3P Reviews, Bojack Horseman

It’s All Over Now – Bojack Horseman, Season Six

Bojack Horseman S6 A

The first few episodes of this, the final season of beloved cartoon Bojack Horseman, aired late last year. I’ve waited to cover the series until now mainly because I wanted to review the entire season at once and the second half of the season didn’t come out until later. However, I would be lying if I claimed that as my only excuse. This season left me drained, and not in the way I think it intended. It felt different than the others, colder and more apathetic, disinterested in many of the major emotional developments of the previous seasons, and a bit mean-spirited if I’m being brutally honest.

And to what end? The jokes are still there, the characters are still there, it’s still well-done on a technical level, perhaps even more so at times than the previous seasons. This is easily the most visually impressive the show has ever been, and it plays with tension and drama as well as ever. But the message the season gravitates toward comes across as basic at best and manipulative at worst. Bojack’s sad. And?

I knew that this season would be focused on Bojack, that it would bring his fraught lifestyle and history to a culmination and figure out its own feelings toward him once and for all. That element of the show has never been my favorite, even though it’s rather important. The series is about a problematic man and written for an audience that is primed to empathize with him. I was never going to love the final season of this show, much as I appreciate it elsewhere. But I wanted to. I wanted to appreciate what other people like about it and join in the conversation. I like hearing people talk about it.

The first half of the season left me feeling hollow. I ended up watching the second half out of a sense of obligation more than actual interest. It has some good material in it, and I won’t say it’s outright bad, but I also can’t really recommend it. I doubt I’ll watch it again after this, which is a pity because I love the preceding seasons. I haven’t seen a lot of others with the same negative response, so I kind of feel like I owe it a review. That, and I want to be done with it.

 

3P Reviews Series: Bojack Horseman, Season Six

Spoilers: Oh yes.

Audience Assumptions: Familiarity with the show

 

Part One: Forgiveness

Bojack Horseman S6 B

This season hurts. I imagine that’s likely true for a lot of people, and the hurt is part of the appeal. It’s supposed to hurt a little when a show like this ends. But for me, it’s not a good sort of hurt, the kind that comes when a series you love comes to a beautiful conclusion. I feel empty. Kind of broken. Like something was taken from me that can’t easily be replaced.

And I feel bad for not liking this season. I don’t want to be the sort of person who goes against the grain simply to stand out. But for all of the genuine good this season has in it, so much of it feels antithetical to the series as a whole. It almost feels like it was written by an algorithm at times, catering to a dismal, hypocritical mindset whose mantras include, among others, “You’re better as a sellout,” “Perpetrators are victims too,” “She’s nearly eighteen,” and “Your friends should always give you another chance.” It makes me a little ill, to be honest.

This show usually excels at exploring complex topics in nuanced ways, maybe with a few slip-ups here and there, but it’s always had enough to enjoy that I’ve found it worthwhile. I don’t think this season meant to come across as simplistic in the worst possible ways, and it’s not like the season lacks any nuance whatsoever. I don’t think it wanted to hurt its audience. But that’s kind of the note it ends on.

Before I go into the review in proper, I feel like I should provide some external context for this season. This one took longer to make, and it was the only one of the show’s seasons split into two parts. There is also evidence suggesting that its development was fraught in some way or another. In April of 2019, The Hollywood Reporter published an article detailing tensions between the animation company that worked on Bojack Horseman (and Tuca and Bertie, which came out with its first season that same year). I’m far from versed in the nuances of union organization and contract negotiations, but my understanding is that the animation was outsourced by Netflix to a separate company, which unlike many of Netflix’s other creator organizations, was not unionized. The animators wanted to unionize given the size of their department and the success of the show, and when negotiations with Netflix fell through, went on strike. The animators successfully unionized in the summer. The vibe around this is largely positive, as it should be, with most news reports congratulating the animators on successfully securing their desired outcome. My understanding of the internal support among other members of the Bojack team is that the actors and writers have mostly not voiced their opinion on the strike, which isn’t necessarily a condemnation of or by them, but likely means it’s a bit of a risky subject for them to comment on publicly.

