Fans of BoJack Horseman know watching a new season means going through an emotional roller coaster that will last longer than it takes to finish the 12, 25-minute episodes. It is a show that uses comedy and tragedy to tackle the realities of life while accurately portraying mental health and
illnesses. Season five takes a new direction in storytelling by using meta — self-reference in creative work — as a recurring theme to challenge BoJack and its prior seasons.
The five main protagonists’ lives continue where we left them last year. Princess Carolyn — Amy Sedaris — simultaneously goes through the weary process of adopting a baby and juggling her hectic work life. “The Amelia Earhart Story” exhibits how she has always had the tenacity to accomplish whatever she sets her mind to, and that tenacity stays with her twenty-something years later. Then there’s Todd Chavez — Aaron Paul — who does his usual hijinks that lead to him accidentally becoming President of Ad Sales and Streamable Content at whattimeisitrightnow.com. Meanwhile Diane Nguyen — Alison Brie — battles her personal demons and figures out how to pick up her life again after divorcing Mr. Peanutbutter — Paul F. Tompkins — who continues to lack character development.
Together, the four have a connection with Philbert, a new TV show directed by Flip McVicker — Rami Maleck — that stars BoJack Horseman — Will Arnett — as Philbert and Gina Cazador — Stephanie Beatriz — as Sassy Malone. Not only does Philbert poke fun at True Detective-type series, it also is a meta reference to BoJack Horseman.
The show has never been one to shy away from current events, and the episode “BoJack the Feminist” is no exception. Hollywoo(d) is quick to forgive abusers and their abysmal behavior; as Diane says, “The bar is depressingly low for men.” So depressingly low, in fact, that BoJack is glorified as a male feminist just for saying “choking women is bad.” But this is not the first time the show has highlighted abuse in Hollywoo(d). In Season Two’s “Hank After Dark,” Diane shed light on the assaults committed by Hank Hippopopalous, but the public demonized her for speaking out against such a “beloved” man.
Then there are other moments regarding the movement; Todd creates the sex robot Henry Fondle for his friend Emily — Abbi Jacobson — which she understandably declines, and Fondle somehow becomes CEO of whattimeisitrightnow.com and harasses all his employees. The entire sex robot subplot masks a dark message, but also adds much needed comedic relief to the rest of BoJack Horseman’s heavy subject matter.
It was evident Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter were going to divorce, and Mr. Peanutbutter still can’t see the real reasons why. He always says his marriages ended because his wives got bored, but as we find out in “Mr. Peanutbutter’s Boos,” they all just grew up. He starts dating Pickles — Hong Chau — a 24-year-old pug, and they seem perfect for each other until PB and Diane sleep together, because of course they do.
There are moments when BoJack Horseman will pull the rug out from under us when we least expect it, as it did with one of the show’s most devastating episodes, “Free Churro.” It is not possible to prepare for what the show will do next, just as there was no way to prepare for a 25-minute monologue of BoJack giving a eulogy to the woman he hated most: Beatrice Horseman, his mother. We rely on Arnett’s voice acting to paint the story for us, and he delivers beautifully. The gut-wrenching emotional twists of the episode consist of BoJack recounting sad memories and telling poorly-timed jokes that are simultaneously funny and tragic. In one instance, BoJack tells a story about something kind Beatrice did, only to end it with, “Now that’s a good story about my mother. It’s not true, but it’s a good story.” Perhaps most unnerving is when BoJack sullenly says, “My mother is dead, and everything is worse now.”
Because everything does get worse.
There is a fine line between empathizing with someone’s experiences and excusing their abusive behavior. For years, BoJack Horseman has crossed that line, and Season Five uses meta to challenge it. As a writer for Philbert, Diane is distressed with how the titular character turned out. In the episode “Head in the Clouds,” she tells Flip McVicker, “I made Philbert more vulnerable, and that made him more likeable, which makes for a better TV show. But if Philbert is just a way to help dumb assholes rationalize their own awful behavior, well, I’m sorry, but we can’t put this out there.” Diane’s concerns are pertinent to BoJack’s character in BoJack Horseman. While often sympathetic and likeable, BoJack has always been selfish, emotionally abusive and cruel to the people in his life. It is not his fault he had a bad childhood and has mental illnesses, but they were never meant to be excuses for his toxic behavior. Season Five emphasizes this, especially when he says, “I’m the one who suffered the most because of the actions of BoJack Horseman.” If he was forgivable in any way before, he is not now.
BoJack is not the only issue in BoJack Horseman that Season Five tries to challenge. The show has a history of whitewashing characters of color, particularly Diane, who is a Vietnamese woman voiced by a white woman. Whitewashing is a prolonging problem in animation, and “The Dog Days are Gone” somewhat addresses this. Randall Park voicing a white American tourist in the episode is most definitely a meta critique of earlier seasons. A lesbian couple, Indira — Issa Rae — and Mary-Beth — Wanda Sykes — are finally part of the BoJack universe, and they lead the narration of “INT. SUB.” Representation is essential, and the show is doing better with it, but there can always be more. If renewed for season six, it’ll hopefully continue to improve.
In midst of BoJack Horseman’s emotionally-driven storylines, comedy is much needed. “Planned Obsolescence” is hilarious with one-liners and visual puns. The casts’ voice acting throughout the season is phenomenal, and we get to hear some new and old voices including Aparna Nancherla, Eva Longoria, Ken Jeong and, of course, Character Actress Margo Martindale — Margo Martindale. Stephanie Beatriz also deserves recognition; her deliveries were spot-on and her entire performance in the episode “The Showstopper” was groundbreaking.
The animal puns are a fan-favorite, like when a praying mantis puts salt on her date or how a stork named Mikayla — Whoopi Goldberg — works at an adoption agency. Flip McVicker’s allusions to Mr. Robot are hilarious, and one can only pray Princess Diana in “INT. SUB” is not a connection with Diane driving into a tunnel at the end of “The Stopped Show.” She has to come back. What are they gonna do? Just not have Diane on the show?
There is a lot to unpack in Season Five of BoJack Horseman, too much for one to write about in just one review. The connections from past episodes are worth looking for, particularly with the way the show’s creators and characters are so self-aware. It’s difficult to not have hope for the characters, even BoJack, with whom one might have many conflicting feelings about. These five years of growing with BoJack Horseman have been a beautiful, emotional whirlwind.
Five out of five stars.
Cover photo from a screenshot S5E11 of BoJack Horseman