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The Best Writing on TV Is on BoJack Horseman

No other show managed the same tricky combination of comedy, drama, and #MeToo commentary.

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photo by Netflix
Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photo by Netflix
Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photo by Netflix

Well-written television shows are, by nature, smart television shows. They’re the kind of dramas and comedies that are meticulously planned but nevertheless take audiences by surprise, because our brains are always at least a half-step behind their narratives. They are filled with clever dialogue and details that speak to bigger themes without announcing those themes in flashing neon lights. They may be solid in all aspects of craft, from acting to production design to direction, but they are built on a foundation of exceptional writing. A smart television show starts by being smart on the page.

BoJack Horseman was smarter on the page than any other TV show that aired during the last year. The fifth season of the Netflix animated series delivered a multifaceted narrative that forced its equine protagonist to reckon with his own misogyny and forced series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg, as well as his fellow writers, to reckon with gender and cultural marginalization in the entertainment industry. It regularly broke with convention, pausing from its central story lines to devote an entire half-hour to a eulogy or an international trip. It addressed the issues raised by the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements during an era when many shows were doing the same thing, but distinguished itself from the pack by questioning the patriarchy intellectually and also sincerely, sometimes sarcastically, and always meaningfully. And it never resorted to providing easy answers.

The writing on BoJack Horseman has been great since the beginning, but season five really outdid itself on scales large and small. The season is structured around BoJack’s new role as the titular star of Philbert, a violent, male-centric prestige detective drama that serves as another comeback for the alcoholic former Horsin’ Around star. Philbert is also the filter through which the Netflix show runs its critique of an auteur-obsessed Hollywood that gives allegedly brilliant, but actually pretentious, men free rein to tell cliché stories. That special masculine permission extends to how men are treated after engaging in deplorable behavior, something the series explores when BoJack’s work on the noirish series — not to mention a growing addiction to painkillers — leads him to physically assault his co-star and offscreen girlfriend, Gina (Stephanie Beatriz).

The season is built around a male character dealing with classic anti-hero problems while playing a prototypical anti-hero and acting like one in real life. But there are deliberate diversions from that framework. Several episodes focus on female characters and come across initially as stand-alone installments. By the end, it’s obvious those sidebars are actually as fundamental to the themes and concerns of the season as the ones that more obviously advance the central story line.

There’s “The Dog Days Are Over,” which follows Diane (Alison Brie), BoJack’s closest friend, on a trip to Vietnam that’s supposed to reconnect her with her roots but only makes her feel more isolated. And there’s “The Amelia Earhart Story,” which flashes back to the teen years of Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), BoJack’s agent, and illustrates how her experience with an unplanned pregnancy shaped the woman she would become. There’s “INT. SUB,” in which Diane’s therapist (Issa Rae), and the therapist’s wife (Wanda Sykes), a mediator attempting to resolve a string cheese-related conflict between roommates Princess Carolyn and Todd, take over temporarily as the series’ narrators. Even “Free Churro,” which takes place at the funeral for BoJack’s mother, and “Mr. Peanut Butter’s Boos,” which revisits several Halloween parties attended by Mr. Peanut Butter and his various exes, including Diane, are about men who don’t make enough of an effort to put themselves in the shoes of women who have been instrumental in their lives. By the time the season reaches its final moment, which shifts the focus away from the rehab-bound BoJack and onto Diane, it becomes clear that all 12 episodes served a purpose: to slowly, in fits and starts, turn a TV show about a man (okay, okay, a horseman) wrestling with his personal demons into one that’s almost equally about women.

The oft-repeated rule of great writing is “show, don’t tell.” BoJack Horseman follows that rule by not simply telling us that female voices are too often silenced in our culture but showing us what it looks like when those voices get to be heard in a setting where they often are sidelined: a TV show about a flawed male protagonist. The episodes that zero in on women are placed at carefully considered positions within the season’s overall arc so they naturally build toward key, empowering decisions for Gina and Princess Carolyn, and a conclusion that places Diane at center stage.

As a comedy, BoJack’s primary objective is to make us laugh, and it does that consistently, with hilarious, quotable lines (“Well of course every idea sounds stupid when you describe what it is.” — Mr. Peanut Butter), fully developed visual gags that fly by in a nanosecond, and the punny imagination of its people-meets-personified-animal setting. As regular BoJack viewers know, you have to watch episodes multiple times to catch everything that’s happening in the frame. Sometimes hitting pause is necessary, too, especially if you want to read the full text of the sign at Mr. Peanut Butter’s housewarming party: “Mr. Peanut Butter’s Housewarming Bash and Can You Send Me a Picture of the Banner Before It Goes Off to the Printer This Time?” That’s one of many wonderful Easter eggs slyly embedded within BoJack, none of which would exist if someone hadn’t written them into the scripts. (Correction: Bob-Waksberg pointed out on Twitter that the background gags actually stem from the minds of the background designers and storyboarders, not the scripts, evidence that Bojack’s exceptional writing extends off the page as well.)

