An animated comedy partially populated with anthropomorphic animals and staring a depressed, alcoholic horse isn’t necessarily the first place many would think to go for topical humor discussing current social movements like #MeToo or Time’s Up. But BoJack Horseman has demonstrated time and again it’s entirely capable of being more than it appears to be, and at the start of its fifth season delivers a smart, funny take on the current atmosphere in and around the entertainment industry (and elsewhere) by not only targeting thinly veiled representations of real-life offenders slowly working their way back into the public sphere, but also taking the past bad behavior of its own title character to task.
It’s another interesting angle for a show since it’s seemingly inauspicious debut in 2014 revealed a series with hidden depths and a willingness and the ability to explore — in part because it’s an animated series — the ludicrous, privileged excess of the entertainment industry, as well as the hidden despair and crushing loneliness plaguing its otherwise toxic lead. For four seasons, BoJack Horseman has been smart about its narrative attempts to reconcile the self-indulgent, sometimes depraved, and almost always immature actions of its title character with his own struggles with a painful past and regret over his many misdeeds and seeming inability to get his life in order. To the series’ credit, it hasn’t confused explanation with excuse, and in doing so has created a situation in which all roads have led to this moment.
There’s a lot going on at the start of season 5. Picking up not long after the end of season 4, BoJack is now the star of Philbert, a gritty new detective series for whattimeisttrightnow.com. His new role introduces some new characters and expands the roles of others, like Gina (Stephanie Beatriz), his female co-star who carries a long resume of television procedurals, and is seemingly content to do her work without rocking the boat - even when BoJack’s criticism leads to series creator Flip (Rami Malek) changing the script on the fly and asking Gina to perform nude scenes she wasn’t originally meant to do. And from this starting point the series segues into the much larger discussion and overarching theme of the new season.
Like those who have worn Time’s Up pins at award shows or otherwise publicly expressed solidarity with the movement only to later be accused of sexual misconduct, BoJack’s almost accidentally declares himself a feminist. However, his past actions threaten to be exposed and come back to haunt him after he becomes openly critical of a Mel Gibson analogue voiced by Bobby Cannavale.
Thanks to recent events, like Louis C.K. and Aziz Ansari’s returns to standup, the storyline is surprisingly up-to-the-minute for an animated series, which otherwise makes some funny and incisive points out how male celebrities like BoJack benefit from adopting a feminist persona, whether they actually are or not. That’s taken a step further when the media blitz surrounding this self-proclaimed ally itself becomes a sign of how little progress has actually been made. At one point, Princess Caroline presses Diane to provide BoJack with a list of feminist talking points as he does the rounds on various daytime talk shows. Diane emphatically points out that if she were to do the same thing she’d be labeled shrill, or her talking points unfairly categorized as a difficult woman simply being argumentative.
This topical approach isn’t anything new to BoJack Horseman. The series has keenly satirized everything from the 2016 election to celebrity meltdowns, but given how the news cycle regarding sexual misconduct allegations against men in powerful positions — like CBS’ Les Moonves, most recently — the usual snap to the series' otherwise subtle humor feels more in your face than before. And the audience’s awareness of the current goings-on with many celebrities and high-profile cases and allegations serves to heighten the series’ trenchant satire.
But the series’ silly sense of humor is also still in place, with plenty more animal puns and background gags that would seem routine if they weren’t so funny. That whip-smart humor often vacillates between the poignant and the absurd, especially with two subplots involving Diane’s divorce from Mr. Peanutbutter and Todd’s asexuality. The latter provides a raucous scenario in which Todd and his similarly asexual girlfriend Yolanda (Natalie Morales) stay the night at her over-sexualized parents’ house, resulting in an outlandish slapstick scenario that’s one of the funniest bits the series has produced.
In its fifth season, BoJack Horseman is as comfortable in its own skin as it’s likely going to get. That makes episodic departures, like Diane’s post-divorce vacation to Vietnam, feel less revolutionary than they might otherwise, but it also demonstrates the depth of the show’s bench, both in terms of characters the audience cares about and how well the writers can craft stories around them. Though the new season has a consistent through-line and basically tells a serialized story, the show’s digressions and episodic runtimes keep it from overstaying its welcome, but they also allow what has become one of the best shows on Netflix to retain that title after five seasons.
BoJack Horseman season 5 is streaming on Netflix.