BoJack Horseman gets a lot of credit for juggling its various parts as well as it does. This is a show that should not work to the degree it does, a show about animated animals that can every bit as poignant as The Sopranos or Mad Men. It pairs some of the stupidest puns ever devised with brutally honest examinations of mental illness, and somehow strikes the balance that doesn’t ruin the comedy or detract from the pathos. It’s alternatively absurd, incise, tragic, and beautiful, and it manages to keep that cycle going for long stretches at a time.
This makes it feel more disappointing when things feel off balance, as they do in “Thoughts And Prayers.” The episode is trying to handle two major developments: the season’s latest topical episode in the wake of “Hank After Dark” and “Braap Braap Pew Pew,” and BoJack introducing Hollyhock to Bea in his first interaction with his mother since their phone call in “Brand New Couch.” And while there’s good stuff in both, it’s a lot crammed into one episode, and the topical aspect doesn’t get the room to breathe that it needs.
The topic in question is gun violence, which is now in addition to imperiling millions of men and women is now imperiling the release of Courtney Portnoy’s new film Ms. Taken. Diane agrees to interview Courtney to shift the focus of the film away from its gun play, only to find herself caught up in the fervor when a raccoon starts to get nasty and Courtney pulls a gun in response. Diane accepts Courtney’s offer to hold it and gradually goes to the territory of The Simpsons’s “The Cartridge Family,” gripped with a feeling of power like God must feel when he’s holding a gun. And from there she uses her position as GirlCroosh blogger to write a screed in favor of gun rights, soaring to the top of the Click Board over “Swipe Left On Patriarchy!” and the penis outlines of not one, but two Hemsworths.
I mention “The Cartridge Family” above because it’s another episode of television that speaks to the difficulty of doing an episode on gun control. It’s a loaded topic for any show to discuss, and “Thoughts And Prayers” takes a burst approach. There’s the role the entertainment industry plays in promoting these shootings, the episode’s title turning into surface-level sentimental refrain, the question of empowerment in gun ownership, and the blatant sexism that takes over the instant a woman asserts any measure of status quo-threatening agency. It tries to find something to say about all of these elements, but it’s trying to say too many things, no sooner exploring one side of the issue before moving to the next one. And it has to say them in a venue that by necessity keeps the real victims in the abstract, an omission that even BoJack’s writing team can’t cover up.
As with the other issue episodes, Diane is the spearhead of the discussion. There’s some good parts—the detail of the animation that shows the seductive nature of the gun’s power, the sincerity of her post on what that power lets her reclaim—but it comes up short comparatively. Her previous crusades against Hank Hippopopalous and Sextina Aquafina were personal crusades that became public, where this one leaps straight into being a public issue, Diane’s love of guns coming on too suddenly to have weight. And while other viewpoints were considered in past episodes, Mr. Peanutbutter’s personal feelings about guns are largely pushed aside, their dispute absorbed into the trend from “Commence Fracking” to yell at each other politically and then try to bang it out afterwards.
“Thoughts And Prayers” also lacks some of the nuance of previous topical installments. It feels blunter in getting its message across, with statements like Lenny Turtletaub’s early lament “I am sick and tired of real-life gun violence getting in the way of us telling stories that glamorize gun violence,” or Princess Carolyn’s near-constant-spin efforts: “We just have to keep the story on Courtney, and not on the depressingly unstoppable rise of real-life gun violence in this country.” There’s also nothing as specifically cutting as the panel of old men in bow ties from “Braap Braap Pew Pew,” instead relying on A Ryan Seacrest Type and A Billy Bush Type for some flippant discussion: “I am totally unqualified to cover a news story this important. But as a straight white male, I will plow forward with confidence and assume I’m doing fine.” They’re statements cast as “it’s funny because it’s true,” but in this case it’s too true to be funny and too direct to be satirical.
The same is true of the episode’s conclusion, where a female mass-shooting leads the California legislature to make gun ownership illegal after one productive legislative session. “I can’t believe this country hates women more than it loves guns,” Diane wearily says. “No?” an unsurprised Princess Carolyn says, in a tone that sums up most of this story. It ties things up equivocally, failing to make its point about whether or not this resolution gets us to the lesser of two evils.
The material about bringing three generations of Horsemen together works out better, largely because the relationship between BoJack and Hollyhock is paying such great dividends this season. To the credit of BoJack and BoJack’s writers’ room, Hollyhock’s fake mother is dismissed almost immediately, wacky schemes and spiraling lies about the search for “Carla Mercedes Benz-Brown” shelved in favor of more BoJack efforts to try to do this right. (And he’s getting better about it, at least if the space between his lies can be used as a gauge: two days to fifteen minutes to eight seconds.) He agrees to take Hollyhock to meet her grandmother, only to find her in a much worse state than the last time we saw her. Dementia has set in over the last few years, to the point that every time she sees BoJack she mistakes him for her maid Henrietta.
