The Cartoon That Hits Home in Our #MeToo Era

BoJack Horseman tackles sin and forgiveness in a way that few other shows do.

BoJack Horseman Season 5 / Netflix / YouTube Screenshot

Few TV shows are as well-positioned as BoJack Horseman to say something interesting about #MeToo—something complicated and challenging that holds out hope for real repentance and forgiveness even after we’ve been subjected to so many cynical facsimiles of them. Season five of Netflix’s cartoon comedy proves itself willing to ask harder questions than it ever has before. If it disappoints, well, that is “classic BoJack”: the show, like its antihero, will make you love it even as it lets you down.

BoJack, the creation of Raphael Bob-Waksberg, takes place in a candy-colored world where many of the characters are animal-headed hybrid creatures: BoJack (voiced by Will Arnett), a washed-up alcoholic celebrity on the comeback trail, is half-horse (and half-jackass); his manager/producer Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) is partly a pink cat; his frenemy Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins) has the head, brain, and resplendent chest hair of a golden retriever. The cast is rounded out by characters who are only too human, primarily Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), BoJack’s biographer and foil, and Todd Chavez (Aaron Paul), the flighty asexual who hangs around because BoJack’s too distracted to throw him out.

The show’s first four seasons were a depressive’s delight. Fast-paced quips mixed with absurd animal humor; weird, beautiful decisions served complex themes, like season three’s suggestion that our lives boil down to a choice between parenting or killing. BoJack has been honest about the most exhausting aspects of depression and addiction (depression isn’t just fun and games…), and has occasionally compared the setbacks in its main character’s stumbling moral progress to the eternal present tense of a sitcom, in which the problems and resolutions of every “Very Special Episode” are forgotten by the time the next week’s show starts.

But over the course of the show, BoJack has changed. Last season found him genuinely (albeit resentfully and sometimes sleazily) trying to care for both his maybe-daughter Hollyhock and his estranged, dying mother Beatrice. It ended horribly for everybody, because the universe doesn’t always reward you. So season five finds BoJack in the stage of relapse where you’re setting rules for yourself: he’s got a vodka bottle in his freezer with the days marked along the sides, one inch by Monday, one inch by Tuesday.

Season five takes a while to get going, and its working parts never quite come together with the snap of earlier seasons. There’s less humor—and much less creativity in using the half-animal conceit. Where earlier seasons got a lot of laughs from BoJack’s self-hatred and his useless awareness of his problems, this season’s blunt talk tends toward the self-helpy. (Exceptions include BoJack’s voicemail monologue in the first episode, “I miss you—ugh, sorry, that sounded dumb. I just called you because I was bored. Wait, that sounded dumb too,” and one of the season’s best throwaway moments, the poster on a girl’s bedroom wall that reads, “I’LL SELF-CARE WHEN I SELF-DIE.”) The side characters’ stories mostly remain too detached from BoJack’s journey. Princess Carolyn’s quest to adopt, for example, seems like a leftover from the previous two seasons and their intense focus on parenthood. It’s always good to see the softer side of P.C., but her story never connects to this season’s themes or A-plot.

So on purely technical grounds, season five is BoJack’s weakest. But it also might be the show’s bravest. BoJack has always left disaster in his wake. His own self-loathing has damaged countless lives—mostly, though not only, women’s lives, even now that he’s trying to do better, to get off the treadmill of seeking praise, oblivion, and then dramatic, no-cost redemption. He’s so intent on playing the hero that his attempts at noble self-sacrifice backfire onto other people. (You never want your feminist stance against exploitation to end with somebody calling, “Can we get some nipple ice for Yolanda?”)

BoJack is working again, on a confusing noir procedural about a renegade cop who might be seeing ghosts (one of BoJack’s most consistent messages is that your past will always hurt you, especially if you lie to yourself about it). This season has the show’s first Halloween episode, but BoJack has always been a haunted horse. He accidentally snubs a co-star with a history of violence, a Mel Gibson/Mark Wahlberg/Alec Baldwin mashup who’s being honored at the “We Forgive You Awards” (the “Forgivies” are the first hint of where the season’s going), and becomes a feminist celebrity.

And here things get difficult, because BoJack’s new show glorifies a man whose violent outbursts are the result of hidden pain. Diane, in a commentary on BoJack as well as BoJack, decries shows that are just excuses “for dumb assholes to rationalize their bad behavior.” She snaps, “Did you really mean what you said before the screening, about how [the PI show] Philbert made you feel okay about yourself? Because that’s not the point—for guys to feel okay.” The writers clearly mean this; equally clearly, Diane is being a self-righteous jerk. She uses her anger at BoJack’s obvious misdeeds as camouflage for her own self-absorbed cruelties. The fact that she feels so good about denouncing BoJack is a symptom of her own spiritual sickness.

Diane’s greatness as a character is that she’s a stealth BoJack, a series of small catastrophes stacked up inside the skin of a competent adult woman. In this season, BoJack goes further than ever before towards being not just sleazy but scary. The show pushes his mistreatment of women as far as it thinks it can without losing our ability to empathize. (It also rejects, and bless Bob-Waksberg and his crew for this, the contemporary ideology that empathy is a zero-sum game.) The show satirizes cheap amends and all the ways women get pressured to excuse men’s misbehavior in order to avoid making things worse for themselves.

