For too long, adult animation has been the domain of a certain cringey kind of humor. Classics like The Simpsons have gone downhill over the years, and shows like Family Guy and South Park now serve as embarrassing reminders of what we thought was funny in middle school; raunchy for the sake of being raunchy, proudly “anti–PC”, filled with gratuitous violence and annoying voices. It’s a hard trap to escape from—even more critically lauded recent shows like Rick and Morty and Bob’s Burgers not only have to establish themselves above these annoying tropes, but also attract some annoying fanbases mired in these mindsets. That’s not to say adult cartoons can’t be good, but for animators, getting their shows taken seriously is an uphill battle.
For a long time, BoJack Horseman has been held up as a shining example of a show that does. Yes, it’s an adult cartoon with a drunk, vulgar horse voiced by Will Arnett, populated by humans and talking animals who drink and have interspecies sex. It has all the ingredients to be forgettable, or a guilty pleasure series, but time and time again it is praised for, among other things, its realistic depiction of mental illness, addiction, overdose, asexuality, feminism, and workplace harassment. If all of that sounds like a lot for a show about a talking horse to pull off, that's because it is. Fans, many of whom are excited to see well–done representation they haven’t gotten to experience before, pin a lot on it. But it is still a show about a talking horse, and it still shares a lot of its TV DNA with less savory (and less savored) shows. So, does it really live up to the praise and the hype?
The short answer is: not exactly. The longer answer is: not exactly—and that’s a really, really good thing. Season Five is, as other reviewers have noted, one of its most daring and dark seasons—but it is also a reminder that at its core, BoJack Horseman is a weird, edgy cartoon, like all of its weird, edgy predecessors. For a show that is praised for tackling heavy topics with grace, it is remarkable that there is no room for overwrought sentimentality. BoJack is caustic and irreverent. When Princess Carolyn tries to adopt a baby as a single mother, she gets to deal with a social worker who relentlessly mocks her and women like her (bitchy, and wrong as hell—but still funny). When Todd and his asexual girlfriend go home, they end up coming out to her sex–obsessed family because of an expensive, vintage barrel of lube. When BoJack looks like he might have finally found love, he has to struggle with owning up to his own actions and lets his caustic personality get in the way of expressing his real feelings. Nothing comes easy, and as daring and refreshing as it might be, not a single one of the beats in Season Five are overdone.
None of this is to say that BoJack can’t be a show that is at once socially conscious and scathingly irreverent. This is the miracle of the show: that it walks such a fine line and so rarely ends up failing, that it encompasses so many difficult parts of human experience without ever being preachy—indeed, while still being funny. In its fifth season, BoJack continues climbing to the level of a television triumph, and landing just short of it. But this is intentional: even though it keeps finding new ways to get to the perfect blend of humor, bleakness, and bittersweet hope, it hits the right notes every time. The emotional pitch of BoJack is exactly where it needs to be, and it wouldn’t work any other way.