Shortly before the series aired in the winter, Netflix announced that this would be its final season. While the consensus generally seems to be that Netflix decided to end the show, there was confusion for a while about whether the show had been canceled, and if so, why. Netflix has only ever gone on the record to say that the show ended, without clarifying its involvement, while the show creator, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, later explained that he was given notice that this would likely be the show’s final season. If the show had an intended creative ending point, it was not supposed to be this season. I’m not sure it was ever mapped out like that, though. Either way, Bojack and Tuca and Bertie were both stopped despite largely positive attention. Some people have posited that the animators’ strike riled Netflix up, and I’ve heard of other projects cancelled by big studios for similarly petty reasons. At this point, that connection is just hearsay and I doubt we’ll ever get a full look into the situation, but I wanted to bring it up because, if true, it’s the sort of thing I think people would want to know ahead of time.

There’s a lot we don’t know about the context in which this season was made, but if the content is any way to judge, my guess is that it was a bit more rushed and pressured than others have been, and that the internal organization was less cohesive than it has been in the past. I could very well be wrong in that, and even if there were problems behind the screen, they may have had nothing to do with the strike or cancellation. But there are definitely problems in front of it.

Let’s talk about something else — how about the big topical issue episode for this season? It’s a… a film assistant strike. Okay. Look, it’s not a bad episode, but it gave me an unsettling feeling while watching it, where I was never sure whether it was made in solidarity with the actual strike, or as a superficial coating for how the higher ups in the show wanted audiences to assume it went. As the episode goes, the assistants around Hollywoo are up to renew their contracts and request to not be treated like garbage, which Lenny Turtletaub, one of Princess Carolyn’s producer friends, deems unreasonable. Princess Carolyn comes up with the idea of offering the assistants something that sounds good but is meaningless. She and Turtletaub then systematically isolate the assistants and offer them “promotions” that amount to little more than new titles, acting the whole while like Disney villains, until Princes Carolyn has a flashback to her days as an assistant and realizes that she went through the same treatment. With a change of heart, she calls in her former assistant, Judah, to head the assistants’ side of negotiations in the hope that he’ll actually be able to work out a decent agreement for both sides. The key point at the end of negotiations in the following episode is that assistants will no longer be treated like garbage, but recycling.

Yeah… it’s not as poignant a conclusion as this sort of episode has been in the past.

There’s a simplicity to this whole season that feels like it knows the format but not the purpose behind it. Bojack spends the first half of the season in rehab, struggling to face his faults and history, particularly where they pertain to drugs and alcohol. As investigators circle in on his stint in New Mexico, he finds himself a respected acting professor before losing it all in shame, falling to depression, and nearly drowning before being sent to prison for a few months. Princess Carolyn takes care of her new baby (Untitled Princess Carolyn Project), Todd continues to look for another ace to date and reconnects with his parents, Mr. Peanutbutter’s relationship with his young fiancée starts to boil over, and Diane falls in love with her new photographer while trying to writer her memoir. Initially, the season shows just as much promise as any other, and often it fulfills audience expectations; it’s still funny and tragic, and its dialogue remains sharp. A highlight for me is Todd connecting with his stepfather while they try to break into an Amazon-like warehouse to retrieve a kidney. The season is lighter on those sort of absurd subplots I love, but it still has them to some degree or another.

A few episodes in, though, I became aware of a gnawing sense of unease as I watched. I went into the season critical, but I don’t think that accounts for the feeling in full. There isn’t a particular moment or episode that pushed me over the edge and made me decide I wasn’t enjoying it anymore, but rather a cumulative effect of many little decisions that seem at odds with the rest of the series.

Do you remember the Me Too episode that came before the Me Too movement, back in Season Two? Much of this season feels like that.

A lot of the subplots in the first half of the series revolve around the machinations of an evil mega-corporation that Diane spends a lot of time trying to thwart and expose through her reporting. Eventually she finds that the roots of this corporation go so deep that even feel-good stories are tinged by it, eventually prompting Diane to quit her journalism career out of exhaustion. She initially tries to work on her memoir, but switches to writing whimsical detective stories for young adults.

Todd starts the season as upbeat as ever, but lonely. Princess Carolyn hires him as a babysitter and he starts a business because he’s good with kids, then later in the season, he reconnects with his mother and stepfather. Bojack also helps set him up with another ace.

Mr. Peanutbutter’s plot is torn between his love life and his career, the latter as usual wildly successful through little part of his own. He admits to his fiancée, Pickles, that he cheated on her with Diane, but they agree to work things out by finding someone for Pickles to cheat on him with. This of course ends in Pickles running off with her new love, leaving Mr. Peanutbutter to dwell on his own life for a while and go around promoting his pet projects, including writing his memoir.

