The question of whether or not BoJack Horseman is a good person hangs over the majority of the series that bears his name. On the surface, the answer feels like an easy no: he’s an egotistical asshole, he’s disrespectful of most everyone in his life, and incapable of focusing on the happiness of another person for too long without making it about him. Yet over the course of the series he’s made plenty of stabs at trying to help people, and shown genuine remorse and a desire to fix things that have gone wrong. Sure, he’s not the best guy, but he’s also far from the worst, and that counts for something, right?
It’s a question that turns into a Sword of Damocles over the course of “BoJack The Feminist,” BoJack Horseman’s latest “issue” episode where the writing team turns its satirical armament on a specific topic. After last season’s “Thoughts And Prayers” stepped into a too heavily loaded topic by approaching gun control, this is a much better executed version of the format, diving deep into the show’s comfort zone of over-exaggerated Hollywoo shallowness. And crucially, it’s an episode that takes its issue and ties it inextricably to BoJack and his immediate circle, giving it the necessary personal edge.
“BoJack The Feminist”’s central issue is the Hollywoo tendency to forgive the awful men in its midst, a particularly timely issue in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, the villains of those narratives slithering back into public consciousness, and an expansion of the themes BoJack Horseman touched on back in “Hank After Dark.” Movie star Vance Waggoner (Bobby Cannavale) is the stand-in for your Mel Gibsons and your Alec Baldwins, the big star who causes a splash with racist and abusive statements, makes a crocodile tears apology and withdraws from public life, and returns to society a couple of years later to repeat the process in the PR equivalent of 30 GOTO 10. And his repeat here is being recruited to play Philbert’s partner Fritz, because there’s no other actor who enters a room and says “trouble.”
Again, this is a topic that’s much closer to home for BoJack Horseman than mass shootings, and much easier to exaggerate for the sake of ruthless comedy but with the glimmer of reality still impossible to miss. Vance’s actions are so over the top they can’t be taken seriously—randomly deciding to be racist to Swedes, masturbating in a champagne flute, saying the Madrid train bombings were “a real mixed bag—but the analogues are clear enough to be uncomfortably close to the truth. And the introduction of the Forgive-ees award ceremony recognizing such luminaries as Mark Walhberg and Megyn Kelly, with four-time winner Arnold Schwarzenegger, is the perfect backhand indictment of the industry’s short memory when it comes to discrediting events. It’s the ugliness of Hollywoo’s short attention span personified, where being only as big as your last hit also applies to physical abuse.
It also does a better job of looping our team into the mix, where the track record of BoJack photos taken at inopportune moments returns. A cheese-related grimace turns into a news story about BoJack’s disgust with Vance joining the Philbert cast, forcing him to make an apology tour of his own. Predictably, the tour turns on an unfortunate axis as all of Vance’s other issues come out, and even more predictably BoJack finds a way to make this all him. It’s a BoJack central flaw front and center, that if doing something makes people like him and that thing isn’t hard to do, he’ll keep doing the thing. One seemingly innocuous statement on a talk show about how choking women is bad, a few repeats to get a round of applause, and suddenly he’s the poster child for feminism.
Here’s where episode writer Nick Adams gets into the real meat of the episode, as Princess Carolyn attacks Vance for getting out of his Philbert contract and Diane gets recruited to help BoJack bring him down. As much as “BoJack The Feminist” is cutting at the industry for freely doling out free passes, it’s even more judgmental of the feminists in name only who get all of the attention that should be given to the people the issue genuinely impacts. BoJack, who can be insufferable even on a good day, is made even more so by his newfound wokeness, the casual way he treats his supposed enlightenment allowing Will Arnett to cross new asshole boundaries: “I know you’re trying really hard not to be boring, and it’s kind of not boring, but it still mostly feels like I’m being lectured at.”
“BoJack The Feminist” also reminds us that in addition to bad men doing bad things, there will also be the enablers and the opportunists. Princess Carolyn gets some flak for that hypocrisy, but the real vitriol is saved for Vance’s publicist, none other than Ana Spanakopita. Angela Bassett’s steely energy will always be welcome on BoJack Horseman, and she’s deployed well here as a foil to Diane’s increasingly strained efforts to take BoJack’s male feminist message beyond sound bites. Her move to turn the media’s attention to Philbert by literally putting Diane’s words in Vance’s mouth is a stroke of evil genius, and also a shrewd move by Adams to make the narrative more personal.