This season also lands plenty of gut punches, particularly when BoJack tries to take responsibility for abusing Gina. It becomes clear that it’s easier for several women, including Gina herself, to forget what happened and move forward. BoJack wants to be held accountable, but Diane who reminds him, “No one is going to hold you accountable. You have to take responsibility for yourself.” This is another way of saying: You are a man and can get away with anything, so be a man and decide to admit your mistakes yourself. This is another thing that BoJack’s writers do extraordinarily well: They write clear exchanges between characters that are enriched by the subtext that lies beneath them as well as the cultural context surrounding them.

The message Diane conveys to BoJack about accountability sounds as relevant now, as the Jeffrey Epstein case is unfolding, as it did in the immediate weeks after the first stories about Harvey Weinstein broke. What’s remarkable about this season of BoJack Horseman is that the writers began working on it in 2017, before the stories about Weinstein’s transgressions were published. This is a season of television that was relevant and timely before even its own writers could comprehend how relevant and timely it would become.

A Closer Look at BoJack Horseman

“The Dog Days Are Over” (Episode 2)

BoJack Horseman has faced criticism over the years for casting Alison Brie as the Vietnamese-American Diane Nguyen. “The Dog Days Are Over,” which explores Diane’s cultural identity, is the show’s attempt to address that critique.

As written by Joanna Calo, “The Dog Days Are Over” follows Diane, who’s distraught post-split from Mr. Peanut Butter, as she goes to Hanoi, expecting to be spiritually renewed via some Eat, Pray, Love–style travel epiphany. What she finds is that she’s too American to fit in, yet when she encounters Americans, she’s mistaken for a native. “This is not your home,” Diane concludes. “You’re a tourist here.” As the trip continues, Diane begins to feel like she’s a tourist everywhere.

The idea that Diane feels unseen is very much in keeping with BoJack’s larger points this season about people (or animals) with alternate viewpoints being ignored, and “The Dog Days Are Over” highlights this in ways small and large, whether it’s Mr. Peanut Butter apologizing for turning the focus of their phone call into yet another “Todd story” or a family of lost American tourists decked out in visors and fanny packs insisting, “You Vietnam,” after Diane tells them, in very clear English, that she’s American too.

What’s especially remarkable about the episode is its format, which is structured as a listicle that Diane is writing for Girl Croosh (“Ten Reasons to Go to Vietnam: A Girl Croosh Travel Guide”) but glides back and forth between her experiences in Vietnam and flashbacks to the events that led to her meltdown and decision to take the trip. In less-skilled hands, trying to manage all these story approaches at once could have resulted in a muddled mess, but Calo steers the narrative with ease, resulting in a journey that’s as much in Diane’s head as it is through the streets of Vietnam.

In the end, Diane realizes that the only triumph of her trip is the fact that she survived it, which brings us full circle to the evocative moment that opens this episode: a sobbing Diane looking over at the car next to her and seeing a school of fish struggling to keep their heads above the water that fills their vehicle. Initially those fish come across as amusing, another of BoJack Horseman’s many brilliant, quick visual gags. Upon further reflection, the moment is the entire episode in a single image. The sad beauty of “The Dog Days Are Over” is that Diane has to go halfway around the world to realize that the best thing she can hope for is getting through each day without drowning.

“BoJack the Feminist” (Episode 4)

It’s difficult to tackle a serious subject from a comedic perspective while also taking that subject seriously. But “BoJack the Feminist,” the fourth episode of season five, delivers the most consistently hilarious installment of the season, as well as a treatise on hypocrisy.

Written by Nick Adams, “BoJack the Feminist” follows more of a classic sitcom template in that there are twists that lead to additional twists. On another show, the winding story would land in a place that teaches the characters important lessons. This being BoJack Horseman, no one really learns anything, at least not yet.

In the episode, Vance Waggoner, a blatant Mel Gibson stand-in voiced by Bobby Cannavale, is in the process of making a comeback, in a role opposite BoJack on Philbert. After BoJack speaks out about his casting, he inadvertently becomes an outspoken male feminist and believes he can ride that wave of celebrity activism. His plan backfires when Vance, who’s getting offered more roles because of the Philbert controversy, flips the script on him and announces that he won’t appear on a show like Philbert after all, because it’s sexist. What begins as an indictment of Vance becomes an indictment of BoJack and Hollywood’s bullshit machine in general, as well as a bit of foreshadowing for what BoJack will do to Gina later in the season.