Princess Carolyn starts the episode like any new parent: cranky and sleep-deprived. This largely goes away once she has Todd to look after her child. She spends much of the rest of the season relishing in her power as a successful producer and reconnecting with her former assistant, Judah, during the assistant strike episode. At the end, they get married.

Like I said, these aren’t bad directions to take the story, but the side character plots feel unusually lean, especially for the final season. If you showed me these characters’ arcs over the course of the series and asked me where they would end up, writing YA, babysitting, doing the same as usual, and married would not be my first guesses.

But then again, the side characters aren’t who we came here to see, are they?

 

Part Two: Consequences

Bojack Horseman S6 C

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t find the way this series handles drug and alcohol addiction realistic or productive, but I say that as someone who has limited experience with either. Obviously, if this series gives you hope and comfort, ignore me, because I’m not a worthwhile voice to distract yourself with. People struggling with those things need support, not internet-induced headaches.

I think whether you empathize with Bojack often comes down to how much of yourself you see in him. While this series has broad appeal, I’ve noticed that like many Adult Swim-style cartoons, it tends to attract a more avid male audience than female. It tends to be a progressive and self-critical male audience, but a largely male audience nonetheless. I am male (well, partly anyway — I’m non-binary), so I suppose I should be counted among them.

The series often seeks to explore aspects of toxic masculinity and expose them, using a character the audience can simultaneously loathe and love to do so. Bojack is, at his core, someone who wants to do better. He’s sorry about the people he’s hurt over the years, and seeks productive resolutions. However, he is also lazy, selfish, and reactionary, unwilling to accept his mistakes and address them moving forward. His arc is one of a constant pull between his morality and his reluctance to make himself uncomfortable to do so. In the end, either way, he always loses.

As a tragic figure, he’s relatable to a great many people, but he especially speaks to problematic men who, while not necessarily as bad as him, still seek redemption. If there’s hope for this man, surely there’s hope for the rest of us too, right?

But is that the story that really matters here?

As we increasingly bring topical issues to the forefront of pop culture, we need to be aware that these issues are not new. Part of that awareness is reflecting on older films and shows and books lauded for their brilliance, and seeing the stories left in the negative space around them. For every Citizen Kane or Psycho, there’s a Moonlight or Lady Bird that didn’t get made in its own time. We can’t change the past, but we can strive to elevate under-heard voices moving forward. Bojack feels like a misstep in that regard, especially in its later seasons.

We have stories about lesser men struggling with their vices and trying to be better. These stories are not bad, necessarily, and those that take a critical look at the foundational systems that create toxic people often touch upon important trends that we can no longer claim ignorance of. At some point, though, you have to stop talking and listen to others, because your story is not as important as theirs. The extent to which Bojack Horseman fails to understand that is what makes this season so depressing to me.

Bojack is the sort of character who leaves behind victims, and at this point in history, it doesn’t matter how nice of a problematic person he is, or how sorry he is, or how he’s trying to change for the better; first and foremost, his story needs to focus on the people he’s hurt and how they’re getting through things. Abusers and assholes forgo the right to the spotlight as soon as they hurt someone. If they want to improve, fine, good even, but that is something they have to come to terms with on their own and with the help of trained professionals who want to help them. Their victims owe them nothing. They shouldn’t have to share the stage with the person who hurt them, much less yield it. Yet, this show finds Bojack so fascinating that, at the last minute, it almost seems to abandon its varied cast of characters and the good will it’s built up for several seasons to focus solely on the tragic hero and how he’s treated unfairly when his creepy behavior comes to public light.

I’m fucking sick of it, man. We get enough of this vacant apologizing with celebrities in the real world. My ability to give a damn is stretched thin. I try to be empathetic. I do. And I think that sometimes there’s a time and place to examine what it takes to make reparations, to be better, to forgive. But I assure you, forgiving yourself for a shitty thing you’ve done is far easier than coming to terms with a shitty thing someone else did to you.

If you want to help, then listen, support, and don’t ask others to bear your burdens. You can ask for help — you can always ask for help — but pay attention to who you’re asking. Some part of the season understands that. The rest of it doesn’t.

 

Part Three: Change

Bojack Horseman S6 D

The scene that gets me about this season is the one at the end during Princess Carolyn’s wedding. Bojack has been released early from his prison sentence to attend, and partway through, Todd insists they go to the beach so he can sit on Bojack’s shoulders to watch the fireworks. It should be a sweet scene; it’s Todd’s innocent friendliness and ability to comfort, and Bojack bantering with him in a snide but not mean-spirited way. They both need a break from the party, and they’re both enjoying a moment like the old days. It’s very similar to the final scene of the series with Diane and Bojack on the rooftop.

