one that takes place in four different timelines). The fifth season is a remarkable feat — unsurprising if you’ve closely watched the series before — and it helps to cement the show’s early legacy as one of the best animated series in history.