The entire episode provides the kind of catharsis that can only come from giggling darkly at an entertainment complex that, like so many other industries and systems, is maddeningly set up to favor the status quo. It exposes the way the media often mishandles accusations of male misconduct (“You hit a woman with a baseball bat,” an MSNBSea anchor whale says to Vance in an interview. “What’s your side of the story?”), and how willing the public is to absolve men who engage in blatant abusive behavior. (Vance receives a lifetime-achievement award at the We Forgive You Awards, a.k.a. “the Forgive-ys.”) It also highlights how little a man has to do to make himself appear to be an ally — when BoJack appears on the talk show The Squawk and makes the common-sense statement that “Choking your wife is bad,” he gets a standing ovation — and how often women become complicit in this cycle out of self-interest.

BoJack Horseman makes every one of those points by essentially telling a joke, or sometimes five jokes at once. Even the most potentially pedantic part of the episode, when Diane draws a flow chart to explain to BoJack how pop culture normalizes attitudes in positive as well as negative contexts, lands with a punchline that anticipates the kind of criticism such a scene might receive. “It mostly feels like I’m being lectured at,” BoJack says to Diane. “Wait, let me imagine that I’m saying it.” [Pauses] “Oh, that’s a little better.”

“BoJack the Feminist” understands that the most effective path toward making people reconsider their perspectives isn’t a lecture. It’s actually laughter. The episode bombards viewers with so many clever gags that by the end, you don’t even realize that you’ve let your guard down and, unlike BoJack, actually learned something.

“Free Churro” (Episode 6)

“Free Churro” is the “I rest my case” in the argument for BoJack Horseman as the best written show on TV.

Aside from a cold-open flashback to a young BoJack being lectured by his self-centered father about his mother’s worthlessness, “Free Churro” is a bottle episode, a 20-minute eulogy delivered by BoJack after the passing of his mother, Beatrice. While the episode is obviously animated, it is, for the most part, not visually driven. What carries it are the words, written beautifully and thoughtfully by Bob-Waksberg, that capture BoJack’s grief, narcissism, and his inability to comprehend his mother. It’s the rare episode of BoJack Horseman that could work just as well as live action or a piece of radio theater, because what’s being said says everything. It also proves how truly solid BoJack’s storytelling foundations are. Even when you strip away a lot of the flair that defines it — there is not one single Easter egg gag in this episode — it still shines.

“Free Churro” encapsulates, in a different context, many of the themes addressed elsewhere in season five of BoJack Horseman. Diane has already explained to BoJack how pop culture can normalize behavior, but in his eulogy, BoJack illustrates how it cements our ideals about relationships, too. After telling a sweet story about a jacket his mother gave him to wear in a high-school talent show, he acknowledges he actually stole that story from an episode of Maude. Every time BoJack’s tribute to his mother sounds like it might veer into sentimental or even semi-kind territory, Bob-Waksberg dumps cold splashes of reality on it.

The centerpiece of his speech, in which he compares the death of his mother to the cancellation of the sitcom Becker, is the most devastating and exquisite cold splash of them all. As I said in this piece, it is the most heartbreaking and accurate description I’ve ever heard, on TV or elsewhere, of what it means to lose a parent with whom you had a difficult relationship. The fact that it starts by referencing a CBS Ted Danson comedy only makes where it lands that much more of a gut punch.

“When it got canceled, I was really bummed out,” BoJack says of Becker. “Not because I liked the show, but because I knew it could be so much better and now it never would be. That’s what losing a parent is like. It’s like Becker. Suddenly you realize you’ll never have the good relationship you wanted, and as long as they were alive, even though you’d never admit it, the stupidest goddamn part of yourself was still holding on to that chance. And you didn’t even realize it until that chance went away.”

BoJack’s fixation on the meaning of his mother’s last words to him — “I see you” — is unbearably poignant, too, especially when he realizes that his mother didn’t see him, she just saw a sign in the hospital that said ICU. That’s a clever way to wrap this seeming one-off into the other stories in this season of BoJack Horseman, which, at its core, is about individuals who simply want to be seen.

