Reel Critic: ‘BoJack Horseman’ Season Five

By OWEN MASON-HILL

NETFLIX
On the short list of television shows that can make me laugh and cry within the same episode, “Bojack Horseman” sits at the top. Raphael Bob-Waksber’s animated series “BoJack Horseman” (2018) returns this fall for its fifth season on Netflix, and it picks up right where it left off — a show full of depression, drinking and a host of pop culture references that test even the savviest viewers.

In the ’90s, BoJack Horseman (a lanky, bay-colored horse voiced by Will Arnett) was the lead actor on the wildly successful, Full House-esque TV show “Horsin’ Around.” Now, nearly 30 years later, he has spiraled into a state of depression, turning to drugs and alcohol as substitutes for the admiration he’s lost. Unbeknownst to him, BoJack’s agent, Princess Carolyn (a pragmatic Persian mouse voiced by Amy Sedaris)  signs him up in an upcoming detective drama called “Philbert” in an attempt to revive his career.

Much to his chagrin, BoJack finds an ever-growing list of parallels between himself and the titular character he plays: Philbert is a lonely, depressed alcoholic who strives to find any connection with the people around him. Even the set of the show strongly resembles his own home, though when pressed about it, director Flip McVicker (Remi Malek) remarks that he has never seen BoJack’s house, and that the set is “designed to reflect Detective Philbert: despair, loneliness, precariously perched on the hill of his own isolation.”

Contrasting BoJack is his friend and fellow “Hollywoo” actor Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), a constantly smiling ray of sunshine who never seems to be affected by much. This season, however, Mr. Peanutbutter must face his toughest battle yet: a divorce with Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie). The season centers around relationships — each character within the show faces their own individual problem with someone close to them. Mr. Peanutbutter deals with the end of his short-lived marriage, BoJack deals with a rocky relationship with his “Philbert” co-star Gina Cazador (Stephanie Beatriz), Todd Chavez (Aaron Paul) grapples with both his newly discovered asexual identity and his first asexual relationship with Yolanda (Natalie Morales), and Princess Carolyn struggles to adopt the baby she so desperately desires. The show, however, is not limited in its scope. Not only does it dive deeply into the lives of its characters, but it greatly parallels the real world and the problems in it.

 “BoJack Horseman” refutes the claim that it is anything less than extraordinary by tackling some of the biggest problems facing today’s society with a refreshing perspective. In a show centered around an animated horse actor, enveloped in a world containing a mixture of real people and talking animals, “BoJack Horseman” remains surprisingly grounded. It focuses its many diverse plots on reality, creating a contradiction between the fantastical images it presents and the reality-based narratives it tells, allowing the show’s creators to make bold statements under the guise of simple animated comedy.

As a show about the entertainment industry, “BoJack Horseman” offers its voice on the #MeToo discussion. Throughout the filming of “Philbert,” BoJack and Gina struggle with the gratuitous objectification of women in the show and battle to find a middle ground between character-driven vulnerability and superfluous nudity. In one of the season’s final episodes, on a particularly rough bender where BoJack dissociates between the actions of the character he portrays and those of himself, he harms Gina, creating a viral workplace harassment video that sends “Hollywoo” into a crazed panic. BoJack is forced to reconcile with the damage he’s done while Gina tries to work past the incident, refusing to be defined by the actions of her co-star.

While season four spends much of its on-screen time focusing on the steep descent and tortured relationships of BoJack’s family, season five turns its spotlight onto a broader spectrum of ideas and topics instead. It even mocks the surge of new startup companies by creating one of its own, “WhatTimeIsItNow.com,” a company that does nothing but tell its visitors the time. This seemingly simple humor sets “BoJack Horseman” apart from its peers. On the surface, it presents itself as a show about everything and nothing, that is to say a show that relies on its hilarious, and often ridiculous, animation to keep its viewers’ attention. However, its audience is heavily rewarded for its viewership, with each new episode compounding its past emotional appeal, creating a deeper, richer experience. As the story grows and the complex web of relationships expands, the characters find themselves in increasingly treacherous situations. With each emotional blow, the audience finds itself welling up alongside the characters, wishing that it all could have happened differently. It is in times like this, with the audience standing alongside the characters in a state of vulnerability, that the show reveals its true colors. The show allows itself to be vulnerable and open to the audience. It is in times like this that “BoJack Horseman” becomes an astonishingly real portrayal of the human experience.

In its essence, “BoJack Horseman” is an incredibly intelligent show about the entertainment industry, touching on all aspects of it, from the difficulties associated with being in the public eye, to staying up to date with an ever-evolving millennial audience, to the growing issues surrounding sexual misconduct. With a deeply introspective and depressed character at its core, “BoJack Horseman” is one of the most cleverly written shows on television and remains one of the truly profound works of art in the modern streaming era. It cuts right through the commotion and strikes the hearts of its audience with direct, poignant moments of vulnerability and naked humanity. The show’s latest season builds on its past episodes to create a truly remarkable case study on the essence of the human experience.