The best episode of BoJack Horseman’s new season almost entirely consists of a one-shot, 20-minute monologue. Midway through, BoJack (voiced by Will Arnett) says, “Everything I learned about being good, I learned from TV. Bad characters are redeemed with one grand gesture of goodness. But life doesn’t work like that. You have to be good every day.” This quote captures the tragic, beating heart of BoJack Horseman, television’s preeminent cartoon about a super-depressed talking horse. Season one took time to find its footing—and lost potential viewers as a result—but since then BoJack has become the most confident, audacious and experimental show on television.
Of course, the show is also very, very sad. BoJack Horseman has featured plotlines about abortion, overdosing, school shootings, sexual abuse, depression and cyclical family dysfunction. It contains a complete cast of flawed characters—no one is spared—who all want to be a better version of themselves but are addicted to self-sabotage. Imagine if Mad Men’s Don Draper existed in the world of Arrested Development. That’s our leading man, BoJack, a has-been 90s sitcom star who can be at times charming, abusive, funny, talented and a total trainwreck of a person.
In BoJack Horseman’s colorful animated world, sentient animals and humans coexist in “Hollywoo” (the “D” was stolen off the Hollywood sign in season one). There are almost-analogues to celebrities we know—like the dolphin “Sextina Aquafina”—and delightfully corny animal puns abound. The show mixes wicked Hollywood satire (one episode shows network executives struggling to fit the release of a hyper-violent movie between mass shootings) with blink-and-you-miss-them background jokes, rat-a-tat wordplay and obscure callbacks to previous seasons. Not one second of the show is mailed in (even the opening and end credits evolve to fit the plot). Every episode is dense with comedy.
And if BoJack Horseman was only a comedy, it would be the best on TV, but it’s not only a comedy. Though we expect a lighthearted romp from an animated show starring talking animals, BoJack instead uses humor as a Trojan (*clears throat*) horse, smuggling existential sadness once we’ve lowered our defenses. The show really exists to poke at the reality that life’s greatest tragedies are often of our own making. George Orwell once said: “Human beings want to be good, but not too good, and not quite all the time.” In the world of BoJack Horseman, this is the saddest truth there is.
This makes the show extremely uncomfortable to watch, a mean-spirited The Office with higher stakes. BoJack Horseman forces us to feel the sadness that culture conditions us to avoid at all costs. We celebrate youth and beauty (what do the Kardashians represent if not that?) and run from reminders of aging and mortality. We fill religious services with placebo effects: upbeat songs and five-steps-to-happiness sermons. The motto of the largest Christian radio station is “positive, encouraging, safe for the whole family,” as though the Sermon on the Mount started with “blessed are the safe.”
Bookstores and blogs present a mixed bag of self-empowerment tools, and even the best of these are marred by a flawed premise: You’re a good person, mostly, just tweak these few habits. When those directions fail, we blame others for our unhappiness, and the easiest others to blame are those of a different religion, skin tone or sexuality. We elect politicians who promise us happiness and we MAGA our way over the people they say are in our way.
In season five of BoJack Horseman, a marginally-improved BoJack wants to believe that while he’s not good exactly, he’s good enough. But our titular horse still won’t acknowledge the sins of his past, and he definitely won’t confess them to the people who care about him. Throughout the new season, we watch as BoJack’s attempts to curb his alcoholism slip, how his white lies expand into destructive actions, and his cover-up of a brand new addiction. It’s telling that the one moment of true vulnerability for BoJack—that 20-minute monologue—occurs absent any of his friends.
For all of BoJack’s growth—his newfound ability to apologize, for instance—he’ still running from genuine repentance, the only path to genuine transformation. Human brokenness is a spiritual cancer and it isn’t confined to the individual. In past seasons we’ve seen how BoJack’s brokenness has crushed hearts, ruined careers and, in one shocking instance, enabled a younger woman’s relapse and overdose. This is why the characters of BoJack Horseman intersect: Their dynamics are a reminder that what we owe each other is more than we want to admit. Our hidden monsters, the parts trapped in a Romans 7 addiction to doing what we don’t want to do, never stay hidden. They must be dealt with.
BoJack Horseman’s sadness, then, isn’t just self-indulgent ennui but rather a wake-up call insisting that “good enough,” isn’t. In season five, BoJack is forced to decide whether he will confess his sins not just once, but every day. That’s what it takes to be good in BoJack, “taking up your cross” daily and turning grand gestures into character formation.
BoJack Horseman doesn’t always know where the path to redemption lies. There’s holiness in the longing, but longing alone isn’t enough. This hilarious cartoon about a depressed talking horse is reminding us that our faith has to lead to action, or it’s worthless.