Screenshot: Netflix

The lines between reality and fiction have always been shaky on BoJack Horseman. Beyond the obvious framework of being about show business, it’s a show with characters constantly grappling with the truth, dealing with the consequences of the lies they tell each other—and more frequently, the lies they tell themselves. Who a person truly is, and whether or not that person is a good person, is a definition that’s so easily obfuscated by double-talk and self-denial you can forget the question was ever asked. And in avoiding answers to those questions, the lies only become more elaborate and desperate, building to a conclusion where the only question is the size of the crater that remains.

That’s a lot of heavy stuff to say about a show that stars a talking horse, but at this point, don’t act like you don’t know. BoJack Horseman closed out its fourth season as arguably Netflix’s best original series, painfully funny and also one of the most incisive looks at the human (animal?) condition there is. It’s a show that’s always been ambitious, even when the audience couldn’t see it, and that’s become more and more willing to experiment with ever year. And in its fifth season premiere, the vibe remains that of a show unafraid to peel back every layer of its characters’ psyche, and geared up to pull the divisions between reality and fiction to the point that something breaks.

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The scale of that division isn’t clear at the start of “The Light Bulb Scene,” which at face value is a comparatively sedate opening to the season. Previous seasons have been driven by higher personal and professional stakes for BoJack—the campaign to win an Academy Award, the death of his TV daughter, the emergence of his apparent real-life daughter—but his life appears to have settled into an easier rhythm since then. Now it’s back to a low-stakes stardom, BoJack honoring the contract Princess Carolyn signed on his behalf to be the star of WhatTimeIsItRightNow.com’s first original series Philbert.

Beyond its emotional and comedic strength, BoJack Horseman deserves credit for its mutability, the way it can transition through professional settings and keep itself intact. And with the Golden Age of Television now transmuted into a Gilded Age, the grimdark male-centric consciously edgy drama that tries to be “prestige” and comes across as stunningly dull is an easy target for Raphael Bob-Waksberg and company. All-star BoJack writer Kate Purdy threads plenty of sharp digs at the genre throughout, from Philbert carrying around a flask of his dead wife’s blood to BoJack’s co-star Gina Cazador (a terrific use of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Stephanie Beatriz) playing a character who “hates bras and loves cold rooms.” It’s an encouraging place to start, finding direct comedy in the unintentional comedy of shows that believe they have something important to say.

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And as an avatar of that self-importance, they’ve got the perfect mouthpiece in showrunner Flip McVicker. Adding Rami Malek to the cast last season was a choice that lives up to its potential immediately, his gravelly timbre the perfect delivery system for bold yet idiotic pronouncements and commitment to being a bastard in pursuit of his vision. Flip’s a solid foil for BoJack right away, as BoJack keeps trying to offer notes and Flip takes them down dark alleys of nudity that makes BoJack’s situation worse. Purdy escalates the tension between the two nicely, culminating in an office blowup that’s as much a parody of the dramatic confrontation (“The darkness is a metaphor for darkness!”) as it is a well-executed version of it.

Screenshot: Neflix

But what separates this from the other on-set tantrums we’ve seen BoJack throw is the feeling that this isn’t the same BoJack as those tantrums. “The Light Bulb Scene” is full of indications that he’s trying to be better in his “shitty ass-backwards” way. He’s scaling back on his drinking, measuring out the vodka bottle to last a full week and only helping himself to the soda water on Princess Carolyn’s bar. He’s got a weekly call with Hollyhock, albeit one that he keeps getting ahead of every time he wants to let her know he “hearted” one of her Instagram posts. And yes, he has sex with Gina after the first day of shooting, but he doesn’t throw her out immediately after his brief self-focused thrusting. For all its half-assery, it’s worlds more genuine than the hashtag-powered positive outlook of “Brand New Couch,” proof that the ups and downs of the last few years haven’t left him unchanged.

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The proof of that comes in the episode’s best scene, his half-drunken confession to Princess Carolyn about why he doesn’t want to be Philbert. It’s not that the character doesn’t make him look good, it’s that this drunk and isolated character isn’t who he wants to be. BoJack’s always tried to use art to replace life—Horsin’ Around was his substitute for familial love, Secretariat the vehicle to make him the heroic figure of his fantasies—and art imitating life so closely is tearing at all the progress he’s trying to make. Caught between those ideas, Princess Carolyn makes the inspired suggestion: formalize the split between the two, and make the worst version of BoJack the one he leaves behind when he goes home.

And that’s when the light bulb comes on. Not the light bulb that BoJack screws in naked, but the light bulb of where this season is truly going. The early reveal that Philbert’s set is nearly identical to BoJack’s house—or David Boreanaz’s house, if you want to get technical—goes from a throwaway joke to a reinforcement of how hard it’s going to be for BoJack to keep the spheres separate, right down to the bookended synchronized swimming routine set to St. Vincent’s “Los Ageless.” The question is clear: which face BoJack’s wearing is truly him? Is it the character he’s playing when he’s on set, or the character he’s playing when he’s not? It’s a fascinating set up for season five, and so much better it is at setting up the conflict than so many of the “prestige” dramas that Philbert satirizes.

Screenshot: Netflix

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In addition to setting a tone of ominous duality, “The Light Bulb Scene” is also important for the way it starts to bring the cast back together. One of the consequences of BoJack Horseman’s uncompromising emotional journey was that after BoJack burned all of his bridges toward the end of season three, he spent most of season four disconnected from the rest of the main cast. Now, Philbert serves as a plausible reason for them to fall back into each others’ orbits. Mr. Peanutbutter’s shooting a Little Caesar’s commercial at the studio next door and worms his way onto the sidelines for the craft services harvest. Princess Carolyn’s role as a producer means she’s back to playing peacemaker for BoJack’s self-centered tirades. And once again, BoJack tries to use Todd in a scheme for his own benefit, only for said scheme to backfire and lead Todd to fail upward as the most unqualified network executive since Kenneth Parcell.

