Picture this: an animated horse who walks and talks like a man delivers a 25-minute meandering monologue better than any acting role in his washed up Hollywood career at his mother's funeral.
While that might sound like an episode of television guaranteed to put you to sleep between repetitive shots of an animated face with limited expressions, Episode 6 of BoJack Horseman's fifth season "Free Churro" is one of the most compelling episodes of television you'll watch this year.
Created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, BoJack Horseman is an animated sad-com that details the fallout of a deeply unhappy person (horse, really) getting everything he wanted and realizing he's still not happy. The titular BoJack (Will Arnett) is a former '90s sitcom star with enough fame to still get him laid, enough money to buy friends, and enough faults (alcoholism, addiction, depression, the list goes on) to fill anyone he hasn't pushed out of his life with a deep urge to fix him. And yet every chance he has to better himself, BoJack inevitably self destructs.
The innovative premise — taking the absolute worst of life and wrapping it in the visual delights of a world filled with anthropomorphic animals and humans — delivered an incisive, cutting first season that many critics and fans weren't sure could be repeated. After all, what does a second season, let alone a fifth, have to say when one of the most unique characteristics of the show is the fact that while the leading man (horse) literally cannot bring himself to change, the show never resets to status quo at the end of each episode like many of its comedy compatriots.
But even after five seasons Bob-Waksberg, and subsequently BoJack, has a lot to say. The incremental forward momentum of the show coalesced into a rich, layered, and wildly experimental journey of self-improvement. "A lot of [BoJack] comes from wanting to surprise myself," said Bob-Waksberg.
"We burn bridges," continued Bob-Waksberg. "That actually helps us, we go OK, yeah, this area for story-telling is over and forces us to come up with new stuff." If endings that beget beginnings are a hallmark of the show, then the burnt bridge of Season 5 is Beatrice Horseman (Wendie Malick). Unsurprisingly, Episode 6, which follows BoJack's stream of consciousness as he struggles to come to terms with the fact that now his mother is dead, is one of the strongest of the season. TV Guide sat down with Bob-Waksberg to find out how the innovative bottle episode came together.
With the exception of the cold open, which is a flashback, the episode is a bottle episode. That was a super risky move for an animated show because you're stripping it of all the delightful visuals that normally keep BoJack Horseman surreal and funny instead of straight-up heartbreaking. Why that format?
Raphael Bob-Waksberg: BoJack is a very much a format-based show. The story should always match the format, but I don't necessarily think the story has to come first. Often, we'll think of a cool format we want to try, and then we'll reverse engineer a story that justifies that — and it does have to justify it, otherwise it feels like a gimmick. Obviously, the biggest example prior to this season was our underwater episode, back in Season 3, where it was like, can we do an episode that has almost no dialogue the whole way through?
And [the eulogy episode] was in many ways the opposite of that. Obviously, the visuals on our show are amazing, and our designers and animators are so clever and brilliant and beautiful, but could we tell a story that didn't rely on any of those things? That was really just about a person talking in a room.
That's a lot of pressure on Will Arnett to really sell it.
Bob-Waksberg: Well, when that person is Will Arnett, it really gives you the confidence to go, "Yeah, I think we can do that." And so this certainly builds on four seasons worth of trust and faith that if we write something, Will's going to carry this over the finish line and he's going to pull it off. I really think he did. I'm really proud of how it all came together.
So the bottle episode format isn't something you would have tried in an earlier season?
Bob-Waksberg: Actually, we had this idea, I think it was a couple years ago, could we do a thing where it's just BoJack talking? And then the question is, what story would necessitate that? The death of Beatrice, his mother, felt like a big event that would justify it, both thematically, but also, story-wise. It makes sense that someone would just talk for 25 minutes at a funeral. And then we tried to break it like a normal episode.
Maybe it was Season 4 that we first talked about it. It didn't really feel right, we didn't want to do it so soon after the underwater episode. We felt that it would be compared to that, so I thought giving it another season for space would benefit it. For this season, it felt like the right time, and also story-wise, it felt like the right time.
How did you break the story in the room once you found the right time and place for it?
Bob-Waksberg: We watched, for reference, a Maude episode, which we actually then reference in the eulogy episode. [Maude's just] talking to a therapist, and it's a similar gimmick. The therapist doesn't talk the whole time, it's just Maude for the full half-hour, and that was really instructive to see how they did it. Because you could really tell they have an A story and a B story and a C story here. She switches back and forth, and she wanders off on tangents and keeps coming back. And so for us, the idea of BoJack's mother saying, "I see you" before she dies, and BoJack trying to figure out what that meant, that was our A story. That's our home base. Then within that, we found other things to riff on.
Also I'm writing a book of short stories. I did a show at the UCB theater, where I had different actors read some of my stories just so I could hear how they sounded in front of an audience and figure out the pacing of them. Through that, I'd gotten used to the idea of, OK, I know about how many words it is for someone to talk for 25 minutes, so I can kind of ... Because the script format obviously isn't built for that. It's built on the assumption of dialogue and space directions that about 30 pages will be 30 minutes, more or less.
But when it's all monologue, that changes. But I was in the mode of writing these longer stories, and so I felt like okay, this feels kind of like that. I'm going to write a story as BoJack, and it will be about the length of one of those stories that we just read at the UCB theater.
So the writers room was on board, and you had the tools to break the story, but when did you know you really cracked it?
Bob-Waksberg: The table read. One of the highlights of the show for me, was that table read.
It was just Will coming in by himself and reading through the whole thing, because the cold open is also just him. Just sitting there, listening to him read this thing, and it was incredibly moving and powerful. I don't know if I can say that without patting myself on the back, but he just does an incredible job of it, and he had it at that first table read.
I thought, OK, we have a real strong episode here. And then, when we recorded it, I mostly just let him go. I didn't stop him. Occasionally, he would stumble over a word, and then go back. Or we'd try another take of this whole section. But generally, his instincts were dead on. He really felt it, so it was a real pleasure to make it.
Once it was recorded, how did the animators deal with the constraints of the bottle episode?
Bob-Waksberg: It was directed by Amy Winfrey, who has been a director since the first season, and she is very good at face acting, for lack of a better term. We knew that a lot of our tools in our tool box for this episode, we were not going to have. And most of it was just going to be on BoJack's face, so we want to get really subtle with the expressions. We created some new face poses for this episode that we hadn't used before. Again, it's all about, let's really zoom into this moment, when do his eyebrows move up? When exactly does he get sad here? Can he be angry for the first part of the line? And then maybe even crack a bit of a smile? Just like, hyper-specific in the face acting.
I don't know if Amy would say this was an easier job than other episodes. I think in some ways, it was harder. Even though there were fewer bells and whistles, there's a lot to focus on.
Did you have a back-up plan just in case the animation came back... too boring to watch?
Bob-Waksberg: Oh, definitely. We had a fail safe option in case it was just boring to watch a guy talking for a half hour. We could use the same audio, and show some of the things BoJack is talking about. It would still be all BoJack talking the whole time, but we can kind of Drunk History an episode out of these flashbacks with him narrating.
And then, as soon as we cracked that idea, we felt like that's the coward's way out, you know? We felt like, no. Let's go for it! Let's really try to do this purely. But that was definitely something that was discussed, and was a possible option, to see some of the things that he's narrating.
I'm glad you didn't take the coward's way out. The distance between BoJack and Beatrice right until the very end wouldn't have had the same impact if we'd seen her in the episode — especially considering the last time we saw her, BoJack had placed her in the worst assisted-living facility he could find after she manipulated Hollyhock (Aparna Nancherla) into an eating disorder and a mental break.
Bob-Waksberg: To me, that [Season 4 episode] felt like a great goodbye to that character and to Wendie Malick as an actress. To bring her back now would diminish that episode in a way. I was really proud that we figured out this way to say goodbye to the character a second time that didn't feel like it undid that moment.
And also, this episode is really about BoJack more than it's about Beatrice or his father. This is a season where BoJack does some of the worst things he's ever done, and is really crueler than we've ever seen him before. And so it actually felt really important to kind of counter balance that, and show BoJack at his most vulnerable. This episode does a lot of the heavy lifting this season in terms of making you empathize with him and feel for him; understand the difficult position that he's in. That's how he was raised and where he gets some of the ugliness inside of him from.
Without it, the rest of the season might be hard to take. And so even though it was also very heavy and dark, I do think that it lightens BoJack's character a fair amount, and balances him in I think, an important way for how the season as a whole works.
Definitely. There's a lot of moments in the episode where BoJack's talking about his mom, but could just as easily be talking about himself. Is he aware enough now in Season 5, to understand that there's that pattern there? Or is this another one of those moments where he takes one step forward, until it's easier to take three steps back?
Bob-Waksberg: He does and he doesn't. He has an awareness that his family's screwed him up, but also he has the awareness of, OK, what do you do with that? He understands that there are tools to grapple with that idea, but I don't know if he can ever fully step outside of himself and look at his behavior.
But I think there is some awareness there. There is something fun about the idea that we the audience can see things that he himself cannot see. Certainly, that was true with Episode 11 of Season 4. We're in Beatrice's brain, and we see all this stuff about Beatrice's life that BoJack will never know. I think that understanding kind of carries us into this episode in a really interesting way.
That definitely pops up in the crux of the eulogy episode, as BoJack realizes his mother was reading the ICU sign rather than trying to connect with her son one last time. How do you grieve for someone who you loved in spite of who they were?
Bob-Waksberg: That's a big part of BoJack's challenge in this episode. What does losing his mother mean when that relationship was complicated? BoJack very much is grieving, not just for the relationship that he had, but for the relationship that he never did have, and now never will. In grappling with his mother and realizing that his mother is not ever going to be what he wanted, or he needed her to be — that's sad, and it's OK for that to be sad. He's not just grieving his mother, he's grieving the idea of what a mother represents. I think that's an important thing to grapple with. It's hard if you don't have a good relationship, because then you're confused, like why am I sad about this? But there is still loss there that is worth acknowledging.
For me, this episode is sort of a perfect snapshot of why BoJack Horseman is so good. The show looks for reasons to be empathetic towards people, but it never gives them an excuse for their bad behavior. How do you go about balancing that tone? And not giving people a reason to be like, "It's OK to be shitty, because life is hard."
Bob-Waksberg: I don't know if I have a firm answer to that, but it is a thing that we think about and talk about a lot. We are very conscious of that. I think part of that is what I fundamentally believe about people, which is that exact truth: That we need to be empathetic and understanding and forgiving. But also, people need to be held accountable for their actions, and people should hold themselves accountable for their actions, and people shouldn't rely on excuses and have personal responsibility for themselves.
There's not like a hard answer to that question, because those two ideas really pull me in opposite directions, and exploring that has been a big part of what makes this show interesting for me. And I hope to continue exploring it!
Bojack Horseman Season 5 is now streaming on Netflix.