The blatant hypocrisy of it all finally pushes Diane to her most resigned, caught between earning multiple “dumb slunt” insults online or having to defend Philbert’s blatant misogyny. If you thought Alison Brie sounded tired in “The Dog Days Are Over” when Diane tried to find her roots, there’s an even deeper weariness here, the inability to feel either righteous or indignant when arguing for what matters: “You get to drop in and play Joss Whedon and everyone cheers, but when you move on to your next thing, I’m still here.” What makes BoJack’s issue episodes pack the punch they do is that they never try to fix the issue, they’re illustrating how ingrained these issues are and how there’s no one battle you can fight to do anything about it. Change is gradual and institutional, a war with a lot of losing battles.
And by the end of the episode, it seems BoJack’s come to a revelation about how they can fight a battle and win, pitching Diane to join Philbert as a contributing writer. It’s a smart move from a structural standpoint, as inserting Diane directly into the Philbert narrative gives BoJack a lot more room to explore the inherent problems with the male antihero drama. Putting Diane on set with Flip is clear grounds for conflict, as the sexism he showed Gina in the pilot is likely to come out in even more force if he has to share the writers’ room with her. And after spending the full runtime making it seem like BoJack learned nothing, he seems to have learned something important: things like this need to be said, but he’s not the right person to be saying them.
But “BoJack The Feminist” isn’t going to let BoJack off that easy, and he foreshadows it himself when weakly defending Philbert: “Of course, when you take plot points out of context, they can sound unsavory.” That’s exactly what Ana does to him, pulling out the manatee reporter’s tape recorder from “Start Spreading The News” and pressing play in front of Diane. Ana confiscated it as evidence of how little involvement BoJack had in the Secretariat finished product, but she uses it to show Diane something even worse. The splinter wedged deepest in BoJack Horseman’s mind, his tortured admission that he nearly committed statutory rape with Charlotte, and his deep-down belief that Olivia’s timely appearance was the only thing that stopped him.
It’s a masterful bombshell that comes out of nowhere, shining a light on the fact that while BoJack admitted that Diane changed him, his admission could be as fake as anything that Vance has offered in his umpteen press conferences. Can Diane, who despite all the invectives hurled her way doesn’t betray the strength of her convictions, justify making an exception in BoJack’s case? It’s a perfect close to an episode where decisions that should be simple are made in a world that’s anything but.
- Achievement in Voice Acting: Bobby Cannavale is a perfect casting choice for Vance Waggoner, clearly relishing the over-the-top awfulness of all Vance’s proclamations and able to give the right faux sincerity to all of his follow-up press conferences. His throwaway lines are the best, offering his love and respect for the lemming community and reminding Princess Carolyn that he’s still sorry for sexting that 12-year-old.
- The Mr. Peanutbutter storyline about trying to come across as a “tough guy” is mostly insubstantial, justifying his addition to the Philbert production team when his inability to be tough makes him the perfect counterpoint to Vance. Each beat of the story ends in the same predictable way, though it does produce a laugh or two when he’s praised for curing TMJ and raising awareness of local special elections. And if he wanted to make wearing Eddie Murphy’s Delirious suit a regular thing, it would liven things up considerably.
- One disappointment of the episode is that Princess Carolyn fades into the background after she teams up Diane and BoJack to take down Vance. There’s a clear hypocrisy in her actions that Diane calls her out for early, but she never answers for it. “Now that Vance can’t help me succeed, I realize the more feminist thing to do is to make sure he doesn’t succeed either.”
- Todd is clearly wearing two different colored shoes after losing one in the lube-soaked wake of “Planned Obsolescence,” which is BoJack continuity that warms my heart.
- Diane’s listicle topics include “Thirteen Celebrities Who Look Exactly Like Soup” and “Five Times Where Rihanna Gave Us Life.”
- “My guest today recently some things. Or did some things? I only read the headline!”
- “As it is written: shmear, don’t smear.”
- “Now that is the kind of story that I could share without reading, which for our purposes is even better than people reading it.”
- “I thought you’d never ask! Because I had no idea this was happening to you.”
- “I’m Mr. ‘Dehydration Made Me Stupid.’”
- “My depth perception is so much better now. I’m gonna go watch a Wes Anderson movie and see if I can perceive any depth in it!”
- Today in Hollywoo signs: