‘BoJack Horseman’ brings a season of powerful self-reflection

A promotional poster for "Bojack Horseman" season 5 is pictured. via IMDb
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The end of the fourth season of Netflix’s animated masterpiece “BoJack Horseman” (2014–) featured BoJack himself with a smile as wide as we’ve ever seen. After 48 episodes of continuous heartbreak, it seemed as though it may finally be time for BoJack and the rest of the show’s cast to begin finding solutions rather than problems.

For Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) and BoJack (Will Arnett), that solution came in the form of Philbert, a gritty yet horrifically cliché detective series, which Princess Carolyn produces and BoJack stars in. The show becomes the framework for the most important messages that “BoJack Horseman” puts on display in its fifth season. Flip McVicker (Rami Malek), the inexperienced and offensive director, and Gina Cazador (Stephanie Beatriz), BoJack’s fellow co-star on set and, of course, love interest.

Philbert itself isn’t quite as important as a show as it is a vehicle for self-reflection. Philbert is in many ways a direct parallel to “BoJack Horseman,” and the biggest meta-lesson comes when Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie) points out that the viewer is absolutely not supposed to like Philbert, the show’s antihero. Her criticisms feel like a direct message from the writers to the audience; BoJack is not a good person, and should not be glamorized, nor his actions absolved, because of the fact that he’s oftentimes crushingly relatable. This has been an elephant in the room for “BoJack Horseman” for a long time, and it’s a welcome relief to see the show finally address it.

Furthermore, show creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg openly admits the mistake he made when casting Alison Brie, a white woman, as Diane, who is Vietnamese-American.  What furthered the error was the white-washing of the character, who until season five had no exploration of her heritage. This changes in the new season, as Diane’s first solution after her divorce with Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins) is to head straight to Vietnam, which is the basis for the second episode.

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Mr. Peanutbutter’s reaction to the divorce is disappointingly “business as usual” for the character, who immediately finds a pug in her twenties, Pickles Aplenty (Hong Chau), and begins dating her. The show deeply explores Mr. Peanutbutter’s past with his now-three divorcees in season five, and, for perhaps the first time in the series, he must really face his demons without the veil of his blissful and happy ignorance.

Sadly, Todd Chavez (Aaron Paul) isn’t featured prominently in the new season, though he does have a compelling arc with his asexual girlfriend Yolanda (Natalie Morales). Mostly, though, he is up to his usual wacky tricks, adding a layer of comedic relief as the season gets progressively darker.

Princess Carolyn, outside of her work as producer of Philbert, once again seeks to find her own Philbert, the baby she’s wanted for years. She finally decides to adopt in one episode and heads back to her home in Eden, North Carolina to meet with a potential mother. The episode is full of gut-punching flashbacks to her old life as a housekeeper’s daughter and is the best-crafted Princess Carolyn-centric episode the series has seen.

In that vein, season five truly brings out the best in the writers in terms of concept episodes. “INT. SUB,” the season’s seventh episode, is told through a dinner conversation between a therapist and her wife, a corporate mediator. As she cannot disclose direct information about her clients, the therapist tells the story of “Princess Diana,” who is having problems with her friend “Bobo the Angsty Zebra,” two of many alternate personas in this “confidential” story. Most importantly, though, the episode explores therapy and seems to open up the show’s first real attempt at incorporating professional help into the lives of its troubled characters.

There are a few other interesting episodes that distort reality in one way or another, but one concept episode truly sticks out. “Free Churro” is the performance of Will Arnett‘s life. While Netflix‘s vague description of the title — “BoJack delivers a eulogy at a funeral” — is technically accurate, there’s no way to describe the emotional depth behind this episode. It’s one of the best 26 minutes of television anyone will watch this year, and will likely go down as the series’ best work.

For fans of the show, the season is still chock-full of animal jokes, funny background signs (a locust-run falafel food truck titled “Shawarma Locusts” stands out) and zany side misadventures. Unlike in season four, this year’s offerings find the main cast intertwined about as closely as they’ve ever been, as each of the cast member’s involvement in Philbert centralizes storylines that had grown far apart from each other. While it is nice to see them develop independently in season four, it feels even better to see the gang back together again.

When the series premiered five years ago, it would be hard to imagine that an animated show could explore the intricacies of human (and anthropomorphic animal) life as masterfully as “BoJack Horseman” does. But here we are. Season five showcases the best and worst in all of its characters, and somehow tops its predecessors in consistency and peak moments. Simply put, it’s one of the most important shows of this decade, and its fifth season is among the best seasons of television ever.

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