But it also attacks the culture of unforgiveness: the way we posture about not forgiving others, the way we separate out the goats to reassure ourselves that we are sheep. The main rise-and-fall arc this season isn’t BoJack’s but Diane’s. Buoyed by her outrage culture job at a listicle website called Girl Croosh, Diane flies high on her own supply of righteous indignation—and it leaves her guilty, unhappy, only too aware of her own misdeeds but not even knowing how to admit them.

The final scene of the season shows BoJack checking in to rehab. This would be a cliché (the rehab is even called Pastiches!) if the point of the scene weren’t to show Diane, left behind in the parking lot, having encouraged BoJack to get help but slowly realizing she has nowhere to turn for her own correction and restoration. She has offered him love—not excusing his sins but standing by him in his failure. Who will stand by her in hers?

In a letter to Saint Jane de Chantal, Saint Francis de Sales writes, “Although we may love the abjection that follows from the evil, still we must not neglect to remedy the evil. …And in matter of sin again, we must keep to this rule: I have committed some fault; I am grieved at it, although I embrace with good heart the abjection that follows from it. And if one could be separated from the other, I would dearly cherish the abjection, and would take away the evil and sin.”

The humiliation BoJack experiences in finally entering rehab is his addiction’s gift to him. Diane is left with no language to express her longing for repentance: for the clean, exposed abjection that would replace the hidden and infected abjection she lives in. BoJack isn’t cute about male violence or sexual misuse of women; it doesn’t blur all sins together in a muddy wash of vague, no-consequences guilt. But it does show universal failure (if only there were addiction treatment for self-righteousness and unkindness…) and a universal longing. If only we could have BoJack’s abjection without committing his crimes!

Eve Tushnet is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith and Amends: A Novel, and editor of the forthcoming Christ’s Body, Christ’s Wounds: Staying Catholic When You’ve Been Hurt in the Church. She blogs at Patheos.

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8 Responses to The Cartoon That Hits Home in Our #MeToo Era

  1. D1ll says:

    Excellent article. I have watched the show since its beginning, and always found Diane to be a toxic person with severe personality and character flaws that parallel those of Bojack.

    It is interesting that much of the viewership doesn’t seem to notice that Diane was and is not merely Bojack’s foil, and that she certainly isn’t an aspirational figure. I think it telling that many viewers seem to identify with Diane as an audience surrogate. The show deftly but subtly demonstrates the personal costs and attendant psychological trauma of hyper-partisanship and call out culture on its adherents.

  2. Wilfred says:

    Horse-face is looking for work these days. This show should hire her.

  3. Donald says:

    “It also rejects, and bless Bob-Waksberg and his crew for this, the contemporary ideology that empathy is a zero-sum game.)”

    “But it also attacks the culture of unforgiveness: the way we posture about not forgiving others, the way we separate out the goats to reassure ourselves that we are sheep.”

    These were very smart observations. I have never heard of the show and don’t feel inclined to seek it out–it sounds too depressing. But this review might be an adequate substitute.

  4. SEATAF says:

    Nice article.

  5. Thrice A Viking says:

    Didn’t the show also recently make its appearance on Comedy Central’s regular lineup, or is that something else with a similar name?

  6. Richard Parker says:

    I watched much (but not all) of seasons 1-3. Newbies: Be warned! It’s very uneven and an acquired taste.

  7. Max Charles says:

    The leading threat to women in the Western world is creeping Sharia law, brought on by mass immigration and sexual assaults by unvetted “migrants” from the third world. The Feminist leaders are not just looking the other way on this, they are standing shoulder to shoulder with Islamist invaders. Is it too early to speak of an alliance between the 2 groups? In the U.S., for example, the Feminist leaders have tried to discredit Donald Trump from day one. Why? A political leader who advocates secure borders and keeping out dangerous fanatics is a threat to women??? Or is he a threat to a cozy alliance between Feminist and Islamist leaders? Currently in Sweden and many other European states, sexual assault by “migrants” is an epidemic but a female victim can expect to be bullied and harassed by Feminist activists if she dares reveal that she was attacked by a migrant. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a Feminist but it’s time to take a hard look at what the Feminist leaders in the Western world are doing.

  8. Rick Steven D. says:

    Donald and I must have been separated at birth. I was going to post in response to those very two passages. Glad I checked the comments first. Still, just one more time, from the top: THE CONTEMPORARY IDEOLOGY THAT EMPATHY IS A ZERO-SUM GAME

    “The humiliation Bojack experiences…is his addiction’s gift to him.”

    A sentence that can only have been written by a soul in recovery. Or, from somewhere in the Twelve and Twelve: “We in recovery have found that PAIN is a touchstone of all spiritual growth”.

    Eve, I want you to know something. Around the time of your last TAC article I came across a YouTube lecture you did, I think about your book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith (the title alone could give a Biblical literalist nightmares). I was very taken with your manifest humility, even grace. That night I attended my AA home group, a GLBT special interest meeting on Long Island. Home, to me. At one point I raised my hand. I am rarely eloquent in meetings, but that night was one of those occasions, more due to your inspiration than to my own powers. I forget most of what I shared, but at one point I did say something like “and what this lesbian Catholic writer said that struck me, the question that Christians should bring to GLBT people, shouldn’t be about their identity and how it conflicts with scripture, but the question should be: how is LOVE made manifest in your life? Where does love figure into your life? What relationships, friendships, particularly with other GLBT people, where does love come into it?” I may have mangled your message, Eve, and I didn’t break your anonymity, but I’m sure you have had the experience in AA meetings of sharing something that strikes a chord, and hearing the murmurs in the church basement, and seeing the nods all over the room? That night was one of those times for me. God bless

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