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There's personal and narrative backsliding all over BoJack Horseman

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After a season where all of BoJack Horseman’s characters are trying to forge new identities for themselves—parent, candidate, blogger, asexual—“The Judge” represents a fair amount of backsliding for everyone. They’re falling off the self-improvement wagon, back into the bad habits and bad business ideas that they’ve spent time trying to move past. And consequently, “The Judge” also feels like a step back for BoJack Horseman, side-stepping some more interesting developments and introducing conflict for conflict’s sake.


BoJack’s initial backslide starts off as a career one, as he returns to television for the first time since becoming a major movie start, playing a judge on FHBA: LA. Assuming he’s on one of the umpteen cop shows on the air—“I think it’s one of those shows about Navy sex crimes that have gone cold, and there may be numbers or something?”—expectations are subverted when the initials turn out to stand for Felicity Huffman’s Booty Academy. And it’s not a reveal that BoJack Horseman tries to underplay at all, hitting BoJack and the audience with a sea of neon lights, testimonials, shaking asses, and Sir Mix-A-Lot sitting as judge thanks to his inability to lie. It’s pure show-biz nonsense, made even more so by the fact BoJack can’t get an answer on what exactly he’s judging.

The storyline loses some of its uniqueness when Hollyhock strikes up a friendship with Miles (Hannibal Burress), an intern working on the show. Suddenly, the relationship between BoJack and Hollyhook falls into the dynamic we’ve seen countless times before, BoJack worried about the young man sniffing around his daughter and Hollyhock wanting her father to respect her independence. The tension between the two feels manufactured, BoJack’s paternal instincts unexpectedly sharpened—even if they do produce the wonderful sequence of BoJack trying to recreate the “Where have you been?” moment and falling into an absurdist sequence when the light bulb doesn’t turn on. If there’s one moment of sincerity inside the scheming, it’s the way BoJack slips up by inadvertently insulting Hollyhock’s weight, and the way it resonates as both characters understand he’s gone too far.


BoJack even telegraphs his return to form in conversations with Diane, dismissing outright the conversations we’ve seen him have already with Hollyhock as “too Diane-y” and constructing one of his usual schemes to manipulate Miles into coming off as a jerk. It’s a not well-conceived scheme, where he doesn’t explain any of his processes and everything falls apart as a result, and one where the scenes speed through said falling apart as if “The Judge” wants to just get it over with. Yet BoJack still gets what he wants when Miles is willing to cut a deal despite genuinely liking Hollyhock.

Though it looks like the damage is done, as BoJack returns home to try to make things right and we see a Hollyhock who’s not the Hollyhock we’ve grown used to. She’s acting weirdly quiet and broken, sorting piles of change, flipping through the channels as fast as she can, and turning down offers of pizza or ice cream. It’s her first lesson in the harshness of life, and the first time that it feels like BoJack’s managed to BoJack things up in a serious way. A disappointment, albeit one that earns some points for brutal honesty.

The story involving Princess Carolyn and Ralph also feels like something of a step back, even though it’s presented as a step forward. Princess Carolyn joins Ralph and Stefani for an annual Stilton family vacation, which also serves as the official “meet the parents” gathering. The couple agrees to keep the news of their pregnancy quiet until things are more settled, a move that Poppy and Mimi Stilton (a pitch-perfect Martin Short and Patti Lupone) unwittingly keep putting in jeopardy with a great montage of non-pregnancy-safe activities: “Would you like me to punch you in the belly real quick so you remember what it’s like to be alive? That’s a rich person thing.”


Princess Carolyn nervously chuckles and waves them off by explaining that she grew up around rich people, a detail we learned from “Best Thing That Ever Happened.” Disappointingly though, this aspect of the story doesn’t have any relevance past that point. Instead, the conflict relies on an anti-cat religious ritual that’s harsh to the point of cartoonish, and Ralph’s reluctance to distance himself from his family in response. It’s too broad of an approach to both introducing the idea of speciesism into this story and to create an issue in their relationship. Tension could be easily introduced with some more microaggressions from the parents—Joseph Sugarman proved that’s easy territory for BoJack to cover—or the more hardscrabble Princess Carolyn reacting negatively to displays of fragrant wealth.


The story also resolves a bit too quickly, as when his parents condescend to Princess Carolyn on the way out the door Ralph blurts out the news that they’re expecting. The bulk of the reveal’s kept off-screen, meaning that we only get to see Princess Carolyn’s grateful smile to close the scene—which is always nice to see, but it’s also a close that we’ve seen a lot of. It’s too neat of a close and too broad an approach to their relationship, and while nothing they do with it is explicitly bad, they’ve made it clear on too many occasions that they can do better.

