'BoJack Horseman' Season 5: TV Review

All the praise isn't just horsin' around.
9/14/2018

Netflix's dark comedy about a manic-depressive equine thespian continues to be TV's best animated series, full of narrative experimentation, cultural commentary and colorful, hilarious animals.

Nestled in Emmys season as we are, this is a worthwhile moment to explore a minor injustice: Given the amount of effort Netflix has put into pushing basically its entire slate for Emmy recognition, and given the reasonable amount of success that Netflix has experienced in earning nominations for a wide variety of shows, how is it possible that BoJack Horseman has had such a hard time making any sort of Emmy ripple?

To date, the animated "Hollywoo"-set comedy about a manic-depressive horse trying to recapture the level of success he had back in the '90s, when he was on a very famous TV show, has earned only one Emmy nomination, which Kristen Schaal completely deserved for her vocal work in the heartbreaking episode "That's Too Much, Man!"

I bring up this under-appreciation by way of noting that Emmy voters should be prepared with at least one make-good nomination next year. Will Arnett's vocal performance in the sixth episode of the new season is as good as voiceover work gets. Maybe Arnett doesn't get his full measure of respect because the character of BoJack Horseman sounds a lot like him, and if your vocal acting paragon is Mel Blanc, and you require the ability to do a thousand voices and accents, Arnett doesn't give you that.

Without spoiling its exact structure or place within the storyline, the episode, titled "Free Churro," feels destined to be this season's designated Big Buzz Episode — think "Fish Out of Water" or "Time's Arrow." It's a pure Arnett showcase, written by series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg, and every nuance of the main character's fraying, self-effacing psyche comes through, from what surely must have been an exacting recording session. It speaks to how versatile BoJack Horseman is that the series' previous defining episode, the one I'd show any skeptical viewer, was a dialogue-free half-hour, while this year's jewel is practically a podcast.

So, if nothing else, let my review of the fifth season of BoJack Horseman be a year-too-soon instigator for Will Arnett's Emmy campaign.

Anything else is gravy.

BoJack Horseman is coming off of what was, in relative terms, a "down" season: The series plummeted from my end-of-the-year Top 10 list all the way to an ignominious No.12. Perish the thought. It's hard to articulate where last season went "wrong" other than that maybe it lacked the cohesive full-season arc that made previous years so special. Still, expanding BoJack's universe to advance our understanding of his troubled mother and his previously unknown sister, Hollyhock, doubtless benefited the show, and I appreciated that the season broke away from the familiar "BoJack hits rock bottom once again" structure.

The fifth BoJack season does some things better than the fourth, and has a few flaws that evoke minor, fleeting frustration without interrupting the utterly pleasurable flow of the binged season. It remains TV's best animated show and one of the very best things on TV.

This is certainly a more cohesive season, built around BoJack's latest acting comeback vehicle, Philbert, a moody antihero drama produced for streaming upstart WhatTimeIsItRightNow.com. Philbert drinks, smokes and is haunted by the death of his wife. He's ultra-intense and over-relies on obscenities. The show-within-the-show indulges in a surplus of violence and gratuitous female nudity. You don't get points for guessing which bad or stereotype-prone cable or streaming drama Philbert is lampooning, because it's lampooning all of them, though having Mr. Robot star Rami Malek voicing a self-obsessed showrunner prone to observations like "The darkness is a metaphor for darkness!" points to one of many potential targets.

Philbert lets BoJack go as deeply into meta-commentary on Peak TV as it has ever gone. It also opens a door for the series to begin its own grappling with #MeToo, which is far more than I would have expected given the typically long production-to-air delays in animation. The season's fourth episode, in which BoJack inadvertently becomes a feminist hero, may in fact just be a timeless take on sexism and male misbehavior in Hollywood without requiring the current cultural moment as a touchstone.

The life span of Philbert, through production to its premiere, takes BoJack across its full season and gives it at least one clean arc, one that most of the main characters are threaded through. After pushing the series into production last year, Princess Caroline (Amy Sedaris) is producing Philbert when she isn't pursuing various adoption possibilities. Todd (Aaron Paul), last seen mulling his lack of purpose and libido, finds himself working at WhatTimeIsItRightNow.com when he isn't continuing his non-romantic, asexual fling with sardonic axoloti Yolanda (Natalie Morales). Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tomkins) is shooting a commercial near the Philbert stages, making him a frequent visitor, and Diane (Alison Brie) is in a period of deep self-exploration that will lead her toward Philbert. The season doesn't necessarily bring together every character and relationship you've loved in the past, but it creates a centralized hub.

Around that hub, the show's recent shift to prioritize and expand its female stories continues. Stephanie Beatriz voices Gina, a character actress in her late 30s who sees Philbert as her best and possibly last chance at stardom, which she complicates by having a fling with BoJack. Princess Caroline's eagerness for motherhood was pushed to the foreground last year, and one of this season's best episodes finds her returning to her North Carolina roots for a satisfying backstory exploration. While she isn't a major part of the season, Hollyhock's (Aparna Nancherla) trauma involving BoJack's mother is acknowledged in at least one rich episode.

In a turn of events that's likely to generate conversation, Diane makes her own return to her roots with a trip to Vietnam, one that plays off Bob-Waksberg's regrets about the whitewashing inherent in having the show's primary Asian character voiced by a non-Asian actor. It's an imperfect attempt to grapple with racial identity and appropriation, but it's an earnest attempt, one that easily surpasses the floundering of The Simpsons in response to some viewers' dissatisfaction with Apu. BoJack offers worthwhile thoughts about Diane's assimilated American roots, and the major new roles this season for Beatriz and Hong Chau suggest a show that's seriously reflecting on some of its casting choices. Also popping up are characters voiced by Issa Rae and Wanda Sykes, in one of several episodes exhibiting the show's anarchic approach to time and narrative perspective.

If anything, it's BoJack's storyline, especially after "Free Churro," that plays either like an afterthought or a return to the character arc that was repeated during the first three seasons. It's only a minor criticism to say that the title character isn't always as interesting as several supporting characters; the series knows that as well.

There are hints of dropped storylines, neglected characters and thin narrative threads — the sort of thing the nearly perfect third season elegantly avoided. Some of that may just be signs of BoJack, as a show, attempting to grow up, branch out and avoid facile fan service. I don't want to be that viewer whining, "Couldn't you have worked in a Vincent Adultman cameo, guys?!?" or "How did Jessica Biel not kill and eat anybody this season?!?"

There are still few shows on TV that make me laugh as hard as BoJack Horseman, few shows that take as long to watch because of the frequent need to pause and rewind to catch background jokes, and no shows that do those things and then punch me in the gut as effectively.

Now let's get Will Arnett that Emmy nomination. The "Free Churro" FYC campaign practically mounts itself.

Premieres Friday, Sept. 14 (Netflix)