Most storylines about an aging parent no longer able to recognize their child would try to elucidate some form of pity for said parent, but for “Thoughts And Prayers” the focus is on BoJack’s ever-increasing anger. Every interaction we’ve seen with Bea and BoJack has been one-sided and brutal, dismissing him as a failure who ruined her life and where nothing he ever did was good enough to please her. So for her to recognize him on Horsin’ Around reruns and not in person, and laugh at the show she only ever dismissed as “no Ibsen,” it’s small wonder he views it as a personal attack. BoJack’s full of spite on a daily basis, but this is more than usual frustration: this is a white-hot justifiable rage directed at one of the two people who did more than anything to ruin his life. And as a brief funeral-bound flashback proves, the only one who’s still around for him to blame.
It’s no wonder that he’d try to take that one moment of recognition and manipulate it. In potentially the nastiest instance of sitcom trope appropriation (tropropriation?) he decides to put on a live episode of Horsin’ Around so she’ll recognize him, and then he can look straight into her eyes and say “Fuck you, mom!” For the first time, BoJack burns its one-per-season use of the word “fuck” in a matter that isn’t cutting BoJack down to size for something terrible. This time, it’s to emphasize the terribleness of the thing done to him and what he feels is owed him in response. And once again, their sparing use of it means the word has exactly the weight it needs in its particular circumstance.
The scheme ends in tears—as of course all BoJack’s schemes must—and subsequent calamity forces Bea out of the retirement home and back into BoJack’s life when Hollyhock’s pity for “Grammy-gram” wins out. Putting Bea into close proximity with BoJack and his daughter is a brilliant move to reinforce the season’s growing themes of family, a two-front war on BoJack’s emotions: acknowledging where he came from and where he’s going next. (And he even hires Herb’s former live-in nanny Tina, as if he needed one more reminder of his painful past around.) Even if he’s only looking to get that final opportunity to tear into his mother, at least he’s looking forward to something.
- Achievement in Voice Acting: Sharon Horgan has her best material as Courtney Portnoy this episode, all the elitism and celebrity disconnect in full force. “Well, I step into my pants one leg at a time, then my trouser-maidens lift the legs simultaneously to avoid wrinklage.”
- Also in terms of reunions, BoJack has his first conversation with Princess Carolyn since the detonation of their personal relationship in “Best Thing That Ever Happened.” It would be a wonderful reconciliation, if it wasn’t for the fact he shifts immediately to ask name of Bea’s nursing home. Even now, he can’t help but take her for granted.
- Todd’s now comfortable enough with his asexuality to say it openly in a meeting! Good for you, Todd. He also does eventually end up taking his meetings at a water park. Never let it be said that he doesn’t follow through on his ideas, except for all those times he doesn’t.
- Diane’s NPR-based ringtones are one of the series’ best recurring jokes, and All Things Considered hosts Robert Siegel and Audie Cornish turn in a tremendous one. “The proposed bill would take effect when someone tries to call you, and you hear this ringtone.”
- On their drive to the funeral, Bea mentions that Butterscotch was watching BoJack’s “dumb show” in the hospital, to which he responds “New one or old one?” That puts Butterscotch’s death between 2007 and 2014, with The BoJack Horseman Show launching in 2007.
- “You know Courtney Portnoy. You probably recall when she soared as the thorny horticulturist in One Sordid Fortnight With the Short-Skirted Sorceress. How would you enjoy joining Portnoy for a scorched soy porterhouse pork four-courser at Koi? Glorify your source, but don’t make it feel forced, of course, and try the borscht.” Courtney Portnoy vey indeed.
- “Oh, my God! Did I drive all the way home without realizing I was holding a gun? No wonder that guy at the gas station didn’t charge me for the Red Vines. … Did I rob a gas station?!” That puts Diane one up over Homer Simpson, at least.
- “I had to get a ride home with the pianist who liked to tickle a lot more than just the ivories. When I made it home unscathed, she said, ‘Huh. I guess no one wants you.’”
- “Seeing my mom is like a Terence Malick movie. Every ten years or so is bearable, but more than that and it starts to get annoying.”
- “That episode got us into the TV Guide Cheers and Jeers column! We did not get a Cheers.”
- “I’m gonna go see if I can seduce a dowager into giving me her night-night pills.”
- “It’s a shame. It was a great movie.” “Cut down in the prime of its life.”
- “But now, she’s gonna die and she’s never gonna know just how much I hate her.”
- Today in Hollywoo signs: