Five seasons in, BoJack Horseman has perfected its mix of satire, wall-to-wall (sometimes literally) visual gags, and quietly devastating drama. The two-dimensional medium hasn’t prevented series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg from developing some of TV’s most complex characters, or from offering one of the most compelling explorations of what it means to be human. It’s no longer surprising that a show packed to the gills with animal puns can also break your heart—indeed, most fans recalibrated their expectations after the first season ended with a fade to black instead of an answer to BoJack’s (Will Arnett) question about his decency.
Looking back at that season-one query and BoJack’s subsequent attempts at self-improvement in the years since, what’s also become clear is that this darkly comedic animated series is uniquely qualified to examine the current cultural reckoning of the #MeToo movement. Bob-Waksberg and his writers—including Kate Purdy, Joanna Calo, Elijah Aron, and Alison Tafel—have long been sending up the more ridiculous aspects of celebrity culture through BoJack Horseman’s Hollywoo(d) setting, but they haven’t ignored the power inequities. They’ve been there since season one, when BoJack’s ghostwriter, Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), made the calculated move to leak some of the memoir she’d written to garner sympathy for the washed-up sitcom star. The redemption process that we’re careening through in real life—hurry up and forgive this or that sexual abuser, lest we miss out on any of his great art!—has been in the background of every season of BoJack Horseman. The show’s self-destructive lead has been testing the limits of fans’ empathy and forgiveness since he first sold out his friend Herb Kazzaz (Stanley Tucci). BoJack’s traumatic childhood and ongoing depressive state offer mitigating factors, but they don’t cancel out the harm he’s done to others, like trying to have sex with the teenage daughter (Ilana Glazer) of his friend Charlotte (Olivia Wilde) in season two, and nudging his other friend, recovering addict Sarah Lynn (Kristen Schaal), from the edge of her tenuous sobriety into the bender that kills her in season three.
The new season was already underway when the #MeToo movement gained new traction last fall, but it’s full of moments that tap directly into fears that the needle hasn’t actually moved, and conversely, that the pendulum will swing too far in the opposite direction and accusations of sexual assault will impede a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land. The fourth episode of this season, “BoJack The Feminist,” lifts the curtain to show all the players in the redemption process, from the offenders—here, it’s Bobby Cannavale as Vance Waggoner, an amalgam of Hollywood assholes with an extra dose of Mel Gibson—whose comebacks are plotted by high-powered spin doctors (Angela Bassett as Ana Spanakopita), rubber-stamped by mid-tier agents/producers like Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), then offered for public consumption. To demonstrate just how pervasive this cycle is, BoJack introduces the We Forgive You Awards, whose recipients include Mark Wahlberg (who committed a real hate crime in 1988), Megyn Kelly, and of course, the fictional Vance, who hates women, Jews, and Swedes.
The A.V. Club recently spoke with Bob-Waksberg about how the show addresses toxic men and the culture that enables them, which turned into a broader discussion about the responsibilities of anyone in power. He won’t call the fifth season prescient or timely (any attempts to keep up with the news cycle would be pointless anyway, since as of this writing, Les Moonves has been ousted from CBS while Mel Gibson and Bryan Singer have scored high-profile jobs). If anything, it’s long overdue. “These are stories we should have been telling for the last 20 years,” Bob-Waksberg says. “I don’t think I’m ahead of the curve, or the show’s ahead of the curve in talking about this because I was only aware on a surface level what was happening, but I do think everyone in the industry had some sickly phantom awareness of it.”
Despite extensive reports that detail just how endemic this abuse is in Hollywood, the conversation is already pivoting to redemption, with Louis CK popping up at the Comedy Cellar and Matt Lauer bragging about getting back on TV. The survivors—who, in the case of the abusers previously mentioned, are mostly women—are being told to figure how they can get over their trauma as quickly as possible (again, we wouldn’t want anything to stand in the way of more of this wonderful art).
But not on BoJack Horseman. The show has opened up a nuanced but still painful discussion about if and when forgiveness should be offered. Diane is racked with guilt that she’s “giving cover” to bad men, whether it’s believing in the possibility of BoJack’s rehabilitation or writing a show (the in-story Philbert, a pastiche of prestige dramas) that could be seen as normalizing the often abusive behaviors displayed by the “difficult men” who have seized the imaginations of showrunners and viewers alike. But the storyline that best captures the uneven power dynamics belongs to new addition Gina Cazador, voiced with wry warmth by Stephanie Beatriz. Gina is a working actor with few illusions and little desire to earn the label of “difficult” (a word with a very different connotation when applied to women). She eventually becomes one of the most viable love interests we’ve seen for BoJack, earning acclaim along the way for her portrayal of a detective named Sassy Malone.
In the season’s darkest turn, BoJack, who’s struggled to separate reality from the show he’s filming that dovetails all too neatly with his own life, snaps and strangles Gina on set. When a video of the attack goes viral, it’s Gina who pushes the narrative that it’s been taken out of context. She’s worked too hard to be reduced to an (admittedly horrible) anecdote. “I don’t want you to be the most notable thing that’s ever happened to me,” she tells him. It was necessary that Gina not “just be a tool for BoJack’s story and BoJack’s outlet,” Bob-Waksberg told us. He emphasizes the importance of the writers not seeing Gina as only a victim either: “I’ve seen the mistakes too often of just having these women characters be the victim or be the woman that the main character sleeps with and then is discarded. Even knowing that we were basically telling a one-season arc with this character, we wanted to try to flesh her out as much as we could.” Gina is a wonderfully realized character, one who’s almost as world-weary as BoJack but nowhere near as entitled. She’s “a woman who had always kind of survived in the periphery of Hollywood and eked out this good career for herself by not being a household name.” But she worries she’ll lose this belated momentum if the truth about the attack comes out. “It is a difficult choice for her,” Bob-Waksberg says, “and I think Stephanie’s acting in that scene is incredible. You understand the difficulty of that choice, which to me felt grounded in [Beatriz’s performance].”
BoJack Horseman doesn’t rush to forgive or judge its deeply flawed lead, even though by the end of season five, he’s begging Diane to write an exposé about all of his misdeeds. (It’s telling that this is the only time an influential man/horseman will abdicate his authority.) Hold me accountable, BoJack tells her, but she wants him to take responsibility—in other words, to do the work, advice that should be heeded by any abuser who so much as thinks about what reform looks like. This thorny issue of redemption has preoccupied Bob-Waksberg, who, while not being even remotely in the same area as someone like BoJack, let alone Gibson, has spent a lot of this press tour apologizing for the colorblind casting choice that led to Brie voicing the Vietnamese-American Diane. Bob-Waksberg acknowledges this early misstep while also promoting the current season, saying, “There’s a real fear in going out on a limb and saying, ‘I’m sorry. I screwed up.’ There’s an impulse or feeling that, well, I’m not going to acknowledge my mistake until I have completely and fully fixed it.” He points to a moment in season four, in which BoJack tells Diane “the reason he didn’t call her was because he wanted to be better when she saw him again. And she says, ‘I can’t wait for you to be better. I need you.’ I think one of the things that I’ve realized from making this show is that you can’t wait for that. The only way forward is by working through it.”
There are no throwaway jokes in BoJack Horseman—the baffling choice to invest in colanders one episode can turn into a life-saving decision by the end of a season. The show rewards observant viewers with all kinds of visual gags, but it’s elevated the art of the callback, producing one of the most sensitive and sophisticated treatments of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements we’ve seen so far. BoJack Horseman is still an animated series, with all the elastic boundaries that implies, but there are consequences—look no further than the renaming of Hollywood as “Hollywoo” after BoJack stole the “D” from the sign. A much more gutting example is BoJack saying in episode four that refraining from choking women is the lowest bar of decency we can set for men, then losing control during and strangling his co-star in episode 11. What the show with some of the wittiest dialogue on TV is saying is that actions mean more than words, a sentiment that Bob-Waksberg seems to echo. He’s ready to hold himself accountable for all of his creative decisions, even if it means committing them to the internet’s long memory: “That’s a little scary, but I think it’s good.”