Then comes the kicker: BoJack finally looks at the body in the coffin and the people in the room and realizes he has been speaking at length to the wrong group of mourners. He has been pouring out his heart for nearly a half-hour, going on and on about how everyone just wants to be seen, and he hasn’t once seen who is sitting in front of him. He’s been sharing his deepest feelings with people — actually, lizards — who don’t know him or care about him. It’s a devastating reminder that even in a room full of others, BoJack remains very much alone.

The Other Contenders

Deciding which show to honor with our Best Writing award was, like so much in contemporary television, complicated by an abundance of choice. A lot of other series, both limited and ongoing, delivered superbly written seasons during the past year and took exciting creative liberties with form.

Amazon’s Homecoming, based on the Gimlet podcast by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, certainly distinguished itself as a visual spectacle. But creator Sam Esmail also translated a largely prose-based audio narrative into a narrative that would work for television, taking the story of a shady military hospital into unexpected directions.

It feels like people have forgotten about Forever, the inventive Amazon dramedy from Matt Hubbard and Alan Yang. (To be fair, it dropped last fall, which feels like two decades ago.) But it was absolutely a writing feat in that it repeatedly upended our ideas about exactly what kind of show it was going to be. Like BoJack, it considered existential questions through a mix of the comedic and the melancholy.

Hey, you know that show Fleabag? If you don’t, the internet has probably already told you how excellent it is on a lot of levels. (Acting: superb. Direction: excellent. Hot priest action: A+.) But none of that would exist if not for the brilliant writing by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who knows her character Fleabag inside and out and finds endlessly fascinating ways to challenge her in season two.

Russian Doll, the Netflix series about a woman (Vulture TV Award winner Natasha Lyonne) who keeps dying and being reincarnated at the same party, could have been the most maddening TV earworm ever created. Instead, it was so solidly structured, clever, and playfully written that, rather than getting old, it kept allowing us to discover new things about Lyonne’s character and the way her version of Groundhog Day operated.

And in a year generously peppered with high-profile final seasons, I would be remiss not to mention three that jump out for the quality of their writing: You’re the Worst, which brought the deliberately tasteless rom-com home in a way that managed to both romantic and cynical at once; Veep, which leaned into the darkness of modern politics and pulled off a finale defined as much by tragedy as comedy; and Casual, the unsung Hulu series that wrapped up last July with an exquisitely written, flash-forward season.

BoJack Horseman rose above the others because its decision to swing between sensitively dealing with social issues and cracking jokes was especially tricky, and it nails the balance between the two with astonishing consistency.

It’s also more aware of the impact of television than any other show I can think of from the past year. When some writers and viewers try to praise television for the sophistication of its storytelling, they often compare it to other media, as if TV can’t be good unless it borrows from more highbrow art. A perfectly fine TV show is described as an eight- or ten-hour movie, or a richly etched drama is called a novel. This sort of thinking drives writers nuts.

The writers of the fifth season of BoJack Horseman did exactly what gifted writers in this medium are supposed to do. They gave us individual episodes that tell contained, hilarious, and powerful stories within their 30-minutes-or-less run time, and they created a carefully constructed season that resonates because each episode works in service to its broader themes. BoJack Horseman would not be better if it were a movie, because you need each and every one of season five’s dozen episodes in order to absorb all the things it’s saying. And it definitely would not be better if it were a book because so much of what it conveys is through imagery. The story of BoJack’s fifth season is, itself, a tribute to what television can do and why it’s so important to take it seriously and make shows that are worthy of people’s time.

“All I know about being good, I learned from TV,” BoJack says during his “Free Churro” eulogy. “And in TV flawed characters are constantly showing people they care with these surprising grand gestures. I think part of me still believes that’s what love is.”

Bad TV, BoJack Horseman tells us, fills us with overly simplistic ideas about how life works, ideas that we carry with us into our actual lives and try to turn into reality. Good TV, on the other hand, is scripted with nuance, multiple perspectives, and honesty, in addition to all that other good, purely entertaining stuff, like jokes about the internet and wink-wink references to Blossom. BoJack uses all of those elements to make a season of television that reminds us how vital television is, how much responsibility is required when making it, and how we, as viewers, should expect better from our TV writers and actors and executives. It’s about a horseman trying to figure out how to hold himself to higher standards in a world that doesn’t demand that of him, and a TV show attempting to hold itself to higher standards as well.

It’s all of that, which is a lot. And on top of all that, it’s just damn funny.

Vulture’s sixth annual TV Awards honor the best in television from the past year in six major categories: Best Lead Performer, Best Supporting Performer, Best Writing, Best Direction, Best Miniseries, and Best Show. Eligible contenders had to have premiered between June 1, 2018, and May 31, 2019.

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The Best Writing on TV Is on BoJack Horseman