It’s funny, how a show that might be about a totally dysfunctional talking horse might be a pretty good role model for how to approach life. “BoJack Horseman,” the Netflix animated comedy soon to premiere its fifth season, is a show unafraid to take chances, to try new things, to acknowledge criticism, and to work to get better — all factors that speak to humanity operating at its very best.
Set in a brightly colored, not-really-that-satirical version of Hollywood, where anthropomorphized animals mingle with humans and no one feels like they’re living their best lives, “BoJack” is a show that has always used comedy to present viewers with real musings about life, especially as reflected through the stories we tell ourselves. Sure, it may be a TV show about a talking horse-man, but it’s a show about a talking horse-man whose early sitcom success bought him a house but not happiness, and whose addiction issues and other dysfunctions continue to haunt him, and also adversely affect the people in his life.
As with seasons past, much of Season 5’s plot revolves around whatever the latest development in BoJack’s career might be: In this case, as set up by the end of Season 4, this year’s focus is on the grim and gritty detective drama “Philbert,” greenlit to series by the website WhatTimeIsItRightNow.Com (and yep, the URL works), which as you might expect has some points to make about the nature of grim and gritty prestige TV in John Landgraf’s newly-anointed “gilded age of television.”
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“BoJack” definitely has its fun with this element of the storyline over the course of the season, especially with Rami Malek reprising his role from Season 4 as tortured showrunner Flip McVicker. (Casting the star of “Mr. Robot” as the creator of a complicated and dense drama is a meta delight that’s incorporated beautifully into the narrative, with some brilliant jabs targeted towards TV nerds.)
But it also, at a key point, takes a hard look at the meaning of that fun — what it costs its characters, what it says about the world we live in. In the beginning, “BoJack Horseman,” much like BoJack the man who is also a horse, has struggled with the question of what it means to be a good person. But Season 5 advances the question one step further: What if you know you’ve done bad things… but still want to be good?
This is drawn out with the show’s signature commitment to experimentation on every possible level, leaning on its episodic structure to create breakout formats and new approaches to the show’s established traditions. Some of these experiments are more subtle than others, such as one episode where three supporting characters’ points-of-view are given the spotlight. But as in seasons past, the constant shifting in approach is a true blessing whether bingeing or not; the distinction between each installment ensures that each episode stands out.
Meanwhile, it is an almost inevitable fact that the #MeToo movement makes its impact on the season, capturing a number of nuances to why women speak out — and why they don’t. But its primary impact plays into the show’s ongoing, yet ever-evolving, engagement with these questions of morality, of choices made and regretted.
Because yes, there are signs of characters legitimately trying to move forward; again, no spoilers, but everyone, including BoJack, faces important relationship shifts and new complications in their professional and personal lives.
That said, how they approach them varies wildly, and Season 5 witnesses some real darkness as lines are crossed on no shortage of levels. A commonly accepted definition of insanity is the idea of doing the same thing, over and over again, and expecting a different result. But while it’s insanity to keep repeating your actions and expecting change to miraculously happen, it’s also the trap made possible by the sort of self-delusion that BoJack (the guy) can’t seem to escape.
Each new season has always made a point of delivering on the familiar established tropes (Mr. Peanutbutter really needs to find a new sign-maker), while never being afraid of callbacks to jokes from seasons back, even just for a one-shot visual gag. Sometimes, to be honest, certain riffs can feel a little overplayed (such as the “Are you a…” rambles). But what also keeps happening each year is the continued evolution of the ensemble, building out their backstories in new and fascinating ways, making these two-dimensional cartoons some of the deepest, best-developed characters on television.
It helps that the voice work remains unmatched, with notable new guest stars including Stephanie Beatriz (who at certain points totally steals the season), Hong Chao, Daveed Diggs, Issa Rae, Brian Tyree Henry, Wanda Sykes, and Bobby Cannavale. And the main cast remains in top form — there’s one episode in particular where, if Will Arnett doesn’t get a 2019 Emmy nomination for his 25 minutes of voice work, we should just burn Hollywoo[d] to the ground.
But as extraordinary as the voice cast might be, it’s the quality of the storytelling which keeps our fascination. Even in the episodes which revel in delightful full-fledged farce, there is such depth of feeling to “BoJack,” such investment in its message. But the show’s beating heart also still somehow manages to stay engaged with its big ideas. You can hate its characters for the mistakes they make or the lines they cross, but their humanity feels truly real. Even if they’re not, technically, human.
“BoJack Horseman” Season 5 premieres Friday, September 14 on Netflix.