In its fifth season, BoJack Horseman confirms its status as Netflix’s best TV show, a brash showbiz satire that’s also a religious act of small-screen devotion. “All I know about being good, I learned from TV,” says the titular ’90s icon (voiced by Will Arnett). “In TV,” he says, “flawed characters are constantly showing people they care with these surprising grand gestures.” Few characters are more flawed than BoJack, whose grand gestures trend apocalyptic.
Season 5 (out Sept. 14) goes meta, with BoJack starring on a cop drama called Philbert. Philbert’s what you might call “a True Detective type,” carrying a flask of his dead wife’s blood — but did he kill his wife, is somebody secretly a ghost, is the darkness a metaphor for darkness??
Philbert airs on WhatTimeIsItRightNow.com, a tech company exploring original content, like a certain DVD-mailing service that swallowed the world. The show-within-a-show gives season 5 a precision-missile focus on contemporary TV. The blistering parody encapsulates antihero chic, #MeToo, and the rise of navel-gazing pretension as the de facto mode of prestige TV. The creator of Philbert is Flip McVicker (Rami Malek), a self-aggrandizing wannabe TV genius. Malek’s casting could be flagrant typecasting; he’s the star of Mr. Robot, a show I love where somebody was definitely a secret ghost and the darkness is always a metaphor for darkness. But Malek is also a great addition to the ensemble. McVicker’s a trendy new-wave televisionary who might just be a hack, the kind of highbrow bro who’s sensitive enough to wonder if the nonsensical stripping scene might be gratuitous.
There hasn’t really ever been a bad episode of BoJack. But last season stumbled with a fully goofy political subplot, a gubernatorial election whose particulars — a woodchuck with lobster claws! subterranean ant civilization! Jessica Biel! — couldn’t match American reality for sheer absurdity. Conversely, Philbert becomes a centralizing force, a way for BoJack Horseman to wrestle with its own bad self. Princess Caroline (Amy Sedaris) is a producer on the show. Other main characters wind up on the Philbert set too — including eternal voice of conscience Diane (Alison Brie).
She wonders, at one point, “if Philbert is just a way for dumb a—holes to rationalize their own awful behavior.” She could be asking the same thing about our title character. Sure, he tries to get better, but is that just an excuse to keep getting worse? You have to remember, BoJack Horseman started in 2014, a cultural moment when Brett Martin’s book Difficult Men canonized a particular angle of great American television: morally ambiguous, stylishly violent, masculine. The phrase “difficult men” has a different connotation lately. BoJack began this series as a fading relic of ’90s sitcom stardom. And so the best magic trick in season 5 is how it makes him a stand-in for a much more recent era of morally ambiguous protagonists. Sins of his past are reconsidered (like That Thing In New Mexico). At one point, he does something unimaginably terrible — and that terrible thing sets the showbiz machinery in motion around him, a personal horror gone systemic.
Elsewhere in Hollywood, Princess Caroline juggles on-set drama with the difficulties of single-parent adoption. Todd (Aaron Paul) gets an unlikely promotion and an unusual new colleague. And BoJack’s experiments in structure get more elaborate. Diane gets a showcase structured as a BuzzFeed-ish listicle. Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins) goes to a Halloween party at BoJack’s house — in four different time periods, with four different significant others, a headspinning feat of 4D sitcommery. And the sixth episode is, essentially, a 25-minute Will Arnett monologue. It’s hilarious and heartbreaking; expect excerpts to be performed at all upcoming high school theater auditions.
Some of these threads are more involving than others. Todd’s Seussian misadventures are best in short doses, whereas Diane’s story is so enthralling that you’re left feeling like it needed more attention. But creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg and his ace writing team have built BoJack into a dizzy comedy assault, brimming with puns, loopily poetic dialogue, and just-right guest stars. (My new heaven is Wanda Sykes as a “mediating maven” who rhymes “recapitulation” with “de-escalation.”) We’re in a moment — call it “watershed” if you’re an optimist — when Hollywood itself is grappling with the sins of its past. So season 5 of BoJack Horseman is an act of self-incrimination, if not outright repudiation, and though this personal re-education aims for cultural amelioration, the ramification of this interrogation could be self-immolation. Also, the animals can talk! A-