Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s animated Netflix sitcom, BoJack Horseman, nominally a Hollywood satire about a depressed actor who happens to be a talking horse, constructs jokes and tragedies alike as Rube Goldberg machines. A BoJack plot is a cascade of unlikely events, each triggering increasingly ridiculous developments until the punchline lands — always just a little bit sooner or later than you anticipated, always leaving you jolted and vulnerable, like going down a staircase and finding one more stair than you remembered.
Take the example of bit character Vance Waggoner. Waggoner is caught on a cop’s dashboard cam yelling “I HATE JEWS,” then makes a movie with a Jewish actor to “prove” he’s not anti-Semitic, then, in the process of promoting that movie, is questioned by a journalist about the time he beat a woman, then, in the process of giving an interview intended to downplay the incident, is surprised with a tape of a phone call in which he threatens to murder his 14-year-old daughter and tells her, “I hate Swedes.” (“Bet you didn’t see that coming!” Waggoner adds, evidently thrilled by the chance to unveil a new ethnic prejudice.) That was the set-up. Here’s the punchline: For all this, Waggoner is offered a lifetime achievement prize at the evidently prestigious We Forgive You Awards.
This is Season 5’s abiding preoccupation: bad men in entertainment, and how easily we forgive them. To its credit, BoJack covered this years before #MeToo. Its fantastic 2015 episode “Hank After Dark,” in which feminist writer Diane Nguyen tries to report on alleged sexual assaults by talk show host Hank Hippopopalous, only to have Hank quash her story, was read at the time as a simple Bill Cosby dig. It now resonates with at least a dozen recent cases — most notably Harvey Weinstein, who allegedly manipulated the press to kill stories about his wrongdoing. (Thanks to Lisa Hanawalt’s indelible character design, Hank — thickset, stubbly, big chin busting out of his suit — looks eerily like a hippo Weinstein.)
“We know how this ends,” Diane acknowledges. “Our core readership eats it up, a bunch of dudebros call me a dumb slunt, and Vance’s career chugs right along.” The world is a never-ending conveyor belt of predatory men, and we still forgive them. But this time around, BoJack is holding itself accountable.
BoJack is centered on a glamorously bad man — BoJack, the alcoholic self-medicating emotionally abusive narcissistic man-horse. And BoJack is fascinated by its lead’s badness, and the pain that fuels it — a fascination it shares with a long line of anti-hero dramas, from The Sopranos to Mad Men. At their best, these shows challenge us to broaden the scope of our empathy. At their worst, they pass off half-baked moral relativism as insight: “We’re all terrible,” BoJack explains, “so therefore we’re all okay.”
But we are not all equally terrible; actions have consequences, predators have victims, and we as a culture have more urgent tasks than to spin complicated fictional rationalizations for wealthy (usually white) men’s hurtful behavior. (“He didn’t mean it!” reads a sign for Vance Waggoner.)
So, in Season 5, BoJack eats itself, criticizing the tradition of TV to which it belongs: BoJack is now playing a tormented detective on a painfully bad anti-hero drama. Diane is working as a consulting producer on that show, and finding that everything she writes to besmirch BoJack’s character makes viewers like him more. And she also finds herself caught up in a familiar crusade — to deny an abusive man, Waggoner, his platform. It’s what feminists do. It’s what Diane has always done. It’s who she is.
And then the actual premise of the season hits: Diane receives a tape of her best friend, BoJack Horseman, confessing to inappropriate sexual behavior with a teenage girl. We, the viewers, saw it in a previous episode. Diane didn’t know, but BoJack hasn’t given her reason to expect better. Diane, a self-appointed feminist avenger, has been giving BoJack goddamn Horseman, the most obviously toxic man-slash-horse in Southern California, a pass every day.
And so have we. We have even less of an excuse than Diane, since we know more about BoJack. The call is coming from inside the house: We thought we were rooting against Vance Waggoner, we laughed at the idiots handing out We Forgive You Awards, and here we were, taking yet another bad man’s side. Forgiving him everything, just so we can be entertained.
What did I tell you? The punchline never hits you where you’d expect.