This Horse Isn't Dead Yet
Bojack Horseman is one of the best shows on a streaming service.
Amidst all the fantastic content there is to watch right now, and there is a lot, a relatively low-budget, animated show about an anthropomorphic horse reigns (or perhaps reins?) supreme. It’s been the case for a number of years now, and nothing has changed with the release of the show’s fifth season, which dropped on Netflix last weekend.
Season 5 sees the cast of characters a long way from where they started. Diane and Mr. Peanut Butter are divorced and dating other people. Princess Caroline is attempting to adopt as a single mother. Bojack is working on a critically acclaimed television drama. Todd is…being Todd, but effectively.
With so much happening with the original cast, the first thing one might notice about Season 5 is that there is little room for someone new to pick up the show at this point. It, of course, would be odd to start watching this five-year-long, critically acclaimed show from anywhere but the beginning, but I do feel it bears mentioning that a healthy knowledge of the past seasons’ events is not only encouraged but almost necessary. Some Netflix content, and specifically animation, can be misjudged as lightly consumable content but Bojack operates at a much higher level. At this point in the story, these characters have so much baggage that explaining and unpacking it all would take up an entire episode or more. Background is key to understanding some of the heavier moments of the season though, as well as some of the jokes, so it’s important to note going in.
As in each previous season, each episode truly has its number of great moments, and many of them provide topical and challenging looks into contemporary issues. One episode, in particular, transcends the rest though – episode six, entitled “Free Churro,” is an achievement for the series writing, unlike anything I’ve seen before. In it, Bojack delivers a eulogy. That’s all. Aside from the cold open and a quick gag at the end, there is nothing else in the episode. No other characters, no other dialogue, just Bojack talking next to a casket and it is utterly captivating.
It’s a risk not unlike Season 3’s “Fish Out of Water” (except in that episode, instead of just one character, no one talks at all). “Free Churro” is a lot of things, but it’s never boring. It’s funny, it’s raw, it’s uncomfortable and it’s enthralling. And in a real way, it’s television that could only exist today. What prime-time cartoon would take such a risk for an entire episode? Would any episode of Family Guy air if it contained only a twenty-five-minute monologue? Would one episode of even Rick and Morty be just as powerful if played on mute? With Bojack, Netflix, like it has so many times before, has created a space where experimentation is not only allowed but actively encouraged, especially this far into the show’s run.
What I would give to have been a fly on the writers’ room wall for this entire season. “Free Churro” is perhaps the best example, as it’s both mechanically impressive and emotionally resonant, but there are plenty of other interesting and exciting instances of experimentation in this season. One episode is told almost entirely through the eyes of two characters who have only tangential relationships with the main cast. Another manages to juggle four coinciding timelines with ease. The penultimate episode sees Bojack lose his grip on reality in a way, unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. The conceits are never gimmicks either, they’re simply new ways to tell new stories. It’s the kind of writing other writers should be paying attention to.
The comedic writing is no different. Very few jokes in Bojack Horseman have ever been laugh-out-loud funny, and nothing much has changed with this new season. Rather, the jokes are the kind that makes you groan because they’re so frustratingly clever. There’s wordplay and puns and tongue twisters. At one point the show literally uses jokes from the backs of popsicle sticks. It’s all very tongue-in-cheek, often focused on the puzzle of the gag rather than the punchline itself. And all the favorite recurring gags are back too–Erica appearances, faulty-signage, background animal jokes, layer after layer of visual comedy–it’s all there. There’s a number of callbacks and references to past seasons as well. This isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon for the show, but never before has it leaned into the Arrested Development brand of storytelling and comedy quite as much. The show truly is as funny as ever, though the frequency of the jokes may be just a hair lower than in previous seasons.
However, the most interesting development of Season 5 is the self-referential nature of the whole thing. From the very first episode, we are meant to understand that Philbert, the television show Bojack is working on, is, in fact, a stand-in for Bojack Horseman itself. The writers take this idea and run with it, questioning themselves and the show’s popularity in a way that never once feels heavy-handed. The questions asked don’t have easy answers either. Should people watch Bojack to justify their destructive behaviors? The writers don’t seem to think so, and they make this abundantly clear. Bojack isn’t supposed to be a relatable character, and, in some ways, it’s concerning if he is. It’s a deft and thorough exploration of the show’s popularity, and it’s exactly what the show needs at this point in its lifetime.
As always, the seasons features some fantastic voice-over cameos and a steady, well-rounded batch of performances from the main and supporting cast. And, while most of the voice over is indeed recorded alone anyways, Will Arnett’s work in “Free Churro” can hardly be overlooked. The animation has, unsurprisingly, stayed relatively the same, although there are some fun visual experimentations including but not limited to Bojack’s various drug-induced trips. The show’s music choices also continue to be thematically appropriate and effective.
But Bojack has never been a show known for its animation or voice work. It’s not a show known for its comedy either. It’s a show where writing is everything. There are just as many gut-punches, just as many pause-the-next-episode-while-you-contemplate-the-last-one moments in this season as there have in the past. Almost every time the credits roll you’re left with that uneasy feeling in your gut that no other show can quite replicate.
“All I know about being good, I learned from TV,” says Bojack at one point during “Free Churro.” I’m pretty certain that this show doesn’t teach you how to be good. And I don’t think it’s supposed to. But it certainly touches me in a way that very few pieces of art ever have. And that’s got to count for something.