There’s something missing from this scene for me, and it’s an acknowledgement that things have changed. I love Todd as a character, hell I’ve cosplayed as him he means so much to me. Even setting aside the monumental fact that he’s one of only a handful of ace characters who acknowledges it in-story, he’s easily one of the funniest parts of the series and his arc has had poignant moments. I keep thinking back to Todd realizing that Bojack ruined his rock opera, or Todd struggling to explain why he isn’t interested in hooking up with his former girlfriend, or him breaking up with Emily. The monologue he gets in Season Four where he breaks down and calls out Bojack for blaming his failures on others remains the highlight of the series for me. It’s such a furious and exhausted and solemn reaction from a character who is defined by being the cheerful goofball, but it’s fully earned, and it puts to words how I often feel watching this show. I don’t think the series needed to end on something like that, but if you’ve ever been in a conversation like that, it’s hard to forget, even when things are going well with that person in the present.

And here, there’s just nothing.

Todd is naive in his final scene to an infantilizing degree. He seems to have blissfully forgotten Bojack’s insults to him personally, much less his failing to other people. The season regularly establishes that Todd is a good babysitter because he’s willing to treat babies as equals, and I generally find that okay because it’s framed in a loving way that toys with the idea that Todd is a bit childish, but in a good way. Except at the end here. By denying us the self-awareness this character has had at other points in the series, it puts him in a state of arrested development, undoing seasons of character growth and implying that he’s little more than an overgrown baby. That really stings, especially in a character who is prominently ace.

It doesn’t feel like Todd in this season was written by an alien so much as by someone who only saw the first season of the show. It’s extremely disheartening, and it’s not an isolated case either.

Diane gets married to her photographer boyfriend and ends up happy, but that involves her giving up her passion for investigative journalism and politics, and settling for YA entertainment because, “it’s fun.” She learns to settle, that she was never meant to care deeply about social issues, and she should just root for the racist mascot. She can’t change the world, so she might as well give up and enjoy it, because serious issues preclude escapism and vice-versa. That’s… not what I thought her arc was amounting to. It’s also pretty upsetting to see Diane told by others what she herself likes, like she’s incapable of making that decision for herself.

Mr. Peanutbutter avoids taking responsibility for his actions and is back to his usual self at the end of the show, making money through happenstance and squandering it the same way. Pickles leaves him, but if that has any impact on him long-term, it’s insubstantial. He continues to fail upward, as usual.

Like the other side characters, very little of the season shows much of Princess Carolyn, mainly reserving her parts to the very beginning and very end of the season. She starts it overwhelmed by her new baby, has a minor breakthrough in the strike episode, then at the end she gets married. She’s in others, but almost none of them concern her story. She stays at her job as a producer and any conflict derived from the pressures of her work and home life are resolved off-screen.

All except for Diane, these characters stay friends with Bojack.

I’m framing the season like it’s a mess, and to me it is, but I am selling it a bit short and those who praise it have reason to. Moments like Todd’s stepfather pointing out that he can get away with his shenanigans because he’s a white boy, or Diane wrestling with the fear of being seen as illegitimate for being on antidepressants, both speak to the sort of insight this show gives that remains rare in other sectors. I continue to enjoy the clever jokes and bizarre characters, and if you’re looking to find something enjoyable, it’s there. There’s genuine depth as well; Bojack’s low point in the second to last episode and the series’ choice to not kill him are important in sending a positive message. Similarly, when the show hits the tone I think it’s searching for, it can be powerful. Hollyhock returns in this season, and the framing around her is exactly where it needs to be. Some relationships can’t be mended.

I just wish the show didn’t fumble that message. When it drops the ball, it drops it hard, and I’m having a hard time trusting that it’s worth retrieving. I’ve given the show plenty of time, plenty of consideration, and parts of it will always be important to me, but unlike many of the characters in the show, I think it’s time to let Bojack Horseman go. Watch Tuca and Bertie, and pay attention to how it differs from this series. Tuca and Bertie is not the sort of thing I would normally find appealing, either in its humor or aesthetic, but it does what Bojack doesn’t and it’s the more important series to watch. I wish I didn’t have to choose between them. Some people won’t. But for me, I think it’s the right one.

 

 

Series Breakdown Rating:

Characters: 8 
Aesthetics and Style: 6
Humor: 8
Overall Plot: 6
Subplots: 9
Sum: 37/50

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