“What is acting? Anyone? Acting is about leaving everything behind and becoming something completely new.”
There’s one major advantage to BoJack Horseman getting to end right as the 2010s recede into the past: it gives the final season the added glow of a victory lap. With the end of the decade, publications across the media landscape labored over their lists of the shows that mattered most in the last ten years, and BoJack Horseman was a constant presence in those lists. The A.V. Club named it our eleventh best show of the 2010s, and our former contributors were even kinder to it in their winners’ circles. Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff and Variety’s Caroline Framke (tip of the hat to our former reviewer) both gave it second place, and Vanity Fair’s Sonia Saraiya put it at the top of her list.
Every one of those accolades was justly earned by BoJack Horseman, as there are few shows that so innately understood how our world seemed to get more and more complicated and fucked up with every year. It’s a show that could only have found a home with the explosion of Peak TV, so assertively weird and honest it could never have made it on a conventional network. It mastered the streaming format that chews up so many shows into “ten-hour movies,” telling a long-running story while still creating episodes that stood out brilliantly on their own. And in an era of endless discussion, BoJack never lacked for something to talk about, marrying a startling visual density to deeply complicated characters who often made bad decisions and had to reckon with the consequences.
That fearlessness and creativity now carries over into the final run of BoJack Horseman episodes, promising a major reckoning for this tortured film and television star and the people who’ve spent so long in his wake. The midseason premiere “Intermediate Scene Study w/BoJack Horseman” gets things off to a muted start, promising a happy ending and cruelly taking it away at the last moment. It teases the peaceful exile from Hollywoo that BoJack fought so hard to gain in “The Face Of Depression,” and while it doesn’t detonate the explosive revelations of “A Quick One, While He’s Away” it never lets you forget they’re out there.
The peaceful exile is the central focus of “Intermediate Scene Study,” as the episode goes through an entire semester of BoJack’s new life as a professor of acting at Wesleyan University. Fittingly for its title writer Joe Lawson depicts the semester as a series of loosely connected scenes, drawing the curtain back and forth to show BoJack interacting with his students, his friends from Hollywoo, and his sister. It’s a chance to see how this “new” BoJack, with the sobriety and the haircut and the Furberry outfit, manages to function as a person without the confines of a “day at a time” approach.
Encouragingly, the episode shows that BoJack is doing well. The biggest reveal is to discover that he’s pretty good at teaching, with a pretentious opening about what acting is shot down right away and somehow turning into a productive acting workshop. It turns out that his gift for being overly critical is well-suited to a classroom environment, years of bad performances and stupid decisions putting him in a place where he can help out with both. And it’s not even that much of a stretch to think he can be diplomatic on a creative endeavor: think back to his collaboration with Todd on their ill-fated rock opera, or his advice to Bradley on the unfinished Ethan Around pilot.
More to the point, after six years of showing so many empty promises of change and painful backsliding on BoJack’s part, for once it seems to be sticking. He’s still the same person in some ways—he can’t keep from referring to himself as a famous TV star in casual conversation—but there’s no sign of bitterness that his fame is many years behind him. There’s a genuine energy to his voice that we haven’t heard in a while, be it trying to look out for his students making bad decisions about their futures, or getting excited to cheer Hollyhock on at rugby games. Evidently whatever he’s doing works, because he’s doing it every day, which even though it gets easier we all know is the hard part.
Stability doesn’t mean it’s boring however, and Lawson threads some great jokes into the action as BoJack translates from the insular world of Hollywoo to the insular world of academia. The most inspired joke is a three-act play in and of itself, where BoJack’s criticism of his students translates into those students showing up at his AA meetings to perform one-act shows. The shows are broad and intentionally bad, and all seem to revolve around rehashing the plot of the movie Flight—a film no one at AA has ever seen, given how sincerely they treat the students’ claims. The first two acts are hilarious, and the third takes it to full tragicomedy when he inadvertently tells a student to get help and then unknowingly shames her for doing the exact same. Will Arnett’s stammer in that moment is inspired, making an awkward silence even more awkward, and asking us just how much we should be laughing.
The scene format is also an effective way to loop the rest of the cast in and provide updates on what they’ve been up to this semester. Mr. Peanutbutter’s still trying to save his engagement with Pickles by arranging a consensual cuckolding with Joey Pogo, and he now adds another wrinkle to it by purchasing Elefante from BoJack so all three of them can go into business together. Princess Carolyn gets to stop by for a class about the business of Hollywoo, and wind up poaching one of BoJack’s students—an easily excitable dog, in one of the best anthropomorphized jokes in recent BoJack memory. And nanny Todd tags along for a typical Todd caper by taking Ruthie out for a marshmallow and almost getting made university president, which also gives us a stealth reveal that BoJack managed to make a connection between him and Maude the Cinnabunny. Diane gets the short end of things with an unfinished sentence about how her book is going, but the last two premieres established a track record of teasing her story and paying it off an episode or two later, so that’s no cause for concern.