Another plotline being swept up is Mr. Peanutbutter’s gubernatorial aspirations, which died alongside Zach Braff in the catastrophes of “Underground.” Mr. Peanutbutter publicly declares the end of his campaing and pledges his support to Woodchuck, asking all of his supporters to cast their votes on his behalf. (Though doing so in such a convoluted fashion that I wouldn’t rule out Mr. Peanutbuter being elected governor when it all shakes out.) At the start of the season I was concerned that the campaign stuff would be too close to reality to be funny, but with the exception of the gun control debate that and some early empty campaign speeches the political satire has been comparatively light. It remains as such for the close, and Woodchuck is quick to push Mr. Peanutbutter out the door to run unopposed.


Asking himself “Doggy doggy... what now?” Mr. Peanutbutter falls back into old patterns, once more teaming up with Todd for a PB Livin’ business venture. Given how well Todd’s asexual storyline has gone this season, it’s disappointing to see him returning to the well of crazy schemes, especially one that’s as unsubtle as FBLA: LA. Todd decides that since kids are afraid of dentists but love clowns (because they must, otherwise why would something that terrifies adults be so popular?) the best idea is to mesh the two together and create a clown dentistry. Even for this show, it’s a cartoonish leap, trying a bit too hard to be wacky. On the plus side, it does mean the return of Jake Johnson as beleaguered accountant Oxnard, who often comes across as the only sane person in this world.


But what good is sanity, if Jessica Biel’s running for governor? Turns out that her stint as a fire priestess also lit the fires of ambition, and Katrina’s formed an ex-wife alliance to make her the next candidate. It’s a bit risky for the show to put such a spotlight on a real-world character beyond one episode worth of jokes—not everyone can be Character Actress Margo Martindale after all—but given the connection Biel has to Mr. Peanutbutter, how terrific she was in “Underground,” and the degree she’s willing to play along at her expense, they could make this one work.

This also ties Mr. Peanutbutter back into politics as he pledges his support—and the support of such luminaries as Professor Flim-Flam and Doctor Boing-Boing. At this point, BoJack Horseman is officially abandoning any take on reasoned satire, throwing restraint and logic out the window. One gubernatorial candidate with lobster claws, the other one a fascistic “relatively low-wattage” actress, and in between them an ex-candidate/ex-husband traveling in a clown car? While “The Judge” isn’t the best episode of the season, at least it’s the one to drop us deep into the sea of nonsense.


Stray observations:

  • Achievement in Voice Acting: Hannibal Burress does fine work as Miles, both as an easy-going guy who Hollyhock would be attracted to and an opportunist willing to dump her to sell his script about an intern who wants to be a writer. Best moment is when he’s thrilled BoJack mistook him for a PA.
  • Also re: the FHBA: LA production, that’s Debra and her new face from the Secretariat shoot!
  • At this point BoJack Horseman is so good at its throwaway gags that I expect them to be great, but the moment of the Frogger analogy was so perfect I had to pause the episode and take a few minutes to compose myself.
  • Diane spends the majority of the episode face-down on a massage table, taking full advantage of her temporary housing situation. After the last few weeks she’s had, it’s understandable. (Also, “Bye Cruella!” should become the new “Bye Felicia!”)
  • Stefani is so plugged into social media that you can poke her in the eyeball while she’s on her phone and she won’t even flinch.
  • The catchphrases of FHBA: LA call to mind Rob Huebel on MILF Island. “Calliope, you are ready for this jelly. ... Tasha, our anaconda don’t want none.” “Your booty’s been adjudicated!”
  • “So making TV is like a full-time job? Then why is it so bad? I just assumed people weren’t trying.”
  • “Someone better be checking the pH levels of that Jacuzzi, because these bitches are basic.”
  • “Hey, you wanna explore the back lot? They got a whole area that was built to look like downtown Toronto. That’s where they shoot the stuff set in New York.”
  • “Oh, somebody call the police department, because you are on fire!”
  • “Doc, if this is what’s incisor, I’d hate to see what’s outsides ‘er. Hyuk, hyuk, hyuk!” “Please try to focus, Dr. Boing-Boing.”
  • “I was kinda hoping I was wrong for once.” “If it makes you feel any better, you were wrong about all the other parts of this.”
  • “As a new candidate enters the race, is Woodchuck also ‘unbeata-Biel’? ‘UnbeataBiel’? Randy, you wily son of a... I’ve missed you, buddy! Bring it in!” Yay, Randy’s okay!
  • “It’s been four seconds and I already deeply regret this.”
  • Today in Hollywoo signs: