“You can’t keep doing this! You can’t keep doing shitty things and feel bad about yourself like that makes it okay! YOU NEED TO BE BETTER!!!”
So said Aaron Paul’s character Todd in the third season of Netflix’s BoJack Horseman, a cartoon that began as a skewed, anthropomorphised animal take on fading celebrity and Hollywoo(d) excess, but gradually morphed into a critically-acclaimed tragicomic drama, a lightning rod for discussions about mental health and the subject of fierce fan loyalty.
But in the new fifth season, BoJack Horseman presents an interesting hypothesis: are these most dedicated of fans missing the point?
Have the frequent warnings about BoJack’s behaviour simply not getting through?
And if we are taking the wrong message away from the series, what does it say about us for still enjoying it so much?
These questions are raised throughout season five’s 12 episodes this year, set to be released on Friday 14th September.
But first, some background. For years, we’ve watched Will Arnett’s BoJack Horseman alienate the people he loves, abuse his body and mind and selfishly bring pain to those around him. His descent into darkness (and occasional attempts at self-improvement) have guided the series since it began in 2014.
To an extent, this sometimes means the series is faced with inevitable diminishing returns every time it comes back for a new season. How often can we see BoJack mess up, try to fix things and fail, before it gets repetitive? How many times can he have a redemption arc before we get bored? And to what greater depths can BoJack even fall?
The answer to that last question is, this season, “SO much deeper”. But this time, series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg puts a new spin on it. You see, without giving too much away, BoJack does something this year that is so extreme, so unforgivable, that there should really be no way back for him.
But because we love BoJack, and we know the pain he’s gone through both in recent years and during his troubled childhood, we do make allowances for him – despite the show explicitly telling us not to.
Not sure what I mean? Well, in an early episode of the new season BoJack casually condemns the terrible actions of a celebrity, which include – spoiler alert – an act similar to something that BoJack later does himself.
It’s small and subtle enough that you might not notice the connection at first, and it’s especially notable because BoJack’s condemnation of the other celebrity is presented as a comically low bar at the time. Essentially, he’s criticising an action so atrocious that no-one should be even be commended for speaking out against it: NOT doing it should be the baseline of humanity.
‘Of course this other celebrity is a terrible person,’ we think. ‘Just look at the things he’s done!’
And yet when BoJack does equally vile things later in the series, excuses are made for it by BoJack himself, his friends and the wider context that his actions are placed in. Again, it’s difficult to discuss this without delving into spoiler territory, but it feels like the series is challenging us for still supporting such a flawed character, especially when he refuses to make any changes to become, in Todd’s words, better.
Later this topic is addressed even more directly, when BoJack and his friend Diane (Alison Brie) get into an argument about his new streaming drama Philbert, which sees BoJack star as a troubled cop whose life sometimes eerily mirrors the actor’s own.
In BoJack’s mind, the show sends a message that even though Philbert is a person who does terrible things, he has his reasons, and that makes BoJack feel better about his own bad behaviour. Diane however is incensed by this complacent attitude, proceeding to call out BoJack (and subtly, the people watching) for their mistake.
“Did you really mean what you said, before the screening? About how Philbert made you feel OK about yourself?” she asks. “Because, you know, that’s not the point of Philbert. For guys to watch it and ‘feel OK.’
“I don’t want you, or anyone else, justifying their shitty behaviour because of the show.”
It’s easy to believe this doubles up as a message to the viewers of BoJack Horseman. Yes, BoJack’s mistakes are comically debauched and exaggeratedly grim – but just because he’s worse, that doesn’t mean we can abdicate responsibility for our own bad behaviour, or that we should ignore someone’s mistakes just because they’re entertaining to be around.
Similarly, appreciating a show about a horse with depression doesn’t actually mean you’re improving your own terrible conduct or mental state – you’re just making yourself feel good by noticing those traits somewhere else. In a small way this new series of BoJack skewers our complacency.
Of course, this theme is only one thin strand of a series that is bursting with ideas, from a string of offbeat, formula-busting episodes, to a sex robot called Henry Fondle, who makes for one of the funniest subplots BoJack Horseman has ever had.
The series also continues to mirror real-world conversations about celebrity culture, introducing an off-the-rails, anti-semitic and racist actor whose drunken rants keep being swept under the carpet (to the extent that he receives a ‘Forgivee’ award) and even nodding to the ongoing #MeToo movement when a big-shot executive is fired for sexual harassment.
But it’s the small push towards audience self-reflection that really makes BoJack season five stand out. I do still wonder whether the series has an endgame – the season five finale certainly sets up a few changes – but at the very least it definitely seems like Bob-Waksberg and his team are finding new and better ways to tell the same story.
To finish, I’d add some sort of joke about not beating a dead horse – but I should probably try to be a bit better than that too.
BoJack Horseman season 5 will stream on Netflix from Friday 14th September
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