Looking back on ‘BoJack’: Reconciling the shortcomings of one of television’s smartest shows

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The following contains spoilers from the fifth season of Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman.”

On Sept. 14, Netflix released the fifth season of its acclaimed animated series “BoJack Horseman. The show — largely centered on the struggles of actor BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett) dealing with the aftermath of his career prime — continues to become more mature, insightful and provocative with each new season. The show perpetually bridges sitcom humor with biting cultural commentary and never shies away from revealing the darkest and most complex psychologies of its characters.

Season 5 revolved around BoJack’s work on a new series called “Philbert,” a dark detective mystery series in which he stars as the titular character. Throughout the season, the plotline of “Philbert” itself begins to mirror real events in BoJack’s life, from his friends-with-benefits relationship with his co-star, Gina (Stephanie Beatriz), to his construction of his own public image in the face of the #MeToo movement.

Some of the strongest storylines in the season involve characters other than BoJack. One ongoing subplot involves BoJack’s former roommate Todd Chavez’s (Aaron Paul) grappling with his identity as an asexual but not aromantic man. Another involves BoJack’s current agent and former girlfriend Princess Carolyn’s (Amy Sedaris) navigation of the adoption process.  

Another primary storyline in the season was that of BoJack’s biographer-turned-confidante Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie) confronting the aftermath of her divorce from the sprightly television star Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins).

In Episode 2, “The Dog Days Are Over,” Diane, a Vietnamese-American, attempts to escape from her reality and typical surroundings in California and “find herself” in Vietnam. This involves wandering around typical tourist attractions, trying new food, taking photos and having a fleeting romantic fling with a stranger.

“BoJack’s” writers consulted VyVy Ngyuen, a Vietnamese-American actress who has played a number of roles on the show, while writing the script. This was an effort to be as culturally sensitive as possible. The episode, as a whole, remains cohesive — but the attempt to avoid a cultural narrative catered to white audiences falls short.

In many ways, “The Dog Days Are Over” is a product of “Eat Pray Love” syndrome — the fetishization of Asian countries as “spiritual” designated locations for self-discovery away from the modern chaos of the West. This romantic homeland ideal is further complicated by the fact that Diane is portrayed by Brie, a white actress. Moreover, as of Season 5, there are still no Asian writers on the show.

The character of Diane is integral to the depth and balance of the show’s comedic and dramatic elements. “The Dog Days Are Over” does more to acknowledge her cultural navigation than episodes in the past, but it fails to present a nuanced narrative from the perspective of a nonwhite character.

Of course, BoJack’s personal history and character development remain the focus of the show, bringing us some of the most memorable episodes. Episode 6, “Free Churro,” shows BoJack reciting a eulogy at his mother’s funeral and consists entirely of a 20-minute monologue of BoJack’s memories of his upbringing and feelings toward his mother as she approached the end of her life.

His speech conveys his regret, his numbness and his own confusion at his inability to display signs of grief. It’s easily one of the best episodes of the series, as we get a glimpse into BoJack’s own processing of the situation with a lack of sentimentality. Told through his perspective, the narration of Beatrice Horseman’s legacy is conflicted, dry and brutal.

“Free Churro” is “BoJack” at its best — emotional but unforgiving, it delves into the main character’s psychology told through nuanced and creative television storytelling. It’s a technique the show has used before, and one that it brings up again later in the season — but to a much more questionable effect.

In Episode 11, “The Showstopper,” BoJack’s heavy drug use leads to a complete and chaotic conflation of his own life with the life of “Philbert.” His subsequent spiraling and acts of violence are shocking to watch.

For four full seasons, “BoJack” did an excellent job ensuring that the audience viewed its protagonist as a deliberate antihero. The conspicuously existential, psychological nature of the show means that we can dislike (and perhaps, outright despise) BoJack’s character — but a small part of us will always root for his success.

For the first time, BoJack’s actions are strikingly abhorrent and unforgivable — especially because of his interactions with the show’s female characters.

While the season does allude to Hollywood’s role in the #MeToo movement in Episode 4, “BoJack the Feminist,” BoJack’s actions in Season 5, along with his behavior throughout the show, are never condemned; they are merely acknowledged. Moving forward, the show must address the toxicity of BoJack’s behavior without justifying it through the all-too-forgiving lens of a “midlife crisis.”

The season ends on a rather hopeful note, as Diane drives BoJack to a rehab center, where he checks himself in. The show acknowledges the nature and extent of BoJack’s actions, and leaves the audience with an honest portrayal of addiction and the promise of recovery. And while it’s an admirable ending, it begs the question — what will BoJack have to do before we finally stop rooting for him?

“BoJack Horseman” is one of television’s most brilliant, self-aware and sophisticated shows. But while we can continue to recognize it for its strengths in balancing humor and existential drama, we have to demand better for and from its character-driven narratives.