It was disappointing to see the cast split up for most of season four—even if the show is to be commended for not forcing a resolution on them—so seeing BoJack get to once again play off his friends (question mark?) is a treat. Once again BoJack’s misanthropy crashes against the chipper good will of Todd and Mr. Peanutbutter, and it sets up plenty of opportunities for further mischief. Todd ostensibly being BoJack’s boss is a brilliant new dynamic to explore, and Mr. Peanutbutter is so vocal about this being a “mismatched buddy comedy about two guys from different sides of the tracks” it feels like a given that’s where we’re going. And the scene with Princess Carolyn and BoJack outside the adoption agency crackles with the shared history between the two, knowing which weapons to use against the other and also willing to drop their shields in a way they wouldn’t with anyone else.

Most encouragingly, a return to the personal dynamics of old doesn’t mean that we’ve abandoned the work done when they drifted out of BoJack’s orbit. Princess Carolyn’s trying to step into the world of adoption, only to be stymied by the fact that she picked an adoption agent instead of an adoption manager. (A line that’s arguably the best execution of that joke in a while.) The impressive arc dealing with Todd’s asexuality takes on a new level as Todd’s in a relationship with Yolanda Buenaventura, and there’s at least two comments from him that indicate trouble in paradise. Keeping their journeys at the front of things proves BoJack knows what it’s doing, and it’s exciting to think about how they’ll figure things out in proximity to BoJack, when being away from him was arguably better for those journeys.

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Screenshot: Netflix

There’s of course one glaring gap in the cast, and it’s not filled until the end of the episode when Mr. Peanutbutter drives to the airport to pick Diane up... and then drop her off. It’s a development that doesn’t come as a surprise given where we left them at the end of “What Time Is It Right Now,” especially if (like some Reddit detectives) you’ve been counting the fights since “Love And/Or Marriage.” Of all the new territory introduced in the premiere this is some of the most exciting to explore, as Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter have been a unit since the first episode. And while there’s still room for a backslide—Diane still needs to put pen to paper—BoJack’s ethos of broken things staying broken means we’re more likely to see them apart than together in the early going.

Last year, “See Mr. Peanutbutter Run” provided an exciting start to season four, showing us “the show about the horse, but this time without the horse.” “The Light Bulb Scene” is a more conventional start to the story, but even without a mystery to drive things there are plenty of elements to capture your interest. No one’s fully happy with the way things are going, the status quo is uneasy at best, and it’s a safe bet things will get weirder and darker the longer it goes on. Exactly where BoJack Horseman is at its best.

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Stray observations:

  • Welcome to season five coverage of BoJack Horseman! Looking forward to another series of swings on BoJack’s pendulum of silliness and sadness. (And while we’re releasing these reviews in closer proximity to each other than before, as always, please don’t mention the events of future episodes in the comments.)
  • Achievement in Voice Acting: BoJack’s bit part casting game starts off strong this year, getting none other than Whoopi Goldberg to voice adoption agent Mikayla. She’s only around for one scene, but she pours a lot into the energy and mercenary nature that it’s a shame she’s likely put as much distance between her and Princess Carolyn as possible.
  • The eagle-eyed viewer will notice that in addition to adding the Philbert set to the main credits, BoJack’s TV is no longer switched to Horsin’ Around. Instead it’s a tribute to Ralph Carney, the legendary saxophone player and co-composer of the BoJack Horseman theme song who passed away last year. The surreal, melancholy tone of that theme sets so much of the show’s tone from the first note, and the Song Exploder episode with Ralph and fellow composer (his nephew and Black Keys drummer Pat Carney) about its composition is a must-listen. RIP Ralph, your contribution to this show was invaluable.
  • The grimdark nature of Philbert is the primary joke focus, but there’s also plenty of mileage in the idea of a website having no idea what it’s doing in the streaming game. Case in point, WhatTimeIsItRightNow.com has very specific notes to remove all watches from scenes: “The network doesn’t want us to remind people about the existence of clocks.”
  • If the Philbert set wasn’t close enough to BoJack’s real house, they’ve also added the ottoman that Sarah-Lynn set on fire. BoJack’s old furniture must have ended up at a resale store.
  • Todd’s resume includes founding a rideshare app, building and maintaining his own theme park, and a brief stint as governor of California. “I was also the director of a Star Wars movie! But they fired me over creative differences.”
  • Mr. Peanutbutter’s sign to pick up Diane at the airport says “Blarn,” a callback to her name tag from the first time they ever met. A sweet gesture that only makes the reveal of their divorce all the more somber.
  • Gina on her willingness to play undeveloped characters on cop drams: “It pays for my expensive habit of having a mortgage in southern California.”
  • “You’re doing great, BoJack. And I did a great job watching you. Which is most of what producing is!”
  • “Do you sleep with your hands stuffed in lotion-filled socks?”
  • “There’s an old frog who lives in the LA River! He owes me an egg salad sandwich on account of a caper we once went on.”
  • “I’m self-conscious about my penis area!”
  • “Philbert waxes?” “Not for cosmetic purposes. He just wants to feel something.”
  • “Your good-hearted naivete has once again conspired with outrageous happenstance to completely dick me over!”
  • “This is going to be a sensational season of television.”
  • Today in Hollywoo job boards:
Screenshot: Netflix

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