BoJack Horseman contains multitudes, but at heart, it’s always been a Hollywood satire. So it was long past time for the series to dig into the entertainment industry’s underappreciated, overexploited underclass: The assistants that answer phones, make lunch reservations, and keep weirdos from wandering onto film sets.
When Casey McGarry, who leads the strike, meets with big-shot mega-producer Lenny Turtletaub, her demand is simple: Stop treating assistants like garbage. “It appears we are at an impasse,” shrugs Turteltaub. So the strike is on, bringing the town to a screeching halt and leading Hollywoo into an almost post-apocalyptic collapse.
“The Kidney Stays in the Picture” is another one of BoJack Horseman’s ensemble pieces, using the assistants’ strike as a backdrop while telling three distinct stories that never really cross over with each other. The first is Turteltaub and Princess Carolyn’s cagey effort to break the strike by promising its leaders that they’ll be promoted out of the drudgery of assistant work and into easy, prestigious jobs in development. It’s a fairly effective strategy, and an appropriately acid-laced nod at the way people tend to put their own professional development over their principles or the collective good when someone hands them a cushy contract.
But as a couple of flashbacks remind us, Princess Carolyn has also been on the other side of that table, as an assistant exploited by creepy male bosses who keep her on the hook by dangling vague promises about a promotion that never actually seems to arrive. So after a crisis of conscience, she switches sides, telling her own (useless) assistant Stuart not to sign any deal, and bringing in her old (terrifyingly competent) assistant Judah Mannowdog to broker a better deal on behalf of all of the assistants.
Meanwhile, BoJack is outside of the Hollywoo loop, doing his best to get Dr. Champ back on the wagon after accidentally knocking him out of it with a misplaced bottle of vodka. The accidental drink led Dr. Champ to a full-on relapse, slugging down margaritas at BoJack’s old watering hole, Bellican’s. As BoJack tries to play horse therapist to his horse therapist, he has his own rapid-fire psychiatric breakthrough, realizing that he had both an internal and an external hatred of horses following his abusive childhood and his own inescapable self-loathing. But BoJack’s halting progress toward fixing his own problems has, once again, come at the expense of someone else. Not for the first time, BoJack ends up on the receiving end of a rant about his uncanny knack for ruining the lives of anybody who cares about him. But this time, at least, BoJack is doing his earnest best to help, checking Dr. Champ into a different rehab facility with the hopes of helping his therapist get his own life back on track.
The third story, as Todd himself describes it, is a goofy whimsical mess-around. Todd’s stepfather Jorge shows up on Todd’s doorstep, revealing that Todd’s mother is in a coma and desperately in need of a kidney donation. Unfortunately, Todd has just sold his kidney to Jeremiah Whitewhale in exchange for enough money to buy some sock puppets to entertain Ruthie. So Todd and Jorge are off to Chicago to storm the Whitewhale building and get the kidney back (with a major assist from Diane, who will do anything to avoid working on the memoir that’s been going so poorly).
The mission itself is your normal delightful Todd nonsense, but the show is also making a much clearer effort to be as sharp on the subject of race as it is on everything else. Several writers, including Vulture’s own E. Alex Jung, have accurately criticized BoJack Horseman for being weak on the subject of race, and series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg has acknowledged that it has historically been one of the show’s biggest flaws.
If “The Kidney Stays in the Picture” isn’t a full corrective, it’s at least an acknowledgment of one of BoJack Horseman’s biggest blind spots. When Todd fails to fool a security guard at the Whitewhale building, Jorge just pretends to be a night custodian and speaks to the uncomprehending guard in Spanish, confident — correctly — that the guard will eventually just throw up his hands, take him at his word, and let him into the building. Later, when Todd and Jorge finally find the kidney, they get caught by a guard — who is utterly charmed by Todd’s antics, letting Todd go after warmly referring to him as a scamp. Jorge, who was hard on Todd when he was growing up, realizes that the tough-love approach wasn’t actually a necessary survival skill for his stepson: “I should have realized: You’re white.” (“I forgive you,” replies Todd, cheerfully oblivious to the darker moral of Jorge’s revelation.)
Is this enough to atone for BoJack Horseman’s missteps on race in its earlier seasons? That’s up to each individual viewer. (For what it’s worth, Bob-Waksberg has also said he feels like he’s gotten too much praise as a white person who merely acknowledges the existence of the problem.) But at the very least, it’s refreshing to see a series as long-lived as BoJack Horseman actually recognize legitimate criticism, and do its best — even at this relatively late hour in the series — to work toward fixing it.
• The revelation that Todd has adopted Jorge’s last name is another wrinkle in BoJack Horseman’s greater reckoning with its initial “colorblind casting.” For most of BoJack Horseman’s run, it hasn’t even been clear whether Todd was white or Latinx. For more on that subject, read this 2018 interview with series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg and star Aaron Paul.
• Princess Carolyn’s little scheme — “We satiate TV creators by giving them little vanity cards at the end of episodes, then sell the shows to streaming networks that auto-skip the end credits so no one even sees the vanity cards” — feels particularly pointed for a Netflix series (and for a show on which I frequently need to scramble for the remote to keep the credits running before the Netflix app jumps ahead).
• Highlights from the news ticker on MSNBSea: “Anti-vaxx actress claims there are no small parts, only small children with smallpox”; “Controversial new film casts white zebra with black stripes to play black zebra with white stripes.”
• The full breakdown of what Jorge says the name “Chavez” represents: Cerebral, High-Minded, Analytical, Voracious, Efficacious, and Zealously Practical.
• Todd’s sock-puppet tribute to Ang Lee gets cut off during a particularly wrenching scene between Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway in Brokeback Mountain.
• Charley Witherspoon, the failing-up-the-ladder son of Princess Carolyn’s former boss — who makes his first appearance since season four in a cameo at the beginning of the episode — is voiced by Raphael Bob-Waksberg.
• And the brief flashback to Princess Carolyn’s assistant days features Paul F. Tompkins (who also voices Mr. Peanutbutter) as her disgusting male-chauvinist boss Marv.