Netflix’s bittersweet tale of talking animals and the vagaries of celebrity returns for a thoughtful fifth season filled with even more emotional depth and acerbic wit.
Television’s best series about depression returns for a fifth season, and with some stark reminders about how doing the right thing and trying to turn your life around can be even more difficult than continuing down the same destructive path. While Raphael Bob-Waksberg‘s animated dramedy BoJack Horseman started as a broad parody of vapid pop culture, it quickly became one of the great dark comedies of the decade, with richly drawn, complicated characters, and a battered heart that beats quietly but steadily underneath all the sarcastic quips and casual cruelty.
At the end of the emotionally grueling fourth season, BoJack (Will Arnett), after a disastrous encounter with an old flame, has made wary peace with his cruel, dementia-stricken mother, discovered that Hollyhock (Aparna Nancherla), the long-lost daughter he grudgingly grew attached to, is really his half-sister, and found work in a TV series pitched by Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), his former agent/ex-girlfriend now turned manager. Princess Carolyn, after suffering a miscarriage and ending her relationship with the kindly Ralph, throws herself back into her work. The perpetually dissatisfied Diane (Allison Brie) asks the perpetually cheerful Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins) for a divorce. Finally, series MVP Todd (Aaron Paul) now fully out as an asexual, adds “clown dentists” to an ever-growing list of failed business ventures, but moves on to the next absurd idea with his head still held high.
Season five, picking up a couple months later, explores the characters struggling with the fallout of their decisions, and, in BoJack’s case, trying to be a better person, even though he doesn’t seem entirely sure what that means. He hasn’t dropped all his bad behavior so much as just barely curtailed it, such as marking off the amount of vodka he allows himself to drink according to the day of the week. His efforts to improve the quality of Philbert, the mediocre cop drama he stars in, are dismissed by his indifferent co-star/occasional lover Gina (Stephanie Beatriz), and sneered at by the officious showrunner, Flip (Rami Malek), who seems intent on humiliating BoJack for daring to step out of line and question his decisions, even manipulating him into doing full frontal nudity.
Bojack attempting to do the right thing (or rather, what he perceives to be the right thing), only to have it blow up in his face, is a running theme in at least the six episodes screened before the season went live. He means well, he really does, but his good deeds, such as becoming a “much needed male voice” for feminism in episode 4, always come front-loaded with a little cynicism, and a lot of self-absorption.
To be fair, though, except for guileless manchild Todd, self-absorption is the lifeblood of the characters on BoJack Horseman. Even Diane, BoJack’s voice of reason turned misery wife, gives in to near-insufferable, yet 100% relatable self-pity, when she’s shocked to discover that Mr. Peanutbutter has moved on and started dating again, even though she was the one who initiated their divorce. Princess Carolyn, hoping to adopt as a single parent, can’t let go of her innate classism and bullshitting salesperson shtick long enough to click with a prospective birth mother. One can hope that Diane, still young, can unlearn the negative, enabling behaviors that spending time around BoJack has exacerbated, if not outright triggered, but is there hope for the older, hardened by experience BoJack and Princess Carolyn? Is wanting to change enough? At six episodes in with another six to go it’s difficult to predict, but when Flip puts his arm around BoJack and tells him “This is going to be a sensational season of television,” it sounds ominous.
Though it has yet to reach the inventiveness of season 3’s “Fish Out of Water,” or the devastation of season 4’s “Stupid Piece of Shit,” season 5 already boasts one standout episode, set entirely during a eulogy BoJack gives for a relative that is half-standup routine and half-grief stricken confessional. That Arnett hasn’t been nominated for an Outstanding Voice-Over Performance Emmy yet is baffling, but if he comes away from this season without one, it would be astonishing.
If the season stumbles a bit initially, it’s in episode 3, which focuses mostly on Todd going to meet girlfriend Yolanda’s (Natalie Morales) family for the first time, during which, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, they must hide that they’re asexual. Compared to the tone of the rest of the season so far, it’s jarringly juvenile, with labored slapstick involving a gigantic barrel of the “family lube.” It can be easily skipped in favor of episode 4, a viciously apt take on Hollywood’s ease at giving male celebrities endless passes for heinous behavior, as illustrated by actor Vance Waggoner (Bobby Cannavale), a combination of all the worst aspects of Mel Gibson and Alec Baldwin, being awarded a “Forgivie.”
Given its trajectory, it wouldn’t seem right if season 5 of BoJack Horseman ended with all the characters getting what they want. That isn’t how life works, and, for being a cartoon predominantly featuring talking animals, BoJack seems to be as realistically bleak as a show can be without it becoming unwatchable. It would be nice if at least one or two of them met with a patch of good luck, at least for a little while. But, as Diane says in episode 2, “After your heart was so broken that you thought it couldn’t get any more broken, you thought it was safe. But it still somehow finds a new way to break.”
The fifth season of BoJack Horseman drowns its sorrows on Netflix Friday, September 14th.