Spoilers for the fifth season of BoJack Horseman — primarily for the season’s sixth episode, but with details about the rest sprinkled throughout — coming up just as soon as I check to see if I have a hand for a penis…
When the new BoJack screeners arrived, they were accompanied by this note from Flip McVicker, creator of show-within-a-show Philbert:
The lifting of the BoJack embargo means I can tell you I liked it (duh) and also I can share with you this email from the creator of Philbert, the show within a show this season. pic.twitter.com/mNyGng0akj
— Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti) September 6, 2018
It is a note-perfect parody of the kinds of pretentious and paranoid messages critics are often sent from showrunners (albeit not from Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail, whose star Rami Malek plays Flip). Philbert gets to exemplify all of the excesses and most emperor’s-new-clothes aspects of Peak TV, from Diane’s horror at realizing fans are identifying with the show’s antiheroic title character, to Princess Carolyn defending one of Flip’s terrible choices as “confusing, which means the show is daring and smart.”
Yet if any show in our reality could get away with such an arrogant letter, it’s BoJack, which remains one of the great and surprising achievements of the Peak TV era.
By now, we shouldn’t be surprised that BoJack can do anything, or be anything. It can be the funniest show on TV and the saddest within the span of seconds. The animal/human mix of it all can take the series to utterly surreal places and also painfully honest ones. And while each season charts a larger part of the life stories of BoJack, Diane, Princess Carolyn, Todd and Mr. Peanutbutter, it also delightfully mixes things up from episode to episode, and even scene to scene.
Among this season’s many, many treasures:
* An inverted sex farce where Todd and his girlfriend have to pretend not to be asexual to please her sexually progressive family, which climaxes with a protracted bit of slapstick involving a leaking barrel of lube that can only be plugged with the reluctant Todd’s penis.
* Another topical episode, this one guest-starring Bobby Cannavale as an actor swept up in #MeToo accusations, but able to game a very flawed system. And an even more effective — and hilarious — parody of the problem, courtesy of Todd’s sex robot Henry Fondle, whose horny utterances are mistaken for decisive executive speak. (Honestly, it’s difficult for me not to write a few thousand words just on Henry Fondle, particularly the Of Mice and Men spoof at the end of his sad story.)
* Diane reckoning with her Vietnamese heritage — and the show grappling with the decision to cast a white woman in the role (which creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg has admitted he regrets, despite how wonderful Alison Brie’s work is) — during a trip overseas, and another episode flashing back to Princess Carolyn’s teenage years and how close she came to having a baby back then.
* An installment where a lesbian couple share work stories about the main characters, who are reframed here so that BoJack is a zebra, Diane the Princess of Wales, Princess Carolyn a “pulsating yearning in the shape of a woman,” and Todd a man with a hand for a face.
* An episode where multiple Halloween parties at BoJack’s house — each featuring a different Mr. Peanutbutter love interest, including the welcome return of Jessica Biel as Jessica Biel — essentially blend into the same party, and the same mistake for Peanutbutter each time. And another one where BoJack’s life and a Philbert episode become indistinguishable from one another, in part because he’s dating his co-star Gina (Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Stephanie Beatriz, who does her own singing, too).
These stories and more — which culminate in, among other things, BoJack finally going to rehab, Princess Carolyn adopting a baby and Mr. Peanutbutter impulsively proposing to his girlfriend Pickles (Hong Chau) — take advantage of the flexible reality and unlimited special effects budget of animation to make the show whatever and wherever it needs to be.
But the season’s greatest triumph is one that follows the exact opposite ethos, and does the thing you would never expect a cartoon to do — not even one this deep.
It just lets one person talk for the entire show.
It takes a few minutes for the structure of the season’s sixth episode, “Free Churro,” to become fully apparent. That’s in part because it’s really two different people monologuing, even if they’re both played by Will Arnett. The pre-credits sequence is a snippet from BoJack’s childhood, as the young and scared horseboy silently listens to his bitter father rant at length about his own failings and those of BoJack and BoJack’s mother Beatrice. The series has mostly framed BoJack’s personality as something inherited and shaped by Beatrice (both are clinically depressed), but this speech is a brutal reminder of what a terrible result BoJack drew on both sides of the parental lottery.
The father’s ugly speech lasts a few minutes, until we are mercifully rescued by the main title sequence. When we return, the adult BoJack is telling a story about a trip to Jack in the Box, and it takes a few moments to realize that it’s part of a eulogy for Beatrice. And a few minutes more to realize that this is what we’ll be seeing for the rest of the episode.
The speech (penned, like the whole episode, by Bob-Waksberg) is BoJack in a nutshell: equal parts insightful and oblivious, poetic and self-aggrandizing. He insults her repeatedly, but also alters a story to make her look better. He laments that all he learned about life came from TV, which erroneously convinced him that grand gestures are enough: “You need to be consistent. You need to be genuinely good.” Yet when he’s looking for the way to frame his relationship with Beatrice, it’s through the lens of Ted Danson’s middling CBS sitcom Becker, which he kept hope-watching because he assumed it had to be better. It’s a monologue, but also a double-act with a partner who can’t talk back because she’s dead (and, thanks to one final act of defiance by her wounded son, in a closed casket).
It’s a beautiful bit of oratory in the way that ideas introduced early on — Beatrice saying “I see you” on her deathbed, or her declaring “My husband is dead and everything is worse now” — return later on to have different meaning. “I see you” wasn’t her finally accepting her son, but her reading the sign for the Intensive Care Unit in her final moments. The line from his father’s funeral stung young BoJack because of what it said about how little Beatrice valued him, yet he borrows it to close out the speech: “My mother is dead, and everything is worse now. Because now I know I will never have a mother who looks at me from across a room and says, ‘BoJack Horseman, I see you.'” He has unfortunately internalized the lesson his father delivered at the start of the episode about not relying on anyone but himself, and we know that BoJack Horseman is a terrible friend to everyone, himself most of all.
The whole thing is incredibly theatrical, which is about the last adjective you think of when contemplating animation. Live-action TV occasionally will do long speeches like this — even an episode-length one, which WGN’s Underground did with Harriet Tubman last year — but it seems to fly in the face of every unwritten rule about what you can and should do with a cartoon. Other than the glimpse of Beatrice in silhouette dancing behind BoJack, the visuals are deliberately static and simple, the majority of it just BoJack at a lectern in a medium shot. Some of this is to set up the final joke — a punchline similar to, if a bit more predictable than, the one about the helmet radios at the end of Season Three’s classic “Fish Out of Water” — in which we discover that BoJack is delivering this speech to the wrong coffin and the wrong roomful of mourners. But the speech would be no more appropriate, and no less profound, if he were in the right place in the funeral home, and those tight shots give the monologue the intimacy it needs. BoJack isn’t giving this speech for any audience except the one who should be there in spirit, even if she isn’t there in body. This is him wrestling with a lifetime of misery and the question of how much his late mother is to blame for it.
It is simple and unexpected and incredible.
BoJack Horseman, I see you. Thank you.