Amidst all of these scenes though is a recurring feeling of dread, every sighting of Hollyhock on campus reminding us just what she learned at the end of “A Quick One, While He’s Away.” And for at least one more episode, the reveal remains in cliffhanger status, though Lawson keeps it there in a way that feels organic rather than contrived. Hollyhock isn’t a confrontational person who’s going to immediately kick down her brother’s door and demand the truth, or someone who’d be emotionally shattered to learn something like this. Instead, she’s practicing classic Horseman compartmentalization, trying to vent her frustrations in rugby and keeping her distance from BoJack. And of course, BoJack inadvertently sabotages it by becoming a supportive rugby fan and leading Hollyhock to quit. (Three of her eight dads are thrilled.)
The distance escalates when Hollyhock fails to show up for BoJack’s end of semester showcase, leading to a face-off between the siblings. Once again the show plays a cruel game of teasing the reveal, but gets away with it because it has another important conflict to resolve: BoJack taking the job at Wesleyan without asking her. As much as BoJack’s changed, showing up at Hollyhock’s school like this is the sort of thing he’s famous for, making a decision for his benefit and no one else’s. Hollyhock is right to be upset about that, and right to make a statement pointing out the distance between them: “I had a life before I met you, and you had a life before you met me.” Despite the unshakable connection the two have thanks to Butterscotch Horseman’s DNA, they’re still functionally strangers to each other, and their past meetings have a random at best quality to them. Hollyhock showed up in Hollywoo without any notice, and now BoJack’s done the exact same thing to her.
But once again, BoJack proves that he’s retained enough self-awareness to know to do the right thing. He’s willing to make the same sacrifice Hollyhock once offered and walk away from Wesleyan, but Hollyhock recognizes that this place is good for him and he’s trying, and they agree to take a step back until they can figure out what this strange new family of theirs means. Maybe it’ll be possible for this to pass on as well, and for the two of them to find a new way to define what family means. With the love and appreciation of his class, BoJack ends the episode with a genuine win, a validation that he can keep working at it and it’s all going to be okay.
Then the phone rings, and it all turns to ash. After successfully spending the entire episode keeping us in suspense for Hollyhock to blurt out what she knows, BoJack Horseman reminds us of the other horseshoe waiting to drop, the one it spent most of “A Quick One, While He’s Away” setting up only to feint in the final minutes. Charlotte breaks the silence between her and BoJack—apparently unaware of the one or two times he’s almost broken it—to demand that he stop the reporters trying to get Penny to tell her side of the story. That splinter in his mind finally gets yanked out, triggering a panic attack on the Wesleyan grounds, and immediately robbing him of what should be a moment of triumph.
And in the end, that’s what makes “Intermediate Scene Study w/BoJack Horseman” such a brutally effective season premiere. BoJack promises in his botched intro to his class that acting is about leaving it all behind for something new, and the premiere spends almost its entire runtime trying to sell that fantasy to both him and the viewer. But in the end, the real truth is in the symbolism of that Sharpie introduction he wrote on the whiteboard, and subsequently promised would be on the whiteboard forever. You can have all the good intentions in the world, but there are some things you can’t erase.
- Welcome back! We’re on our last lap of BoJack Horseman, with The A.V. Club’s coverage of the final season dropping over the rest of this weekend. Friendly reminder, if you’ve already powered through the entire season, please refrain from commenting until those reviews post.
- Achievement in Voice Acting: Stan might be the best actor in BoJack’s class, but it’s Terry who leaves the real impression thanks to comedian and Daily Show correspondent Jaboukie Young-White. Fittingly for a Senior Youth Correspondent, his constant old man voice makes his intrusion on BoJack’s AA meeting the best intrusion of the batch, and also provides a great punchline for the end of the showcase: “But then, what do I know? I’m just a 15-year-old boy living in Brighton Beach.”
- The meeting space for Alcoholics Anonymous also plays host to Reaganomics Analysis and Subatomic Anomalies.
- In a rare instance of BoJack experiencing money troubles, his “very good accountant” Gaz urges him to sell off Elefante because all of BoJack’s rehab stints took a bite out of his financials. (And it did, we did the math.) It’s only coming up now because last year was a big cocaine year for Gaz.
- I respect how much restraint it must have taken the creative team to send Todd into a chemistry lab and not include any Breaking Bad references.
- Willie Wesleyan might be the most Paul F. Tompkins character that ever Paul F. Tompkins’d. I admit I was a little worried that Todd actually would wind up running the school given his track record, but thankfully the caper is kept to the realm of hallucinogenic detour.
- “Tonight, I intend to explode myself. Where are the extra towels?”
- “Some would say there are no bad actors, only bad teachers.” “What about Jason Segel? He was a bad actor in Bad Teacher.”
- “Our fights are like Adele songs. All kind of the same one, but with different specifics.”
- “This is more of a comment than a question, but I’ve seen every Robert Altman movie.”
- “I had my doubts when he did the scene from Proof, but when he did the scene from Doubt I thought, ‘There’s the proof.’”
- “Well, funny story about that...” “Oh, I love when stories start like that! Ooh, you should put this one in your book!”
- Today in Wesleyan signs: